Happy Land Fire: ‘They All Could Have Been Sleeping’

Happy Land Social Club Fire Scene with FDNY firefighters

The Happy Land Social Club disaster occurred when a jealous ex-boyfriend, thrown out of the club after a fight with a former girlfriend, returned with a dollar’s worth of gasoline, setting fire to the entranceway, the sole exit to the establishment, and then pulling down the metal gate.

Happy Land Fire: Have We Learned The Lessons?

Assistant Chief Frank J. Nastro was the Fire Department of New York’s (FDNY’s) city-wide command chief when the first call came in for two fatalities at a fire in the Bronx on March 25, 1990. It climbed to 24 by the time he left the command center, and would rise steadily as he was en route. On scene, he saw the sheet-covered victims on the sidewalk, and dozens more on the second floor of the fire buildingl (Photos by David Handschuh). “We were speechless,” he recalled. Although there were five units remaining on scene, four more were special-called to share the burden of removing the bodies. See the Nastro’s firsthand account, “Happyland: Lessons of the Mind and Heart,” Fire Engineering, September 1990 pp. 24-28) HERE.

Fire Engineering Editor in Chief Tom Brennan, in a June 1990 editorial commenting on fire code enforcement, “Lessons, Not Denial,” HERE. wrote, “We, the saviors of the street, need our teeth back. We need our efforts and dedication to prevention of disaster reinforced to the limit and not circumvented by ‘friends of friends.’ ”

Nastro would present the details of the disaster at that year’s Fire Department Instructor’s Conference, before 4,000 in a packed ballroom. In “A Lesson in Humanity,” the September 1990 editorial, Editor in Chief Tom Brennan recounted Nastro’s presentation HERE. “He dealt with the most trying situation in his career and relied on faith, heart, and concern for the individual,” Brennan wrote.

The fire occurred 79 years after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which killed 146 garment workers.  


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