Stouffer’s Inn Fire – December 4, 1980

CITY IN RUINS

WHAT: Hotel Fire
WHEN: December 4, 1980 about 10:20am
WHERE: Purchase, New York
Casualties: 26 dead, 24 injured

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Stouffer’s Inn photo courtesy of the National Fire Protection Association

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.

AP Photo – December 5, 1980

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.

Image result for stouffer's inn fire
National Fire Protection Association

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.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – December 9, 1980

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

Ida Libby Dengrove courtroom sketch

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.

5 thoughts on “Stouffer’s Inn Fire – December 4, 1980

  1. I was working there that day as a front desk manager no one ever interviewed me my boss said stay at the desk until you cant breathe. I told people immediatelt to get outvof building.

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    1. I worked there as a waiter. Being new I was shown around by “Pedro”, AKA Luis Marin. I was sheduled to work that morning and would have also been doing coffee service in the hallway, no doubt with Pedro.

      I was late due to the hangover several of us had due to a small party for a beer brewers convention where mostly German brewmasters sat around a table and taste each other’s beers – like a wine tasting, taking a sip and then disposing of the bottles which were relatively full, and found themselves into the kitchen for disposal. Needless to say we all imbibed. I arrived as victims were being evacuated to the tennis bubble, in freezing condions as the fire trucks were arriving.

      However what really sticks out in my memory is that, it being the opening of the Christmas season with back to back company Christmas parties schedule, Christmas trees were set up in the conference rooms in front of the exits to the service corridor. To prevent the waiters and staff entering from the corridor through those doors and knocking down those trees, they were chain and padlocked very visibly on the corridor side. Hence not only blocking the exits with the trees they were also locked shut. A clear violation to fire regulations – of which I had observed several. I spoke up but nobody listened and being two weeks on the job I did not push it. Somehow this fact never came out. I spoke to other former waiters after the fire that agreed witnessing the same. I am certain this contributed to the death toll. Stouffer’s was never held accountable for that. Instead a conspiracy to pinn Luis Marin with aroson was invented. The man was on the evening news with accolades of being a hero by leading a number of victims to safety.

      I ran into Luis Marin about a year after and got him to tell me his story. Apparently he got the job there quite a lot earlier and was good at it. He was a waiter, but for the media he was called a busboy. Bunk. He was training me. When he took the job he was in fact an undocumented illegal alien – hence the alias “Pedro” that we knew him as. However he managed to get married to an American citizen and obtained citizenship just prior to the fire event. According to him, he approached management and came clean, saying that he was previously illegal but now was a citizen. He told them that he like working there and wanted to continue, but wanted to have his employment records amended to reflect his real identity. According to him, he was told that it was a busy time and agreed to keep him, but change his status as a new hire after the New Year. I found that pluasable in that we were going into our busiest banquet season, the holidays, and it was all hands on deck. What they would actually do about him after the holidays is anyone’s guess.

      As the scene unfolded that cold morning I could see presence of official investigators from the arson squad in the crowd. Naturally there was an arson investigation. Apparently as the combed through the employee profile management found itself in the embarrassing conversation about who “Pedro” was. Hence the cover up. The narrative was invented that management had just discovered he was illegal and fired him. Hence it established a motive of Luis Marin for revenge. The frame was set.

      I have since found written references made at the time through a search in the library that describes the political corruption involved. For instance how was this conference center/ hotel built in 1977 exempt from having to install a sprinkler system, and why was management so casual in ignoring basic fire regulations. Corruption.

      And why, when I wrote to the District Attorney about my observation of the padlocked emergency fire exits never acknowledged or brought up. I did see a reference about that in the case book I had found in the library. If you don’t believe it, go to the library and do a book search on the Stouffer’s fire. It was an obscure book that had the Stouffer’s fire case as one of many.

      I know what I saw. I was there.

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  2. In the opening of my narrative I mentioned the Brewers Convention meeting, the night before the fire. It was a group of about 25 as I recall, a small party. They had brought cases and cases of beers. The kitchen staff got pretty drunk, as all of us did – drinking lots of cold imported German beer. I remember the captains trying to control it – taking some for themselves. As memory serves me, I saw a couple of housekeeping (?) porters haul off a few cases on a hand truck as we were cleaning up. Pilfering leftover food and alcohol by the attending staff was the norm in those days. I have to wonder if the staff that apparently spilled the highly flammable solvent were not themselves under the influence of the prior beerfest that had gone on to the early hours of the morning. I also note, just having looked the victim list includes Q. Edward Rodrigo, Agincourt, Ont., employee of United Brewers of Canada.

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  3. “On Wednesday, Patrick Gordiski, a Greenwich, Conn., fireman who was the first firefighter to arrive at the scene, said he found 12 bodies in a conference room that was ‘like an oven.’

    Gordiski must have been who I met as I was driving up, late, to clock in. I had seen the smoke from the highway as I approached. It appeared to be coming from behind the hotel. A private car arrived moments before mine. I believe he had a blue volunteer fireman’s light on his car and identified himself as a fireman. I asked if I should go park behind the hotel in the employees parking area, but he suggested not to, as I might get blocked in by fire trucks. Neither of us really knew what was going on. I bet if you were to ask him, he might remember me…

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