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Red-Eyed Relatives Wait for Bad News

January 2, 1987

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Red-eyed and weary-looking, more than 80 relatives and friends waited for bad news Friday in a cordoned-off room of the government hospital where experts tried to identify charred remains from the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire.

The anxious group had searched lists of the 41 people still hospitalized with injuries and lists of people given rooms in other hotels after the Wednesday afternoon blaze but did not find the names of their loved ones.

″She must be in there,″ a gray-haired man from Cooper City, Fla., said, pointing to a forensics room where badly burned bodies were being examined by pathologists and an eight-member FBI team flown in from Washington, D.C.

A hospital official called out a Hispanic name, and a well-dressed man rose from his folding chair and left with the official.

″I wonder how I’ll feel when they call your mother’s name,″ the Florida man said, turning to his son.

He asked that his name not be used until the fate of his wife was known. He said she was 70 years old and had gone with her sister, who lives in Puerto Rico, to the Dupont Plaza casino. Her sister was also missing, the Florida man said, pointing out two tearful young women and a young man he said were her children.

Officials say the intense heat and flames caused the bodies of those trapped in the casino, on the 20-story hotel’s mezzanine level where the fire started, to be burned charcoal-black.

Hospital officials had relatives fill out forms asking descriptions of nearly anything - jewelry, clothing, old broken bones or dental plates - that could help the identification process.

They also provided telephone lines for relatives to call dentists to ask for X-ray records.

Only nine bodies had been identified at the hospital by midday Friday.

Hospital officials said at least 60 families reported they still had loved ones missing, and government officials said the death toll could eventually rise to 100.

Most of the people inside the room were Hispanic, but there were also families from New York and Connecticut. The brother of Susan Lawrence, still missing, flew here Thursday from the United States because her husband was hospitalized with burns and fractures.

The brother, who wouldn’t give his name or those of other relatives, said he had obtained his sister’s dental records the night before.

Puerto Rican Secretary of Health Luis Izquierdo Mora came to answer questions and promise help. A Puerto Rican man raised his hand and expressed frustration: ″I’ve been waiting here 24 hours. When will this be finished?″

″We have the best pathologists in Puerto Rico working 24 hours a day,″ Izquierdo Mora replied calmly. ″The great majority of these bodies are terribly burned. It is a very difficult task. But it will be done.

″They are progressing. We are doing this with the very best care, with the very best dignity. We know you are suffering.

″We’re still receiving bodies. It is taking a long time to remove the bodies because the FBI is involved, the secretary of justice is involved. Every time a body is lifted, they take photographs. It is a slow process,″ Izquierdo Mora said, referring to the investigation into the possibility of arson.

The health secretary, who said 250 doctors and specialists were helping the effort, introduced Dr. J. Perez Cruett, chief of psychiatry at the Veterans Administration.

″We want to offer psychiatrists and psychologists to help you with any mental health problems you are having at this time,″ Cruett said.

The Red Cross provided coffee, and volunteers passed out bags of fruit.

Two Roman Catholic priests and several Protestant pastors offered solace.

″We’re here to listen, to help in anyway we can,″ said the Rev. L’Anni Hill-Alto of the Second Union Church of San Juan.

Nine bodies not badly burned were at the nearby Institute of Forensics. There, Markus Unternaehrer of Switzerland, said he and his wife had come to Puerto Rico last week with his 62-year-old mother, Erika Unternaehrer.

On Wednesday afternoon the couple went to a McDonald’s to eat.

″My mother said she was tired and wanted to stay in the room for a little sleep,″ Unternaehrer said.

She died in her bed of smoke inhalation.

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