Survivors, firefighters remember deadly Pioneer Hotel fire four decades later

Survivors, family members and firefighters remembers the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It’s been 49 years since the greatest human tragedy in modern Tucson history.

The Pioneer Hotel fire took 29 lives and forever changed many more on Dec. 20, 1970.

For the past four years, retired firefighter Frank Tamayo and Paul D’Hedouville placed a wreath with 29 white roses at the front entrance of the hotel in remembrance of those who died.

Tamayo fought the blaze. D’Hedouville’s father died in the fire.

This year, the memorial wreath sits unadorned, missing its usual 29 roses.

"On a shoestring budget," Tamayo said. "One can only do so much."

The Pioneer Hotel fire was a wake-up call to city officials, bringing light to the lack of preventative measures in the building like ceiling sprinklers and fire retardant carpeting.

It was also a wake up call for the department, too. At the time, the department’s tallest ladder could only reach the eighth floor of the 10-story building.

“I don’t think any of us want to remember those horrible, horrible times,” 82-year-old Tamayo said.

But, as the years have passed, Tamayo said remembering the fire is cathartic to him.

“I feel better,” he says. “Nobody even knew about (post-traumatic stress disorder) at that time but I’m sure we all had it.”

He still remembers that day vividly.

As a tillerman for the fire department, he went up and down the ladder on the Pioneer annex leading people to safety. He saved several people that day, including a 3-year-old girl.

“Normally, a 3-year-old won’t go with a stranger,” he said. “But this little girl came right with me, put her little arms around my neck and hung on.”

In the confusion of the night, no one took down names and he eventually lost track of her.

"For so many years, I wondered what ever happened to that little girl," he said.

Little did he know that would change more than four decades later.

D’hedouville has been working with an investigator in Mexico to track down survivors and family members of the deceased for an upcoming book on the fire. All these years later, he managed to find the little girl, now a mother of four daughters, in Hermosillo, Mexico.

Fernanda Soto, the young girl who survived the fire, lost two brothers in the tragedy. Years later, she still feels the pain of her losses.

At first, she didn’t want to talk.

“They didn’t want to have anything to do with me,” he said. “Because of the memories of the Pioneer Hotel fire.”

Slowly, the family warmed up to the idea and Tamayo met with Soto at a hotel.

"We hugged and embraced for quite a while," Tamayo said. "Just glad to see each other."

“It was a very emotional reunion.”

Tamayo said he hopes his story will allow others to come forward with their experiences of the fire.

D’hedouville said he hopes stories like Tamayo’s and his book will inspire a memorial at Jacome Plaza, the downtown community park across the street from The Pioneer Hotel.

Correction: Soto lost two brothers in the Pioneer Hotel fire. A previous version of this story stated she also lost a grandfather in the blaze. Her grandfather did not die in the fire.

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