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A Great Big City

March 25 in History: Fire at "Happy Land" Club in the Bronx

"Happy Land" memorial along Southern Boulevard via Google Maps

Seventy-nine years to the day after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, the unimaginable struck again as the Happy Land social club in the Bronx went up in flames.

An argument with a former girlfriend is all it took to push Julio Gonzalez into committing mass murder in the early morning hours of March 25, 1990.

The Happy Land club was a gathering place for the Garifuna community in the South Bronx, situated in a small property along Southern Boulevard at East Tremont Avenue. Tragically, the club was operating illegally after being ordered closed due to lack of sprinklers and fire exits. Had these modifications been in place, the subsequent act of arson could have become a mere inconvenience and not a horrific murder scene.

In his anger at being rejected, Gonzalez returned to the club around 3am, splashed gasoline along the club's only exit, lit the fire, and closed the metal security gate. Noxious gases quickly filled the club and killed 87 people that night. It was the city's most deadly fire since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911. Gonzalez was convicted of 174 counts of murder. In a twist of fate, the former girlfriend that Gonzalez had argued with was one of the survivors of the fire.

Today, the former Happy Land property is the site of a tax preparation office. A commemorative memorial has been placed in a park across the street, and a mural decorates the block where the fire took place.

Watch some original reporting on the story from 1990:

WPIX coverage
NBC4 New York coverage


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