Lessons from Happy Land Fire on 21st Anniversary of Deadly Bronx Fire

NY Daily News - March 25, 2011

by Sarah Armaghan DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

As the mournful commemorate the anniversary Friday of the Happy Land fire that left 87 people dead, community leaders and city officials say only vigilance will insure history doesn't repeat itself.

The arson fire 21 years ago at the illegal social club was the largest mass murder in New York City until the World Trade Center attacks, and was the deadliest inferno ever recorded in the Bronx.

It spurred the city to form a social club task force with 200 inspectors. The numbers dwindled over the years, and now the city deploys MARCH (Multi Agency Response to Community Hotspots) to inspect and close hazardous locations.

Frank Lindsay, FDNY's chief inspector for public safety since 1990 - the year of the Happy Land inferno - says the growing problem in social club safety is attributable to "flipping" - where a space is often a restaurant by day but transformed into a dancehall by night.

"If it's a restaurant, they just move tables and turn it into an illegal cabaret and charge at the door," Lindsay said. "They're all over the place," he added, noting the highest levels of "flipping" are in Manhattan.

"These places get overcrowded and there's no sprinkler system or fire alarm like there would be in a regulated club," he said. "The exit facilities are substandard and, without a doubt, a Happy Land situation could occur in these places."

Complaints for noise and loitering come mainly from residents living near the trouble spots. The MARCH team is made up of representatives from the NYPD, FDNY, the State Liquor Authority and the city's Buildings and Health departments. Inspectors shows up at establishments during peak hours on weekends to investigate. If violations are found, the FDNY can issue orders to vacate, hand out summonses on the spot and, in extreme cases, padlock the doors.

Ivine Galarza, district manager of Community Board 6, where Happy Land operated, dubbed March "Fire Prevention and Safety Month" in her community to remind those of the lives lost in that blaze.

"If they can get away with it, believe me, they will," she said of club operators. "Most of them [in the Bronx] are up to code because we are vigilant."

"People who own clubs want to make as much money as they can and they will put people in danger," said NYPD Deputy Inspector William McSorley, who has been inspecting clubs for the past 10 years and says he comes across many repeat offenders.

McSorley, commanding officer of the 48th Precinct, cites overcrowding as a major problem in Bronx clubs.

"The reasons why we have so many rules and regulations is because of tragedies," he said. "They don't see the potential problems by having too many people in a club or not having a fire door or security - they look at it as losing money by not letting everyone in."

Galarza said the inspections are "an ongoing process" that will continue. "Everyone wants to be safe and make certain where they go won't turn into another Happy Land situation."

A memorial Mass will be celebrated today at 7 p.m. at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, 1900 Crotona Parkway, followed by a vigil at the Happy Land Memorial Monument across the street from where the tragedy occurred .

For more information about the Mass and vigil, call the CB 6 district office at (718) 579-6990.