CITY IN RUINS
WHAT: Hotel Fire
WHEN: December 4, 1980 about 10:20am
WHERE: Purchase, New York
Casualties: 26 dead, 24 injured
Intro from an AP article that ran the day after the fire:
Business executives gathered for meeting at a hotel “didn’t have a chance” when an electrical fire raced through conference rooms with heat so intense that it melted walls, fire officials said.
The Stouffer’s Inn was located 20 miles north of Mid-Manhattan along a hillside strip called the “Platinum Mile” because of its concentration of corporate headquarters.
The hotel was built in 1977 at a cost of $20 million. It had 366 guest rooms and, due to its proximity to all of the corporate headquarters, was a popular spot for business meetings and contained a two-level conference center adjacent to the tower that contained the hotel rooms.
Pepsico, General Foods, IBM, Nestle and Arrow Electronics were all holding business meetings at the Inn on December 4, 1980.
At around 10:20 a.m. a fire broke out just outside of one of the conference rooms on the second-floor and spread incredibly quickly due to a lack of sprinklers and the Inn’s usage of highly flammable wall coverings and carpet.
A total of 26 people attending breakfast meetings died in the smoke and flames, including 13 top executives of Arrow Electronics and 11 employees of Nestle. Ironically, Nestle was the parent company of Stouffer’s at that time.
The victims all died within two or three minutes of the start of the fire and were killed by smoke inhalation with carbon monoxide in the smoke. Seven bodies were later found in a closet of the conference room that was Arrow Electronics’ budget meeting. The victims apparently mistook the closet door for an exit.
Many of the injuries occurred when several General Foods executives smashed a window in their second-floor conference room adjacent to where the fire started and jumped 35 feet to a rocky slope below.
Initially, investigators thought the fire was caused by an electrical shortage but the speed and of the blaze strongly suggested an arsonist using an accelerant.
In 2014, the National Fireproof Protection Association wrote about the actual causes of the fire:
The fire originated in an exit access corridor outside the meeting rooms in the three-story, fire resistive, nonsprinklered building that was classified as a place of assembly. In the early stages of the fire, meeting-room occupants were faced with rapidly deteriorating, untenable conditions that impeded their escape to safety. This fire emphasizes the importance of maintaining the integrity of exit access areas and the extreme hazard to life safety when fire originates in such areas.
The significant factors contributing to the loss of life in this fire were:
1. the critical location of the fire in the intersection of the exit access corridors.
2. the rapid development of the fire through the combination of its origin and the available fuel load provided by contents and furnishings in the exit access.
3. the lack of a remote second means of egress from some occupied meeting rooms;
4. the lack of a fixed fire protection system to detect and extinguish the fire in its incipient stage.
This was the second hotel fire with a death toll in two weeks, just 13 days earlier a fire in the MGM Grand Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada killed 85 and more than 700 people were injured. Howard Levin, an employee of Arrow electronics narrowly escaped both the MGM and Stouffer’s fires. When asked if he considered himself lucky or unlucky, he said “I consider it the former.”
There was understandable outrage. Officials made promises to make the proper changes to ensure this would not happen again.People wondered how these tragic events kept happening.
Fire safety and code changes were called for in every newspaper across the country.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about the situation five days after the fire:
“As long as the ashes are still hot, officials always vow that there’ll never be a next time. But in the end nothing much happens.”
I will be writing about a lot of these earlier hotel fires and you will see the same quotes from officials, the same call for changes and the same outrage.You’ll see lack of code enforcement, lack of exits and lack of sprinklers.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
The hotel reopened on April 4, 1981. It is still standing to this day.
The Stouffer’s Fire was front page news for less than one week. On December 9, 1980, John Lennon was assassinated in front of his apartment in New York. The public and press moved on to that tragedy and disappeared from public consciousness. However, fire investigators and victims’ families did not move on.
Less than a year after the fire, a Stouffer’s Inn busboy would be charged with starting the fire. The Virginia Law Archives have a courtroom sketch from the archives of artist Ida Libby Dengrove and a succinct write-up of the trial
Guatemalan busboy Luis Marin told conflicting stories about his actions during the fire. Marin was a coffee waiter who worked with Sterno, a jellylike fuel placed under coffee urns. As Marin neared trial, his defense attorney told the press Marin had indeed spilled Sterno earlier that morning but that he’d made sure to stamp the small flames out. When the inn suddenly became an inferno, he’d thought himself responsible and lied to his questioners.
On February 5, 1982, Judge Lawrence N. Martin Jr. denied a defense motion to dismiss Marin’s indictment, though he admitted the prosecution’s case was weak. The trial went forward with a procession of tenuous circumstantial evidence. Nonetheless, the jury found Marin guilty on April 11. Four days later, Judge Martin set aside the verdict. The New York State Supreme Court upheld the reversal on May 29, 1984. Marin went free, and the families of the dead executives won $48.5 million from Stouffer’s and other corporations in a civil suit.
In June 1984, it came to light that a housekeeping crew had spilled a highly volatile stainless steel cleaner in the area where the fire started. Hotel management allegedly withheld the information to avoid culpability.
The Stouffer’s hotel brand would survive the lawsuit and thrive throughout the 1980s, In 1993, Nestle sold the chain to Renaissance Hotels. The Stouffer’s name would be phased out a short time later. The Stouffer’s food brand can still be food in the freezer section of your local supermarket.
The Stouffer’s Inn fire did actually lead to sweeping fire code changes throughout New York and the hotel industry. While a few more hotel fires occurred in the 1980s, the frequency of these horrible hotel fires was reduced.