Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 26, 1990
A fearful wait in line for families and friends
Sidebar to the Happy Land fire story

NEW YORK - On a table covered with photos of the dead, Kelly Mena saw a snapshot of his older brother. There was no mistake. The body in the photograph was wearing his brother's black leather coat. Mena's head began to spin.

"I thought I was going to pass out," said Mena, 27. "I couldn't take it. I had to leave the room. I wanted to break down the walls. The cops wanted me to sign something, but I told them to get out of the way."

Until then, Mena had not known whether his older brother, Rene, was one of the victims of the devastating fire that killed 87 people at the Happy Land Social Club. But he had the sickening feeling that he was.

"He didn't come home last night," he said. "His wife called me this morning."

So Mena waited yesterday morning in a line of people to identify the victims. Most, like Mena, were Honduran-Americans. The line moved slowly into a school, where medical examiners had covered a table with photographs of victims.

"It's a long table, and they have a whole lot of pictures," Mena said. "You've got to look through them one by one. . . . There were friends of mine. I seen girls I knew in those pictures. It was a shock."

He stood outside the school as acquaintances offered their condolences. Nearby, women shrieked as they, too, learned they had lost loved ones. But Mena was contained. He spoke in measured tones. A single tear rolled down his cheek.

"I just don't want no one to look at me," said Mena, who presses clothing in a laundry. "I'm upset right now."

His brother was 30 years old. He was the superintendent of an apartment building and worked nights for the New York City Transit Authority, scrubbing subway cars. He had a wife and three children.

"I lost my oldest son," said Rene Mena Sr., 60. "I've got nine. He was the only one born in Honduras."

Mena immigrated to the United States from Trujillo, where he worked as a maintenance man on a golf course built for Americans who owned Honduran banana plantations.

"I came here to have a good opportunity," he said. He found a Bronx apartment and a job servicing vending machines. He instilled his children with a work ethic.

"My brother worked two jobs," said Kelly Mena. He also had ambition to become a Pentecostal minister. "He didn't have any problems with anybody."

A few minutes later, a high wail pierced the air. "That's my mother," said Mena, rushing off. Frances Mena had just been informed that she had lost her son. Kelly Mena and his family embraced her trembling shoulders and hustled her away from the television cameras.

Later, Kelly Mena returned to record in his memory the horrible sight of the club, the burned building front where the flames had curled up from the front doors and charred the sign with the yellow happy face between Happy and Land.

"I don't think I'll go around to that area again," he said. "It's too sad." home page   
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