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Apocalypse in Aragón: How one of Spain’s deadliest fires set two promising careers on wildly different paths

This article first appeared in Issue Forty Three of The Blizzard

Up or down?

It was a hell of a choice to make, and there was only a split second to make it. He hadn’t heard the pounding on his door, but he’d woken soon after when his slumbering senses told him something wasn’t right. The acrid smoke had seeped under the door and in through the air conditioning vents, rapidly filling his room.

Bursting into the corridor, he’d searched in vain for the emergency stairs, instead arriving at the hotel’s main staircase. The logical choice would be to go down, but thick plumes of black smoke poured from below — the stairs’ elegant carpets serving as tinder, powering the flames’ ascent.  

It would have to be up — maybe there would be an exit up there. But the second floor was arranged as confusingly as the first. The smoke grew denser and the heat unbearably intense. Reluctant to go higher, he found a room with a balcony and took refuge there. For a few brief seconds, he could finally just about breathe and feel the relative cool of the morning air on his scorched face before the intake of oxygen and the cries from the street below brought him to the realisation he had a very urgent decision to make. Although the way Real Zaragoza’s new signing, José Ramon Badiola, saw it — it wasn’t really a decision at all. He simply had to jump.  

The Hotel Corona de Aragón was, as the name suggests, the jewel in the crown of the city of Zaragoza. The region’s only five-star hotel boasted ten floors of luxury guest accommodation and lushly appointed meeting rooms; a fine dining restaurant as well as a gym with a swimming pool and sauna, a hairdresser and beauty salon. There was even a crèche facility for pets. It was the natural port of call for anyone who was anyone doing business in the capital of Aragón.

As was the case on the night of the 11th of July 1979, occupancy rates were regularly bolstered by events at the city’s General Military Academy. A passing out ceremony had brought a well-heeled crowd to town, and 190 of the hotel’s 237 rooms were occupied.

Graduating as a second lieutenant was one of General Francisco Franco’s grandsons, Cristóbal, which meant three generations of the dictator’s family were guests at the hotel. Franco’s widow, Carmen Polo, was joined by their only child, Carmen Franco, whose teenage children, Jaime and Aránzazu, had also come to Zaragoza to attend their brother’s ceremony. 

Another guest connected to the former regime was General Alfonso Armada, a staunch supporter of Franco who would go on to be one of the main protagonists of the failed military coup of 1981, for which he would be sentenced to 30 years in prison. 

Other unmistakably military names such as Colonel Rodrigo Peñalosa Esteban-Infante, Captain Ángel Hernández-Perez and the former Olympic equestrian, Lieutenant Colonel Alfonso Queipo de Llano y Acuña also featured on the guest register that night, alongside the less elaborate but nonetheless notable name of José Maria Zarraga. Zarraga had won the first five editions of the European Cup as a player with Real Madrid and was in Zaragoza in his role as sporting director of Deportivo Alavés.

Languishing in Segunda and in need of financial relief, Alavés had sent a delegation to the city to complete the transfer of two of their bright young talents to Real Zaragoza for a combined sum of 35 million pesetas (€210,000). Half of the fee had been secured early that evening as 23-year-old forward Badiola happily signed on the dotted line. 

Fresh from a season where he’d scored ten goals from the wing, Badiola was a player very much on an upward curve. Having joined Alavés from Athletic Club’s youth set-up, he had sparkled in his two seasons in Vitoria, his new club surprised that Athletic had let him go. 

Quick and comfortable on either flank, Badiola had a trademark ability to quickly deliver crosses with the outside of either foot and had attracted the attention of several first division clubs. But it was Zaragoza he saw as a club that could match his ambitions. He was delighted to seal the transfer and was looking forward to moving to the city of Zaragoza with his long-term partner, Zarraga’s daughter.

The second part of the deal was proving slightly problematic. The Argentine forward and future World Cup winner, Jorge Valdano, was involved in a minor dispute with the Alavés board and, by way of making a point, had refused to travel with the delegation as arranged. Valdano did not check in to the hotel with the rest of the party, who dined in the bustling restaurant, toasting the deal that brought fresh funds to Alavés and progressed the career of Badiola.

After a nightcap in the bar, the group retired for the night to their rooms on the first floor, unaware of the Dantesque scenes they would awake to.

The churros fryer in the hotel’s Formigal café had a history of flaring up. But as it was switched on for the breakfast service that Thursday morning, it malfunctioned and ignited with more force than ever. Four staff members attempted to tackle the fire with extinguishers, but the strength of the flames powered by some 20 litres of oil proved impossible to quell and staff abandoned the kitchen, raising the alarm to colleagues in neighbouring rooms and calling the fire brigade.

ABC reported that fire crews arrived within minutes, but the fire had already spread “with extraordinary speed,” roaring through the adjoining Piccadilly Bar, fuelled by its wooden furniture and carpeted floors. “The fire arrived quickly at the building’s main staircase, which became a chimney which spread the fire and smoke to the floors above.” The main entrance provided a source of air that further fanned the flames.

The hotel proved disastrously ill-equipped to deal with the fire. The Chief Architect of the Zaragoza Fire Service later reported that the two emergency staircases were not accessible to guests and could “only have been known to staff”. One had to be accessed through a room that had no signs of an exit on the door. The other was hidden by rooms on each floor that essentially functioned as storerooms with each door marked: ‘Privado’. 

Zaragoza police concluded that staff failed to fully initiate the hotel alarm before leaving the hotel. Neither was there a protocol in place to shut down the air conditioning system, meaning deadly smoke was efficiently distributed into rooms as guests slept.

The blaze was soon evident on the first floor, where the party from Vitoria occupied a block of rooms. The first to react was Zarraga, who provided the news agency EFE with a stunning first-person account that appeared in several of the next day’s newspapers. 

“It was about 8.30 am; I was just about to wash when I noticed a lot of smoke had come into the room along with a strong burning smell. I opened the door, and there was a fire. A huge fire. I went back in and quickly put on some clothes, then looked for an exit. I didn’t think to go to the main stairway, and that is what saved me. I ran into a waiter, and he took me through a different exit, one that led us straight to the street.”

“On the street, I noticed I had lost my shoes, but I ran in pure desperation looking for the rooms where the president and the secretary were. I screamed at them to alert them to the fire. They already knew but had been too terrified to react right away.”

Alavés president, Hipólito Lastra, and club secretary Luis María Calvo made their escape, but their thumps on the door of Badiola’s room, just as those of Zarraga’s, went unanswered. 

The scenes surrounding the hotel were apocalyptic. US Air Force helicopters scrambled from the nearby base and rescued those that had made it to the hotel’s roof terrace, depositing them safely in the nearby bull ring. Soldiers were mobilised to cordon off a nearby subterranean deposit of 150,000 litres of petrol. Several dissident groups opportunistically claimed responsibility for the fire leading to several other hotels being evacuated as a precaution.  

Some fire crews attempted to rescue those trapped on balconies by ladder; others provided life nets on which to jump. La Vanguardia recounted the horrific scene of two young parents with no alternative but to drop their young daughter from the sixth floor onto one such net. The girl did not survive the fall.

Others felt they had no option but to jump whether they had a net to aim for or not. The concierge of a nearby apartment block told reporters that he’d witnessed four different people jump to their death.

Badiola’s decision to go up a level had made his escape more complicated, but a fire crew had given him a net to aim for as he sized up his leap from the second-floor balcony. He found his target but rebounded, sustaining a severe head trauma. He went into cardiac arrest and had to be given 45 minutes of cardiopulmonary resuscitation while being rushed to hospital.

Initial news broadcasts reported Badiola amongst the dead, a conclusion Zarraga also came to upon seeing him. “They told me that the injured were at the Hospital Provincial, so I ran there — petrified. There I found him. He was unconscious, burnt and blackened. They were saying something about asphyxiation, and I thought he was dead. I ran to tell the others, and only when we returned we received the reassuring news that he was alive.”

Valdano, for his part, had driven to Zaragoza that morning unaware of the hell that was unfolding until he approached the old town. There, the circling of helicopters and the wail of sirens told him something was amiss.  He rushed to the offices of Real Zaragoza, where he was stunned to hear what had happened.  

Due to his reservation at the hotel, at one stage, Valdano’s name appeared on a list of those presumed missing. It took several frantic phone calls to reassure people in Vitoria and his family in Argentina that he was safe. His belligerence with the board had saved him.

Firefighters eventually brought the fire to a halt just before midday but not before a death toll that would reach 78. The majority died from asphyxiation; others were killed in their attempts to jump to safety. More than a hundred were injured. Badiola could only count his blessings that he was in the latter category –– but he now faced the fight to save his career.

The remains of the Hotel Corona de Aragón after the fire of 12th July 1979 , EFE/ aa

Badiola was discharged from hospital a month later. A plan was made to allow him to return to his hometown of Ondarroa for a month to make a gentle recovery with training sessions entrusted to the player’s brother-in-law, a Basque lower-league coach. Mundo Deportivo reported that the club’s medical staff were keen to give the player space and had advised him against giving any interviews: “Confronting the experience suffered in the Corona de Aragón where he nearly met his death could badly set back his recovery.” Although they had little to fear on that front as the player was not given to discussing the incident: “Badiola has refused to recall what happened that day as his subconscious attempts to forget it.” 

While his teammate recovered slowly, Valdano quickly established himself as a mainstay in the team. Indeed, he was an ever-present in that first season at Zaragoza and would rarely miss a game in his five seasons at the club.  When Badiola finally arrived in Zaragoza, he moved in with Valdano hoping a familiar face would help him acclimatise to life in the city and football in Primera. Valdano, though, could see something was not right with his friend. Badiola failed to make an appearance in that first season and began behaving erratically. 

The Badiola that Valdano knew from Vitoria was quiet and reserved. The Badiola that had –– on the surface at least –– recovered from the injuries suffered in the hotel fire displayed profound mood swings and rather bizarre behaviour. Scenes such as getting totally naked when feeling a bit hot were commonplace. On occasions, Badiola would finish training and hail a taxi, asking to be taken the 300km to Ondarroa.  

His relationship with Zarraga’s daughter soon broke off, and Badiola’s parents moved to Zaragoza to support him. But over the course of three seasons, he made only handful of substitute appearances and never started a game for the club.

By the time Valdano had moved on to Real Madrid, rapidly accumulating silverware alongside the Quinta del Buitre, Badiola had already returned to Alavés in one last attempt to revive his career.

It was all to no avail, and while his friend was tasting footballing nirvana with Argentina on the biggest stage of all — playing in every game and scoring in the final of Mexico ’86 — Badiola was back in his native Vizcaya, living in total obscurity with his physical and mental health continuing to decline.

Franco’s family escaped the fire relatively unscathed.  His widow received brief treatment for smoke inhalation before the family were whisked back to Madrid. But the list of dead and injured was littered with military, police, and establishment names.  The unique profile of the guest list that night, at a time during Spain’s transition to democracy when ETA was at its most deadly, meant that suspicion naturally fell on the Basque separatist group.  

Soon after the blaze, a local newspaper, the Heraldo de Aragón, received a call purportedly from ETA claiming responsibility, though crank calls were a common occurrence in the wake of major incidents. The same paper received another claiming to be the inoperative left-wing organisation FRAP shortly after.

At command level, ETA did not acknowledge responsibility, as was its normal course of action after attacks. After completing their investigations, both local and national authorities declared the fire a tragic accident.  

Still, several newspapers and media outlets questioned the verdict, and victims’ families initiated proceedings to reclassify the incident as a terrorist act. The decades following the fire brought process after process, report after report.  Claims of separate explosions or the apparent discovery of traces of napalm among the cinders of the hotel regularly featured in articles, documentaries, and witness testimony. 

While no action has ever been able to change the official classification, several processes went some way towards assuaging if not satisfying those who believe it was a deliberate act.

In 2000, José María Aznar’s government concluded that the victims’ families were eligible to receive compensation available to those who had suffered acts of terrorism, although without officially recognising that the fire as a terror attack. 

In 2009, Supreme Court judges agreed with the theory put forward by an expert that the fire was the work of at least three individuals who had coordinated three different detonations before making their escape.  Although the court’s jurisdiction in that ruling only went as far as to grant one of the deceased the posthumous award of the Royal Cross of Civil Recognition given to victims of terrorism.  Two years later, a Council of Ministers decreed that the same recognition be given to the rest of those who lost their lives in the fire. 

The Guardia Civil went one step further, updating their records to classify the death of retired lieutenant Angel Cabello Iruela, who perished in the fire, as a victim of ETA.

For all its appalling record, ETA expressly denies culpability for what occurred that July morning.  In 2018, the group’s internal bulletin, Zutabe, recognised 758 killings and 2,606 ‘acts’. The report expressed a note of regret over the most shocking and bloody of its attacks — the 1987 bombing of a Hipercor supermarket in Barcelona — but categorically denied: “the authorship of false attacks such as the fire at the Hotel Corona de Aragón.”  

Understandably, the fire and the circumstances around it continue in the public consciousness. News features, documentaries and commemorative events maintain its place in the news cycle, alongside calls for the investigation to be reopened.

While Valdano became part of Spanish football’s intelligentsia, equally at home in a dressing room, boardroom or TV studio, his old teammate disappeared into anonymity. Although they kept in touch — in a way.

“He’s never had a phone. So, I’ve always had to keep up with him through third parties,” Valdano told journalist Miguel Mena, who took to the trail of finding Badiola for a contribution to Cuentos a Patadas — a book commemorating Real Zaragoza’s 75th anniversary. 

Valdano spoke of the night, in his time as manager of Real Madrid, he heard a commotion in the corridor of the team hotel on the eve of a match in Bilbao. On opening the door, Valdano saw Badiola embroiled in an argument with security personnel. Badiola had popped in to see his old friend, with no notion of phoning ahead nor explaining himself to staff guarding the floor.

“When we saw each other, he was still a bit wound up, but I gave him a hug and he calmed down. I could see he was a little lost and not really with it. It was upsetting, but I consoled myself with the notion that at least he still followed football and could make a decision like coming to visit me when I was in town.”

Valdano remains convinced that the injuries and the experiences of the hotel fire had destroyed the career of a teammate he had always considered as more talented than himself.  

“He was a good guy and a great player. A unique player. I saw him do things that I’ve never seen anyone do. The way he could beat an opponent, the way he passed a ball. Badiola was special. He had a great future. But it was obvious that the fire left an irreversible impact.”  

In the coastal village Ondarroa, Mena caught up with Badiola’s mother, Manuela. Heartbreakingly, she described her son’s decline, never the same after the tragic morning in 1979. 

Badiola was a compulsive eater, drinker, and smoker — overweight and with soaringly high cholesterol levels. A world away from the lithe 23-year-old with the world at his feet that had toasted his future hours before waking up to a hellish inferno. When he wasn’t hospitalised for treatment for his conditions, he passed his days at a day centre where he would rarely converse and seldom go out for fresh air.  

His recently widowed mother had to pay for his upkeep, struggling to stretch her pension to cover the costs. The compensation promised by the government had been bogged down in red tape, and she had all but given up on receiving anything.

“I don’t know if it was the smoke, or it was the blow to the head or something else. But that day, my son became lost for the rest of his life.”

By his own admission, Valdano was a little too full of youthful brio to dwell on the fact that he’d escaped one of the deadliest disasters in modern Spanish history by dint of a minor contract disagreement. But an experience as a somewhat more sagacious 50-year-old made him appreciate his good fortune a great deal more.

One leg of a charity trip to Mexico in March 2006 involved a helicopter flight from the capital to Toluca. Four of the six passenger seats were already occupied as Valdano and a polite young Mexican man climbed aboard.  The younger man allowed Valdano the first choice of the two remaining seats and he opted for the one in the centre.  

Taking off from the roof of a 15-storey building, the overloaded helicopter immediately lost height in the thin Mexico City air. The machine crashed to the ground on the residential street below.

Valdano came round in a local hospital with several broken ribs and a collapsed lung, but remarkably no lasting damage.  Juan Manuel Agudo Mille — the courteous fellow passenger who had taken the window seat — felt the full impact of the crash and died of his injuries.

Valdano, one of Spanish football’s most cerebral figures, has a particular deftness when it comes to finding the words to capture almost every scenario. 

He may have been thinking of himself, his old friend Badiola or them both when he once opined: “Life’s story is not just made up of the things that happened, but also of all the things that didn’t.”

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