Tucson Fire Department

Three Tucson firefighters use a ladder to rescue survivors from the Pioneer Hotel fire that killed 29 people.

Jack W. Sheaffer / Arizona Daily Star 1970

The Pioneer Hotel, built in 1929 by Albert Steinfeld, was supposed to be "absolutely fireproof." On Dec. 20, 1970, it was learned this was not the case.

The first news in the Arizona Daily Star about the fire came just hours after the fire happened. The fire began shortly after midnight and the Star rushed to get the news in the paper. More complete information followed the next day and days following.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Dec. 20, 1970:

TWO KILLED, 15 INJURED IN PIONEER HOTEL BLAZE

Guests Plunge From Windows

At least two deaths were verified and more than 15 injuries were reported in fire that swept through the 41-year-old Pioneer International Hotel early this morning. It was feared the death toll would be much higher.

Reporters on the scene said that four bodies were brought to the mezzanine level about 2 a.m. and firemen had called for a resuscitation on the ninth floor. Several other sheet-draped bodies were seen there. The fire broke out shortly after midnight.

Robert Trooper, hotel auditor, said he got a call from a guest who said she saw flames in the stairwell on the third floor.

An unidentified room clerk said the flames shot up the elevator shaft of the 250-room hotel, leaving a wake of smoke in the upper floors of the 11-story building.

At 1:45 a.m. St. Mary's hospital had reported one person dead on arrival and 15 others injured. At that time it was not known whether any injured had been taken to other hospitals.

Those injured included persons who jumped from the upper floors.

One witness said, "People were jumping from the windows and splattering on the sidewalk. It was awful. Firemen were screaming to people through their horns to stay on the floors for oxygen."

Witnesses said they saw bodies, illuminated by floodlights, leaping from the rooms of the 10th floor and the roof.

Mrs. Lee Atkinson, who had just left the hotel when the fire broke out, said she heard young people screaming. "I wanted to go back in and help them. It was awful," she said.

"I'll never forget this as long as I live. People hanging on the ledges, yelling."

At 1:15 a.m. a man named "Bill" found his way to a balcony on the eight floor overhanging Pennington Street. A friend on the street below, who had found his way out of the hotel, called to him to remain where he was, that he was safe where he was.

"Bill" disappeared and reappeared at another window on the east side of the hotel. A sheet rope from the floor above him dropped past the window. He grabbed at it and slid down to the fourth floor of an addition to the building.

The dead person was later identified as a woman who jumped from the seventh floor, struck a balcony overlooking Stone Avenue and fell to the sidewalk. Her name was not available.

Firemen pleaded with hotel guests not to jump from the building. At first the message was given in English by Capt. Ellis Franklin. Later, an unidfentified fireman spoke to the guests in Spanish.

With flames still out of control at 1:55 a.m. the fire department issued a "Yellow Alert" putting all emergency equipment in the city into action. "This is like a disaster sutuation," the department spokesman said.

Edwin Santschi, retired electrical inspector for the City of Chicago, said flames were biting through the door of his room on the fifth floor. He said he tried to douse the flames with water from an ice bucket. In the hallway he said he saw four other guests crowding at the window "ready to jump."

Father Cahelare, of St. Augustine Cathedral, arrived at the scene soon after midnight. He was seen giving the last rites to a guest on the second floor of the hotel.

Several hundred employes of the Hughes Aircraft Co. were at the company annual party. Some left, and others sped through the building leading guests, most of the elderly people, to safety.

"Many were doing brave things," a witness said.

One man stood on a window ledge on the fourth floor for 15 or 20 minutes before firemen could get a ladder to him.

Fire escapes on the north side of the building were blocked by fire, making escape by that avenue impossible. Several volunteers on the south side of the building obtained a fire ladder to raise on that side of the building to help guests escape.

Three hook and ladder trucks were used to assist in rescue work, two on Stone Avenue and one on Pennington.

Officers sped to the scene from regular duty with the sheriff's office, U.S. Border Patrol, South Tucson Police Department and the Tucson Police Department.

One police officer, at the early stages of the fire, braved the interior of the hotel to give aid, but could only get to the third floor where he was stopped by smoke and flames.

At the height of the fire some of the guests lowered themselves to the annex building which houses Shoe City on Pennington Street.

Fireman Arth Apodaca fell four floors from a fire ladder. Observers said he did not appear to be critically injured.

Despite the intensity of the blaze, electricity oddly remained on in the hotel and on its signs.

The fire department's command post was established in front of Steinfeld's department store. Harold Steinfeld, owner of the store, and his wife, Peggy, live on the ninth floor of the hotel.

Firemen poured a tremendous amount of water on the flames. Water was seeping through the upper floors to the lower levels and after the fire had been controlled, C. Edgar Goyette, vice-president and resident manager, began salvaging records on the mezzanine floor. He was working in a small sea of water.

The hotel was built in 1929 and has long been a Tucson landmark. Albert Steinfeld built the Pioneer at the corner of Stone and Pennington on property which housed an old Methodist church when he bought it in 1904.

Harold Steinfeld recalled in later years that it was not considered a good business deal, as the property was "away out of the business district."

Under the Steinfeld ownership the site saw first, a building housing the offices for the Southern Pacific of Mexico and the old Epes Randolph railroad lines. This was in 1910. The ground floor was occupied by a fruit and vegetable shop, a drug store and other shops.

Baum and Adamson, one of the city's oldest auto supply firms started business on that corner.

In 1929, Albert Steinfeld built the Pioneer on the site with the idea of financing the hotel and then selling it to outside interests. The Depression wiped out the deal and the hotel remained in the Steinfeld family hands until early 1963, when it was sold to a group of Tucson businessmen.

The hotel has gone through several remodelings, the latest major one was in 1967 with a price tag of $750,000.

As most Tucsonans know, the death toll did indeed go much higher. Eventually 29 deaths were attributed to the fire or injuries sustained in it.

Over the past 40 years, the fire has been considered Tucson's worst tragedy. Although such an event can never happen at a good time, Christmas in Tucson in 1970 must have been a somber one.

Young Louis Taylor was convicted of setting the fire and sentenced to life in prison. Years later there were questions raised as to whether the fire was even arson, and therefore whether Taylor was guilty.

Forty-two years after he was convicted, Taylor pleaded no contest to 28 counts of murder and was released. His conviction has not been overturned.

Read the complete story of the Pioneer Hotel fire in the Arizona Daily Star's ebook of the same name. Subscribers can read for free. Go to tucson.com/ebooks and click on the links below the book cover for the Pioneer Hotel Fire.

Johanna Eubank is an online content producer for the Arizona Daily Star and tucson.com. Contact her at jeubank@tucson.com

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