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Puerto Rican Hotels To Get Safety Inspections

January 6, 1987

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ All hotels on this Caribbean island will be inspected for compliance with safety regulations, the fire chief said today, nearly a week after a fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel killed 96 people.

The inspections will begin immediately, Fire Chief Aurelio Lopez Rivera said in an interview with The Associated Press.

″Today and tomorrow, we’re going to take out the inspection reports of all the hotels and examine which require reinspection,″ he said. Eventually all hotels will be looked at, he said.

The most recent fire inspection of the Dupont Plaza Hotel, conducted in June 1985, found it lacked smoke detectors, an evacuation plan and a working fire alarm system.

A four-page review by the Puerto Rico Fire Department, obtained by the AP today, also said the hotel had a limited sprinkler system.

Lopez Rivera said he did not know if changes were made at the hotel after the inspection.

Survivors said they had little warning before the lower floors of the hotel were engulfed in fire New Year’s Eve. Survivors also said they heard no fire alarms.

On Monday, lawsuits seeking a total of $19 million were filed in connection with the fire, including one claiming the hotel trapped victims by closing casino doors.

The suits involve a Puerto Rican man who died and another man who was among the more than 140 people injured. They were filed in U.S. District Court one day after commonwealth Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon said investigators found proof the fire had been set.

The family of 63-year-old Juan Rosario Torres, who worked at the hotel, is seeking $9 million in damages. The suit charges Torres suffered greatly before his death because of the ″intentional, negligent and careless acts of the defendant.″

The suit also accuses the hotel of ″closing and sealing the casino doors and entrapping the decedent.″ Hotel officials have denied the casino exits were locked at the time of the fire.

The suit names as defendant Hotel Systems International of Santa Monica, Calif., which attorneys for the plaintiffs said owns the Delaware-based San Juan Dupont Plaza Corp.

A second suit, seeking $10 million in damages, was filed by Jose Aponte Rodriguez, who was in the casino when the fire broke out. Aponte Rodriguez suffered a broken ankle and a concussion.

The suits contend the 20-story luxury hotel was negligent in failing to install fire-prevention measures.

Hotel management did not immediately respond.

The New York Times today quoted a high-ranking federal investigator in San Juan as saying the fire started after an arsonist ignited furniture stored in plastic wrapping ″in the ballroom area″ of the hotel.

The newspaper quoted the unidentified official as saying investigators were seriously considering the possibility the arsonist may have intended only to damage property, not destroy the hotel or kill guests.

It said the burning of both the plastic wrapping and the furniture, which apparently was made mostly of synthetic, petroleum-based material, ″caused intense heat and a great deal of poisonous smoke.″

Hernandez Colon and other authorities have refused to name suspects, but have noted that the Teamsters local representing about 250 Dupont Plaza workers was engaged in a contract dispute with hotel management.

The local had voted to strike at midnight New Year’s Eve. Talks between the two sides broke down shortly before the fire started. The union has denied involvement in the fire.

Luis Izquierdo Mora, the island’s health secretary, said Monday that 20 people remained hospitalized, one in critical condition. Pathologists at the Institute of Forensic Sciences had identified 72 bodies by Monday night.

Many victims were charred beyond recognition, requiring experts to use dental records, X-rays, autopsies and personal effects to identify them.

Andrew Vita, head of a special 30-member team from the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said Monday he hoped to conclude his arson investigation today.

Officials said physical evidence from the scene was shipped to the bureau’s laboratory in Rockville, Md.

Analysis of that evidence won’t be completed ″until sometime later this week,″ and results will be shipped to Puerto Rico officials, said bureau spokeswoman Dot Koester.

Among attorneys for the Rosario Torres family are Lugo & Berkowitz, with offices in Hato Ray. Also helping is Speiser, Krause & Madole of New York, lead attorneys for plaintiffs in the 1980 Stouffers Hotel fire in Harrison, N.Y., which claimed 26 lives. That suit was settled for $49.5 million, the firm said.

The attorney for Aponte Rodriguez, John P. Coale, said his Washington-based law firm, Coale, Kananack & Murgatroyd, represents 50,000 Indians in connection with an insecticide gas leak at a Union Carbide plant that killed more than 2,000 people in Bhopal, India in 1984. The case is still pending, he said.

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