I was sitting in my living room today having coffee when I saw the news that Louis Cuen Taylor the man blamed for the Tucson Pioneer Hotel was being released today. Many things went through my head including what it must have been like sitting in a jail for 43 years for a crime he more than likely did not commit. The other thing that was dancing through my mind was how the fire impacted me when I was just twelve years old, and it got me thinking…
I cannot remember how many times our family either drove by or walked by the Pioneer Hotel located at Stone Avenue and Pennington. I remember going inside of this grand hotel and recalling how luxurious it was and how incredibly big it seemed to a 12-year- old. It was one of the biggest buildings in Tucson at the time.
The Pioneer Hotel, which was an Arizona landmark, was eleven stories high. I recall my father, a carpenter, said that the city had every right to complain about the hotel since the fire department at the time could not reach the top floor. Albert Steinfeld built the hotel in 1929 and he made claim the hotel was fireproof and was safe. He and his wife died that day in the fire.
What I remember so well was the date because December 19 is my parents wedding anniversary and no one is ever to forget their anniversary date! The year was 1970 and at the age of twelve, it was hard to understand how so many people could have died in a fire like that.
I recall the news saying that there were more than 750 people at the hotel that night. The great hotel was hosting a Christmas party for Hughes Aircraft employees and the hotel was packed when the deadly fire broke out. I kept remembering the news talking about how people were jumping out of the window falling to their deaths. People were talking about how horrific it was to see people leap to their deaths.
For a kid, trying to imagine people jumping to their deaths was enough to create nightmares. I recall telling my parents about my nightmares and my mother would tell me not to watch the news. However, you did not have to watch the news. The talk of the fire was everywhere. It seemed like there was someone at school, or at church, or the grocery store that lost someone in the fire. It was impossible to not hear about the day Tucson lost the most people in one tragic event.
My dreams eventually went away, but the pain in my heart would stay there. Being rather empathic, even at twelve, I felt the scar that this would leave on Tucson and so many residents that lived here. The loss that day was profound.
Today, Louis Cuen Taylor who turns 59 this week and was a 16-year-old boy when fingers began to point at him, will walk away from this tragic event as well and walk into his freedom. Experts are saying that this fire might not have been arson. In fact, even the trial judge stated he would not have convicted Taylor.
For those who live here in Tucson and lived here when the fire broke out, December 19, 1970 will be a day we will never forget. It was the day the Pioneer Hotel burned down and killed 29 people. It was a day where one of Tucson’s tallest buildings no longer stood tall. It was a day where fire regulations began to change. It was a day that for some like me will forever remain as a cruel reminder that bad things happen to good people.
Do you recall the Pioneer Hotel fire?