New film recalls '70 Pioneer Hotel fire

2010-12-12T00:00:00Z 2010-12-23T20:10:09Z New film recalls '70 Pioneer Hotel fireFernanda Echavarri Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 12, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Every December for the past 40 years, Albert Pesqueira thinks about the devastating fire at the Pioneer Hotel. He remembers what he saw and felt that night as a rookie firefighter.

But this December he will bring his memories to life.

Pesqueira is the creator of "Hot Pion: The Pioneer Fire Documentary," a commemorative documentary of the 40th anniversary of the Pioneer Hotel fire that left dozens of people dead.

The documentary will premiere at the Fox Theatre Dec. 19 featuring a collection of photographs and video footage from the night of the fire, and recent interviews with people who were there that night, Pesqueira said.

Pesqueira, a 41-year veteran firefighter, has worked for Tucson Fire and is now the assistant chief for Northwest Fire District.

He and his wife, Elsa, are the producers of the documentary. They hired editors, videographers and local director David Cheng to make their idea a reality.

"We wanted to do something to honor this piece of history, to pay respect to the law enforcement that was there, and the people who lost their lives that night," Pesqueira said.

For Pesqueira the documentary is a collection of history but also a collection of emotional memories from his past.

He remembers the night of Dec. 20, 1970, vividly. He was a 21-year-old Tucson firefighter and was called to work the downtown hotel fire on his night off.

"It was terrible. I saw a lot of firefighters with tears in their eyes that night," he said. "And these were not just any guys. They were tough guys. Some were Vietnam veterans who had tears in their eyes."

Some of the rooms were completely destroyed, with nothing left in them but the bed frames. People were jumping out of windows of the 11-story hotel. "It was truly terrible," Pesqueira said.

Pesqueira's older brother, Jesus "Chuy" Pesqueira, was one of the first responders to the fire. He saw the worst of it

Until his interview for the documentary, Albert Pesqueira had never heard Chuy talk about the night of the fire.

"We are very close, and still, there had never been a conversation about that night, about what he saw or what he did. I heard it all for the first time during his interview," Pesqueira said. "After that I thought about how much of a hero my brother is."

Jesus Pesqueira, a retired firefighter of 37 years and 25 at the time of the fire, recalled rescuing people from the burning building, and one man in particular.

"I'll never forget the one man I helped who came down the ladder facing me, not the ladder," Jesus Pesqueira said. "He had a rosary in his hand and was praying as he came down the ladder."

All the memories from that night were brought up during the interview for the documentary, leaving Jesus Pesqueira emotional but happy to see that what he and his fellow firefighters did that night will go down in history in his brother's documentary, he said.

"One good thing that came out of that night was that the city reviewed many safety and fire codes," Jesus Pesqueira said. "It's a shame that it took something like this to get more strict regulations, but we learned."

Jesus Pesqueira was the last firefighter to leave the Tucson Fire Department who had worked the night of the hotel fire, he said.

The fire took the lives of 29 people. Four died in the street; seven were burned to death; 17 died of carbon-monoxide poisoning; and one died nine months later from injuries received during the fire.

Among the dead were prominent businessman Harold Steinfeld, whose family built the hotel in 1929; and his wife, Margaret.

Also killed were the wife and five children of the Sonoran state police chief, Francisco Luken, and many visitors from Mexico.

In terms of loss of life, the fire was the worst in the history of Tucson, Pesqueira said.

The idea for the name of the documentary came from the remains of the sign on top of the hotel. The sign that read "Hotel Pioneer" had only the letters "Hot Pion" lit during the fire, Pesqueira said.

The documentary will be available to schools and fire departments for educational use after the premiere, Pesqueira said.

The man charged with starting the fire, Louis Cuen Taylor, 56, is serving a life sentence at the Arizona Department of Corrections on 28 counts of first-degree murder. Taylor was 16 at the time of the fire.

Taylor had numerous hearings after his conviction and has maintained his innocence, never admitting to starting the fire, said Katie Puzauskas, a lawyer with the Arizona Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that represents inmates with claims of wrongful conviction.

Attorneys with the project are working with Taylor to have his case reviewed for an appeal in the near future, Puzauskas said.

 

Pioneer Hotel and arrest

• 1929: The hotel opens and weathers the stock-market crash to become the center of downtown life.

• 1970: Fire kills 28 men, women and children and fatally injures a 29th person.

• 1972: A jury finds Louis C. Taylor guilty of 28 counts of first-degree murder and arson. He launches a series of appeals.

• 1974: The remodeled hotel closes and is later rebuilt as office space.

• 1982: An appeals court overturns Taylor's convictions, saying his statements to police should not have been admitted as evidence.

• 1983: The U.S. Supreme Court reinstates the convictions.

• 2003: A "60 Minutes" TV report questions whether police arrested the right person.

• 2006: The Arizona Justice Project prepares a court petition seeking to re-examine whether the fire resulted from arson.

• 2010: The Arizona Justice Project continues to represent Taylor on an upcoming appeal as Taylor completes almost 40 years in prison.

Did you Know

The Pioneer Hotel was said to be fireproof when it was built in 1929, so no fire-suppression equipment was installed. When a fire started on the fourth floor in December 1970 and went to the 11th, the Fire Department's ladders weren't tall enough to reach the higher floors. Some guests threw mattresses to the street to try to break their fall.

Source: Star news archives

IF YOU GO:

• What: Free premiere of "Hot Pion: The Pioneer Fire Documentary"

• When: Sunday, Dec. 19 at 6:30 p.m.

• Where: The Fox Theatre, 17 W. Congress St.

Contact reporter Fernanda Echavarri at 573-4224 or fechavarri@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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