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Paterson Riverside Station - Photo by Dr. Thomas Dayspring

Monday, June 23, 2008


Removing victims

Alexander Hamilton Hotel in its heyday
Photo: The Ledger - Google News Archives

Woman trapped by fire on 8th floor of Alexander Hamilton Hotel in Paterson in October 1984 clasps towel to breath. The blaze, set by an arsonist, claimed 15 lives.
By Vinny Del Giudice

On Oct. 18, 1984, an arson fire swept the shabby Alexander Hamilton Hotel in downtown Paterson - a once elegant building that fell into disrepair - killing 15 people and injuring about 60 others.

"People were screaming, trying to tie sheets and blankets together to get out the windows," said hotel resident Lusylvia Rivera, 33, quoted by the Associated Press. She fled with her three children from a room on the first floor of the residential hotel. "The ones who were more scared just went ahead and jumped," Rivera said.

Box 181 - Market and Church streets - was transmitted at 12:14 a.m. and the incident ``quickly escalated to three alarms and all of the city's fire units responded, as did firefighters from five nearby towns,'' The New York Times said. ''We have people trapped, we have people jumping,'' Paterson Fire Capt. Domenick Cotroneo told The Times.

Fire Chief William Comer, quoted by the AP, said "the fire spread so fast and the flames were so intense" that the blaze jumped from the third floor through air ducts and engulfed four or five floors of the eight-story hotel.

Battalion Chief Frank Crampton said Paterson firefighters encountered "very poor visibility, panicky people, unconscious people lying on floors," according to the AP.

Harry Moore, who escaped from the second floor with his wife and two babies, said "It happened all of the sudden," according to the AP. "A girl knocked on the door and screamed, 'Get out of the place,'" Moore said. "When we got out, the place was in flames. We grabbed what we could, the babies first of course."

Some victims succumbed to their injuries days later, including Christino Ramirez, 53, who died Oct. 24 at Hackensack Medical Center's burn unit. ''When he arrived here he had third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body,'' said Lisa Hoffman, a hospital spokeswoman quoted by United Press International.

Russell W. Conklin, 44, a TV repairman and resident of the hotel, was convicted of manslaughter and arson and sentenced to prison on Nov. 6, 1985. The Washington Post described Conklin as "an embittered handyman who may have been drunk."

Paterson Mayor Frank X. Graves, quoted by the AP, said Conklin "had a fight with the night manager. He's the one that supposedly started the fire. The manager locked the guy in the room. He lit the sheets on fire and climbed out the back window. The suspect is saying this."

served more than a decade behind bars and was released from a state prison on April 23, 1997, according to the web site of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Investigators determined paint and other materials stored in the hotel fueled the flames.

Passaic, Clifton and Hawthorne were among the communities to send mutual aid.

The Hamilton tragedy recalled an arson fire that killed six people at the Midtown Hotel on Dec. 10, 1968. Box 141 was transmitted at 10:58 p.m. for 2 Park Ave. and escalated to a general alarm.

Another arson fire on Oct. 15, 1981 killed eight people at an apartment building at 89 Park Ave.

An even deadlier fire on Nov. 4, 1917 claimed 19 lives at the Salvation Army Rescue Mission. That fire was apparently an accident.

The Alexander Hamilton Hotel was named for the first U.S. Treasury secretary. In 1791, Hamilton led a group of investors in creating the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, which led to the creation of the city. The society was organized to harness the power of the Great Falls on the Passaic River.

In June 1995, The Times published a story about plans to renovate hotel:

``When people talked about fancy hotels in those days, they talked about the Alexander Hamilton. Built in 1930, the 170-room hotel was a natural magnet for the rich and powerful, a handsome eight-story brick building just two blocks from City Hall and surrounded by cigar and fedora stores and the famed Fabian Theater. ... But as the city declined in the 1960's, so did the hotel. Factories closed because of labor unrest and high costs, the well-to-do fled to the suburbs, crime and unemployment rose and the hotel fell into disrepair.''

When the arsonist struck, ``The ballrooms were stacked to the ceiling with mattresses. Garbage was everywhere and there was a stench of sewage. People passed out in the stairwells. Only the cockroaches thrived,'' the newspaper said.