A River Of Tears: Happy Land
"Por Que, Mi Dios, Por Que?"
Over the next few days, a tidal wave of grief and anguish swept over the South Bronx. More than 60 of the people who died at Happy Land were of Honduran descent. More than 90 children became orphans. Over 40 parents lost their children, some lost more than one. Seventeen players on the county league's soccer teams were killed in the fire. In nearby Roosevelt High School in the Fordham section, five students died in the smoke and flames of Happy Land. There was almost no one in the Honduran community who was not affected in some way by the tragedy. Even in Honduras itself, the towns and villages of those who were killed were plunged into mourning. The newspapers spoke of little else except el fuego en Estados Unidos.
Rio de lagrimas (A river of tears) began in the Rivera Funeral Home on Bathgate Avenue where seventeen of the fire victims lay in repose. Outside, in the mean streets of the South Bronx, life came to a halt as the shrieks from grieving families filled the neighborhoods. A funeral procession started on the morning of March 28 from Rivera's to St. Joseph's Church across the street. In a grim caravan of death, seventeen caskets were carried into the church as the crying multitude, many on their knees, prayed for deliverance from the grief and pain. "Por que? Por que?" a woman wept. "Llevame contis!" (Take me with you!) cried another. People fainted. The hysteria and the suffering were overpowering inside the church. Rev. Henry Mills gave a tear-filled sermon as mothers and fathers collapsed in the pews. "We pray this evening that the Lord may strengthen our understanding. We hope the Lord eternal will lead them to his home!" he said (Scwwartzman, p.2). The intense and solemn refrains of Ave Maria echoed through the church and into the streets that were strangely quiet and devoid of the usual frenetic activity that typifies life in the South Bronx.
All across the borough, in small neighborhood chapels and churches, anguish engulfed family, friends and strangers alike. Long lines of mourners waited patiently to view the bodies at a dozen funeral homes, which were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of business. The crowds were kept at bay by police barricades, usually reserved for sporting events and traffic control. At St. Thomas Aquinas Church a few blocks away, the people lay on the front steps, weeping for the young and the lost, whose torn photos seemed to appear everywhere, on doors, walls, mailboxes, taped to clothing and windows, a transient shrine to the dead, a movable wailing wall for weeping families who knew no peace.
In front of Happy Land, a mountain of flowers and memorabilia began to accumulate. A steady stream of traffic crawled past its doors on Southern Boulevard, curious on-lookers striving to catch a glimpse of where so many died. Fire Marshals from the Fire Department sifted through the rubble searching for clues and evidence of the fire. Most people blamed city government for allowing Happy Land to remain open despite numerous safety code violations. There was a strong impression that East Tremont was always an area that suffered from benign neglect by city officials. "This neighborhood has never gotten the proper service," Pedro Segul told the N. Y. Post (Parascodola, p.4). It was a sentiment that was shared by many. But in between the seething bitterness, and sometimes angry shouts, was an onslaught of grief and despair. And no assurances of rectitude by politicians or promises of belated investigations would bring back the souls of the dead or alleviate the horror of mass murder.