HAPPY LAND: DEATH OF AN ARSONIST
Last week I read about the death of a man in a distant prison in upstate New York, a man who left a mark on my father and countless others, a man responsible for many deaths. His name was Julio Gonzalez.
I didn’t know his name five years ago when my cousin and I were discussing the career of my late father, who had served in the New York Fire Department. My cousin Danny mentioned the Happy Land Social Club blaze, an infamous nightclub inferno in the Bronx that claimed 87 lives in 1990.
“Your father told me that was the worst fire he was ever at,” Danny said.
Worst he was ever at? That was saying a lot, considering my father spent the bulk of his career in the Bronx, much of it in the South Bronx during the chaotic arson years.
It’s not that I was surprised; there was so much about the job my father never talked about. In 1990, I was about to spring out of graduate school and embark on my own career as a public school teacher. My father was proud of that — a municipal job, serving the community. Did I even know about the Happy Land fire when it happened? That 87 people died? The blaze left rows of dead bodies lining the sidewalk, 79 years to the day after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which left another long row of broken bodies covered by shrouds on the pavement of New York.
And here I was, years later, learning of the death of the arsonist, Julio Gonzalez. In a jealous lover’s rage, he had torched the Happy Land nightclub. The victims were mostly Honduran immigrants celebrating Carnival; the echoes of the Latino revelers killed at Orlando’s Pulse night club reverberated as I read the details.
With Danny’s words in mind, I studied the obituary. The fire took place on a Sunday night. Did my father even tell my mother about it? He censored what he told her, and us. The biggest hint of what happened at work came in the whoosh of air as he arrived through the front door after a night shift — a gust often laced with smoke, ash, and the smoldering remains of the night before.
I go on line, find a photo gallery of the inferno and its aftermath, and I search the photos for my father. In the background of one, I think I see him. But it is in the worst possible instance for a firefighter: the bodies are lined up on the sidewalk. There are no rescues to be made, no lives to save. The fire set by Gonzalez was quick and brutal and hellishly effective. There were only six survivors.
Why do I want to know more? Because this tragedy was a significant event in my father’s career, a devastating loss of life that occurred less than a year before he retired at age 61. It left its mark on him. It left 87 people dead, and some 90 children as orphans, children who are adults now, who have children of their own. I think of the memories awakened by the death of the arsonist. The agitated spirits of the clubgoers who joyfully danced in Happy Land, the haunted specters of the firefighters who were robbed of the chance to rescue and instead toiled at recovering bodies piled in a charred stairwell. I am not rejoicing in this death, but I wonder if it will bestow a measure of peace on some long-ago broken hearts, and lay to rest a few restless souls. I hope so.
Mary E. Cronin lives and writes on Cape Cod, where she teaches at Cape Cod Community College. She can be reached at www.maryecronin.com.