The Power of Connection and Memory: A Tale From the Dupont Plaza Hotel Fire
Late one evening in early February, I was checking LinkedIn and noticed an email from a contact I had never met or heard of, Luis Feldstein. The initial words jumped off the screen and I was hit with utter shock and disbelief. “Hi Susan, I was with your father while he was searching for your mother immediately following the Dupont Plaza Hotel Fire.”
I immediately read the email at least five more times, reeling from the emotions of patchy details I had always struggled to piece together through my father Sherman’s memories of my mother Beryl’s death in the infamous deadly fire.
“Lou” as he called himself, went on to explain that he was a former reporter for the Miami Herald and if I so desired, he would like to share letters my father had written to him over the years following their encounter as well as the article he wrote about my dad which appeared in the newspaper in January 1987. I responded within moments and shared my email address.
The famous fire 35 years ago in San Juan, Puerto Rico, took my dear mom’s life and 96 other innocent victims. There had been a labor dispute going on at the hotel and a disgruntled employee set the resort’s casino on fire to showcase his anger.
My parents had just started a long distance marriage as my mom had taken a job in New Hampshire seven months before, while my father stayed in our childhood home just north of Albany planning to work the last 5 years until retirement. To be together, they took mini vacations. Off they went on December 24, 1986, to Puerto Rico to celebrate a week in the sunny tropics.
The afternoon of New Year’s Eve, my mom decided to venture onto San Juan’s strip to the casinos; her guilty pleasure was slot machines and the occasional black jack table. My father stayed behind at their hotel until their scheduled rendezvous for a dinner that would tragically never occur.
That’s where my memories get fuzzy. Before my father passed away in 2008, he would talk about my mom in almost every conversation we ever had. But perhaps because of the sheer pain of what transpired that New Year’s Eve, I never pressed him on the exact details. All I recalled was that it took several days to confirm that she had been one of the 97 victims whose lives were cut short in that deadly fire.
Within a few days of our LinkedIn exchange, Lou sent me his full recollection of what transpired on New Year’s Day 1987, and the days that followed.
Lou was getting ready to go to a New Year’s Eve party with his girlfriend in Miami, when his Miami Herald editor called and told him to take the next plane to San Juan to cover a massive fire at the DuPont Plaza Hotel. A mile from where he had grown up, the hotel was familiar to him having attended birthdays, bar mitzvahs, and other events there throughout his childhood.
At some point during his daily coverage of the cause of the fire, the rising death toll and other “breaking news,” Lou decided to write a story about the family members who were anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones. When he struck up a conversation with my dad on the street, he felt an immediate rapport and asked whether he could follow him as he searched for his wife. Fully expecting a “no,” he was surprised when my dad extended a warm and welcoming hand instead.
According to Lou, “It wasn’t long before I learned I was in the presence of an exceptional man. The memory that is indelibly seared into my mind is the relentlessness and laser-like focus with which he searched for his beloved Beryl.”
Lou followed my dad as he paced up and down the hotel strip along Ashford Avenue for hours upon hours, peppering everyone in a uniform with questions, studying the charred hotel tower, checking and double-checking updated lists of victims and survivors, hoping against hope that he would discover any minute now that Beryl somehow had made it.
“Outwardly, he was at all times composed and thoughtful, never once hysterical or self-pitying. But the agony in his eyes was unmistakable and raw” Lou wrote to me.
A day or so later, Lou was in his hotel room, putting the finishing touches on his story about my dad’s ordeal, when he learned the devastating news: My mom’s name had just been added to the list of the deceased. He grabbed his notebook and ran out of the hotel in search of my dad, and somehow found him amid the crowds and sirens that still filled the streets.
From Lou: “We came together for a few final words. I started scribbling notes, but I put my notepad down after realizing that the look in his eyes told a story that words never could. For a moment, I felt as though he needed me to pay attention, to understand that I was the only person in the world who would ever really know what he had just been through, and that he needed me to remember. It was one of the most intimate moments I’ve ever shared with another human being to this day. I loved him for that.”
Reading Lou’s words felt raw and unnerving. The emotions that hit me were so confusing. In one way, I was reliving the most painful loss I’ve ever suffered, but at the same time, the words provided a deep sense of relief that such a caring soul was looking after my dad. It also gave me a glimmer of the magic that my father possessed even in his darkest moment.
Since my interactions with Lou, I have pondered not only how he found me, but why. I published a book last year called The Lost Art of Connecting. It centered on the notion that our connections are what powers our lives and our impact, and also featured insight into both my parents and how they raised my siblings and me. Perhaps Lou knew of the book or perhaps in cleaning out his files from years past, he wanted to use the power of connection.
As Jews, we know the vital importance of bearing witness, of reporting and sharing loss and tragedy. Our history is so intertwined with it. By sharing his recollection, Lou was carrying forward the memory of that tragedy, my father’s love and my dear late mom. I am eternally grateful to Lou for never forgetting and for reaching out to connect with me.
Susan McPherson is a serial connector, angel investor, and corporate responsibility expert. She is the founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy focused on the intersection of brands and social impact, providing storytelling, partnership creation and visibility to corporations, NGOs and social enterprises. She is the author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships. Learn more about McPherson at mcpstrategies.com.