Pioneer International Hotel Fire: Forty-year-old tragedy still haunts Tucsonby Cherlyn Gardner Strong on Dec. 18, 2010, under Ghosts and Hauntings
I originally published this story last year, ahead of Halloween, with a different introduction. It is about a reputably haunted building located in downtown Tucson. Despite the normal paranormal focus of my writing, the majority of the tale is not about the haunting said to occur there. What happened at that location on December 20, 1970 is more horrific than any ghost story.
The structure, now known as the Pioneer Office Building, was formerly known worldwide as the Pioneer International Hotel. The building stands at 100 North Stone Avenue, and was the location of a terrible tragedy forty years ago. The lives of 29 people were lost due to a tragic fire. The building survived, but the once vibrant life of downtown Tucson did not.
The downtown area still largely lies in a state of listlessness. Attempts to “revitalize” downtown Tucson have so far failed. The Rio Nuevo downtown revitalization project, started in 1999, hasn’t made much progress for more than decade. It remains to be seen if recent changes to the project will pump any life back into downtown Tucson.
Reposting the story of the Pioneer is necessary for all of us to pause and reflect about what happened that night. Perhaps to even contemplate about how we can move forward. The Pioneer tragedy was not the sole factor that forced downtown into its current state, but it was a major one.
The story of the Pioneer is not a short one. I have added some additional information to this already long tale, involving the man convicted of starting the fire. After serving decades in prison, and maintaining his innocence, another appeal is forthcoming.
Four decades have passed since the tragedy in Tucson. To realize what the Pioneer meant to Tucson, we have to start from the beginning. The story begins about eight decades ago.
THE HEART OF TUCSON
Before it was an office building, the Pioneer was a world renowned hotel. Albert Steinfeld constructed the building on the corner of North Stone Avenue and Pennington Street in 1929. When built, it boasted the largest ballroom in the country.
The structure stands at 11 stories high. The east wing is 6 stories. The north and south wings of the building, two stories high.
Back in the day, the Cleveland Indians baseball team called the Pioneer “home” during annual Spring trainings. Tourists, dignitaries and celebrities stayed at the hotel since it first opened in 1929. The Pioneer was the heart of downtown Tucson for 41. It was the place to go for luncheons, to conduct business, to attend conventions, banquets and parties.
In 1970, Tucson’s population consisted of approximately 263,000 residents. The social center for that population was still the Pioneer International Hotel. Albert Steinfeld’s son, Harold, and his wife Margaret (aka Peggy) resided in the 11th floor penthouse at that time, though the Steinfelds had sold the hotel back in 1963. The Pioneer stood kitty corner from Steinfeld’s department store.
The building was the life of downtown Tucson.
Hughes Aircraft Company (now called Raytheon), scheduled their Christmas party on December 19, 1970 at the Pioneer. There were clear skies on evening of the 19th, with a temperature of 43 degrees Fahrenheit. The ballroom was comfortably warm, while it bustled with the activity of 350 guests. Approximately 300 additional guests enjoyed holiday celebrations in smaller meeting rooms on that night. None of these guests were aware that the festivities would turn into an international tragedy over the course of a few hours.
FIRE REPORTED AT THE PIONEER
After midnight, on December 20, 1970, a nearby parking garage attendant reported a suspected car fire near the Pioneer. The cashier stated that he did not have a good view of the area and could not leave his station unattended to give dispatchers more details. Minutes later, a caller from the Tucson Federal Building, half a block south of the hotel, called to report a fire on the hotel’s 7th floor. Another call was reported to emergency dispatchers by Pioneer hotel staff, stating that there was a fire on the 3rd floor. An additional caller phoned in from the Tucson Federal Building to report the fire.
The hotel had been touted as fireproof, but reports kept coming in about a fire.
Fire Engines 1, 2 and 3; Ladders 1 and 3; Rescue 1 were dispatched.
On and off-duty firemen came to the aid of hotel guests, some of which were hanging out of windows or standing on ledges and balconies when rescue crews arrived.
Engine 1 and Engine 2 were the first rescue vehicles on the scene. Engine 2 fought the fire from the south side of the hotel. Ladder 1 arrived and quickly extended the ladder from the northwest side of the building. As the ladder was extended, one woman couldn’t wait any longer, and she jumped to her death from the 7th floor. Ladder 1 continued to rescue anyone visible from outside that portion of the building. Ladder 3 conducted rescue operations from the south end of the building. Engine 3 took on the east side of the building. Rescue 1 provided resuscitators and first aid equipment. This response was not enough.
Fire Engines 5 and 7; Ladder 2; Rescue 2 dispatched.
A second alarm was dispatched and brought reinforcements. Engine 5 took on the smoke tower at the east of the building. Engine 7 used extension and roof ladders to reach windows on the northeast side of the building.
It was there that firefighters made a horrific discovery. The body of a small boy was found on the lower east wing roof. He had either jumped, or was pushed, out of a window.
Ladder 2 firefighters attempted rescue of trapped people in the hotel, but the ladder retracted, seriously injuring three firefighters.
On and off duty Tucson Police Department, Border Patrol, Highway Patrol and Sheriff Department personnel were summoned to assist with rescue and crowd control efforts.
Local hospitals went into disaster mode to receive casualties.
The third and fourth alarms were dispatched. They consisted of Engines 4, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11;Rescue 3, 4 and 5; and Ladder 4. None of the ladders on hand were tall enough to reach the top floors.
Of the firefighters alone, 34 out of more than 200 fire personnel were treated for smoke inhalation and overexertion.
So far all of this is only what happened on the outside of the building. One can only imagine the panic and horror that the trapped hotel guests experienced inside the walls of the hotel on that night.
A visiting doctor from New York, Dr. Lewis Beck, said that he was forced onto a ledge by the smoke that permeated his room. He stated that jumping looked like his only option. Just before making the leap, Beck spotted another doctor, William Ford, sliding down a drain pipe. Beck followed Ford down the drain pipe to safety.
Of more than 60 persons trapped, more than half made their escape from the hotel windows, most of those rescued by firefighters.
However, 28 people weren’t so fortunate. These 28 fatalities occurred from people trapped on the 6th through the 11th floors. Of the 28 victims, carbon monoxide poisoning took 16 lives, burns claimed 7, and smoke inhalation was responsible for 1 death. “Fall” was the cause of death of 4 victims.
Of the 28 dead, 13 were Mexican citizens who hailed from prominent families. Mexico mourned with the rest of the world at the loss of the wife and five children of Francisco Luken, Sonora Police Chief; the deaths of two grandchildren of former Sonora governor Ignacio Soto; the death of leading cardiologist Dr. Jose Jesus Antillon.
Harold and Margaret (Peggy) Steinfeld, in the 11th floor penthouse, were reportedly reassured by the hotel desk staff that they would come get them, if needed. The Steinfelds, in turn, reassured a family member over the phone that everything would be okay, and that the fire would be put out. They died in their bed from carbon monoxide poisoning, in the hotel that Harold’s father built.
AFTER THE FIRE
Fifty Red Cross workers were on hand immediately. Some staffed the morgue while others tended to the relocated victims at nearby hospitals and hotels. Despite smoke and heat damage from the 4th through the 11th floors, the Pioneer had no structural damage. The building survived intact.
Though the hotel was touted as fireproof, several factors contributed to this fire: open stairways, synthetic carpeting, vinyl wall covering, painted doors and frames. The hotel also had no sprinklers or smoke detectors.
“Fire investigators found that the fire was ignited around midnight by an arsonist in at least two separate locations on the fourth floor. The fire went unnoticed for several minutes. Then, with devastating speed, the fire spread and turned into a holocaust never before experienced by the City of Tucson.” – Tucson Fire Department: Fire Report – Pioneer International Hotel
A Board of Inquiry was formed to prevent any occurrence of a similar tragedy. As a direct result of this tragedy in Tucson, uniform fire codes were established nationally.
After the fire, police arrested Louis Cuen Taylor, a 16-year-old with a history of juvenile offenses. People who knew Taylor described him as a fire bug. The young Taylor insisted that he was only at the hotel for the free food and drinks that he could steal from the Hughes Aircraft Christmas party.
Several witnesses attested to the fact that they saw Taylor help several people escape the hotel. Despite this, and based on what evidence that investigators had, the boy was charged with arson and murder. Convicted in 1972, Taylor was sentenced to life in prison. Taylor still maintains his innocence, aged now in his 50s, from his jail cell in Buckeye, AZ.
Taylor stated that he has been advised over the years, including by his former trial judge, to seek a reduced sentence by admitting guilt and showing remorse. “I told them I’d rather die in prison,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s convictions were overturned in 1982, but reinstated in 1983. Several members of the media have brought attention to his imprisonment, including news correspondent Steve Kroft. Kroft’s investigation raised doubts about Taylor’s conviction, aired in a 2002 60 Minutes segment. An associated article is posted on the CBS website.
Marshall Smyth, one of two experts involved in the original fire investigation said, in an Arizona Daily Star interview in 2006: “I came to this opinion some time ago that neither one of us had any business identifying that fire as arson.” Without that testimony, he said, “this fellow wouldn’t have been convicted.”
“I’m very sure that neither Cy Holmes nor I should have or could have said that it was arson at the time that we did”, he added.
The Arizona Justice Project (AJP) took on Taylor’s case four years ago, in 2006.
“Since 1998, The Justice Project has been helping to overturn — and prevent — wrongful convictions in the State of Arizona. The Justice Project examines claims of innocence and manifest injustice, and provides legal representation for inmates believed to have been failed by the criminal justice system.”
The Arizona Justice Project still represents Taylor on an upcoming appeal.
The hotel was renovated in 1977 and converted into offices. This is when office employees first began to experience paranormal activity. The sound of running on the upper floors could often be heard. The aroma of smoke was also noted at night. The bar located in the building began to experience unexplained phenomena like lights turning off and on. Employees even started to see apparitions.
Several years ago, a local reporter participated in a ghost investigation of the Pioneer with local paranormal expert, William Everist. At one point in the middle of the night, the sound of running was recorded from the floor directly above the team.
Many Internet sources state that the hotel “burned to the ground” in 1970. This statement is not only false, but it is disrespectful to this structure that has withstood 80 years and a tragedy.
Another piece of misinformation that still circulates is that all of the victims died after being trapped on the top floor. Based on the official fire report, and factual history, the victims weren’t all trapped on the 11th floor.
The Pioneer building downtown withstood that terrible night almost four decades ago. If any location is haunted in Tucson, I would say that the Pioneer would be one location that has the history to go along with those claims. I am not sure if the haunting would be classified as an intelligent haunting, though, where ghosts interact with the living. The experiences in that building have been indicative of a residual haunting. A residual haunting is like a playback of a recording of a past event.
Theories about residual hauntings suggest certain building materials may “record” traumatic events, which are then replayed again and again over time. The structure was the location of a traumatic event. Perhaps the Pioneer building itself is replaying the events from the night of the fire.
AN INTERVIEW WITH A FIREFIGHTER
My personal interest in the Pioneer began 20 years ago. I was intrigued due to my interest in ghosts, as well as my interest in local history. I began collecting Pioneer International Hotel memorabilia. My collection included hotel restaurant menus, matchbooks, postcards, stationery, and many other items.
In 2006, I needed money for a sick pet dog. The only thing I had of any value was my Pioneer collection. I put the collection up for sale on eBay. The winning bidder just happened to live in Tucson. I arranged to meet him at a local Denny’s restaurant to make the exchange of the items for cash. I learned that the winning bidder happened to be a local firefighter who fought the fire at the Pioneer Hotel on December 20, 1970.
I sat with him for a couple of hours at Denny’s and received his firsthand account of what happened that night. He also brought with him the official fire report, which is where these facts about the fire were documented, that I have now shared with you.
The exchange I made that day was more than a fair one. I drove away feeling at peace. I knew that my collection would be in good hands. My collection was safely carried off by a firefighter, like many of the rescued victims at the Pioneer International Hotel, back in December of 1970.