Hazy smoke filled the air as flames illuminated the night skies over Tucson that tragic night in December 1970.
It’s a night veteran firefighter Albert Pesquiera has never forgotten.
On Dec. 20, 1970, fire broke out in the landmark 12-story downtown Pioneer Hotel. When the flames finally were extinguished, 28 people had died in the epic conflagration. A 29th person succumbed months later to injuries suffered in the fire.
The event stands today as the worst loss of life in a structure fire in the state’s history.
Pesquiera, who retired from the Tucson Fire Department and since 1997 has worked for Northwest Fire, has produced a documentary film to commemorate the historic event and honor the people who lost their lives. The project also pays tribute to the hundreds of firefighters and other first responders who risked their lives to save others.
“I wanted to commemorate an event in Arizona history,” Pesquiera said.
A screening of the film is planned for Sunday, Dec. 19, at 6 p.m. at the Fox Theatre in downtown Tucson.
“The genesis of this film was my wife Elsa,” Albert said.
In August, the couple began to talk about the approaching 40-year anniversary. Al said he didn’t want the date to pass without anyone remembering what happened, and the lives that were lost.
“I would hate to see just 30 seconds on the news about it,” Al said.
That’s when Elsa said the two should put together a documentary about the night.
Al went to a bookstore and began to look through tomes about filmmaking. He quickly realized they were going to need help from someone with experience, especially if they expected to meet their Dec. 19 deadline. The Pesquieras enlisted the help of local filmmaker David Cheng. The Tucson Fire Department and Tucson Fire Foundation helped with the production as well.
They called the resulting project “Hot Pion,” so named for the giant red neon sign that sat atop the Hotel Pioneer. An iconic photo taken the night of the terrible blaze shows only the first half of each word illuminated.
Through archival footage, photographs and contemporary interviews, the filmmakers wanted the people who saw the fire first-hand to recount their memories.
For many, the memories are too painful to recount.
“The worst stuff, I just don’t want to talk about,” Albert said. The fire remains the worst tragedy he ever attended in 41 years of fire service.
It started in the hallway of the fourth floor. Open stairwells at either end of the building helped the fire spread rapidly to additional floors.
Albert said he and other firefighters scoured through burned-out hotel rooms in search of survivors.
“I saw six rooms that were just devastated,” he said. All he could remember were the charred frames where beds sat, and the smell of burned flesh.
“That smell. You never forget that smell,” Albert said.
The victims who didn’t burn in the fire suffered an equally terrible fate, dying of smoke inhalation.
Contemporary news stories recounted a particularly horrifying event. A woman stranded in a seventh-floor room cried frantically to rescue crews on the ground. “I’m still here, I’m still here,” the woman screamed. Unable to sustain the fire and smoke any longer, the woman leaped to her death. A small child also jumped from an upper window, but was not killed.
Among those who perished were the former owners of the hotel and a downtown department store, Harold and Peggy Steinfeld, who lived in the 12th-floor penthouse.
Two young grandsons of the former governor of Sonora Mexico also died. An entire family of visitors from Hermosillo, Mexico — father, mother and three children — perished in the blaze.
The devastation and loss of life drained the emotions of even the most seasoned firefighters. Men who had lived through wars, and had seen the worst kinds of destruction, wept, Albert said.
“I didn’t see a dry eye,” he said.
Despite the tragic loss of life, more than 700 people were safely evacuated from the Pioneer that night. Many of those were directed to safety by local bandleader Louis Leon, who was performing that night with his 20-piece orchestra for the fatefully named H.E.A.T. party, the Hughes Employees Association of Technicians. News stories following the fire said Leon directed some of the evacuation efforts from the ballroom stage.
Leon, now 90, still lives in Tucson. He sat for an on-camera interview for the documentary.
In the hours following the fire, Louis Taylor was arrested and charged with arson. Then 16 years old, Taylor was subsequently convicted of arson and sentenced to life in prison. He’s maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment, even refusing to apply for parole because of the remorse he would have to express to the parole board, a tacit admission of guilt.
A Phoenix attorney has been working on Taylor’s behalf for several years to overturn the conviction.
Taylor has had a potential ally in one of the insurance investigators who inspected the burned-out building in 1970. The investigator has told media in recent years that had the fire occurred today, it never would be ruled arson.
Like many tragic events, the Pioneer fire helped to spur positive change.
At the time of the blaze, Tucson fire officials commented that there wouldn’t have been any loss of life if the building had been equipped with smoke detection and fire suppression systems. Opened in 1929, the Pioneer wasn’t required to have any such safety measures.
The Pioneer tragedy and others, like the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Kentucky that claimed 165 lives, prompted the introduction of new fire safety standards.
“Certainly, some of that was based on tragedies such as that,” said Arizona State Fire Marshal Bill Barger.
Barger said design features at the Pioneer, such as two open stairwells that created chimneys for smoke and fire at either end of the building, are not permitted today. Nor are the carpeted hallway walls that contributed to the fire’s rapid spread at the Pioneer Hotel.
“It’s come a long way,” Barger said of fire safety.
For Albert, the important thing today is to pay tribute to those people who died and those who risked their lives to save others. He said the Pioneer fire taught him what bravery means.
“There were some firefighters that just looked like ordinary Joes, that did heroic actions and saved a lot of people. I know who they are — they are heroes,” Albert said. “They finally get to tell their stories.”
Documentary film of Tucson’s Pioneer Hotel fire
Sunday, Dec. 19
The Fox Theatre
17 W. Congress