It was an exciting evening at the Pioneer Hotel on December 20, 1970. Hughes Aircraft, now Raytheon, held their annual Holiday Party in what was one of Arizona’s premier hotels–hundreds of people were in attendance. Winter visitors from all over the US and Sonora were either snuggled up in bed or enjoying the holiday festivities. Harold and Margaret Steinfeld, of Steinfeld’s Department Store fame, had retired for the night to their penthouse suite. Just after midnight, a fire started on the fourth floor of the building, creeping closer to the stairways.
The Pioneer Hotel was built in 1929 by the Steinfeld family and was located at 100 N Stone Avenue in downtown Tucson. A grand Spanish Colonial Revival style building, the hotel catered to Tucson’s elite and was a popular choice for well-connected Sonoran visitors. People flocked to the hotel for its amenities, including, ironically, the claim that it was fireproof. The hotel served high-profile guests for more than 40 years, while the city around it began to change rapidly.
Class and racial tensions were simmering in Tucson in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Urban renewal and blight removal, broken promises of reform, and economic shifts prompted unrest in Tucson. Tensions between people of color and police were at an all-time high. Since its construction, the Pioneer Hotel represented a kind of border between the East and West sides of town, between the haves and the have-nots, and ultimately between Tucson’s Anglo and Mexican populations. As downtown declined economically, the Pioneer and the blocks around it illustrated the differences of an increasingly fraught town.
The fire spread quickly up stairways and toward the eleventh floor. Panicked guests and partygoers flooded the streets. People trapped on the higher floors jumped from the building, to the horror of on-lookers. When fire and medical teams arrived, it was too late. The top floor of the Pioneer was out of the reach of firefighters. At the end of the night, 28 people had been killed, including the Steinfelds, and the wife and children of Sonoran Police Chief Franciso Luken. Firefighters were seen sobbing and many needed treatment for physical and psychological wounds. Police arrested 16-year-old Louis Taylor. Taylor, a Tucsonan of mixed Black and Mexican ancestry, maintained his innocence. An all-white jury found him guilty, and he was given 28 consecutive life sentences. For the next 40 years, Tucsonans, experts in criminology and arson, and historians argued about whether or not the sentence was correct, how the fire happened, and the social context. Advances in arson investigation and the efforts of the Arizona Justice Project prompted a reinvestigation of the case. Taylor was released in 2013 after serving 42 years.
The Pioneer Hotel fire remains one of the deadliest in Arizona’s history and continues to prompt local and national conversations about racial justice. Fifty years after the fire, we remember and reflect on the continued emotional impact of the Pioneer Hotel Fire, the lives lost, and how tragic events have lasting effects on our communities we live in today.
Arizona History Museum, Tucson