Natural Disasters The Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston Part 2

About the Cocoanut Grove fire in Bostin in 1942, history and account of the tragedy, death, and destruction.

NATURAL AND MAN-MADE DISASTERS

THE COCOANUT GROVE FIRE

None of the nine exit doors was lighted, and one was bolted. Windows had been boarded up to prevent light from escaping during the war-time blackout. Then the electricity went off. A better firetrap couldn't have been designed. More than half of the people died of asphyxiation. The "leather" walls didn't burst into flame; they smoldered, emitting toxic black smoke.

Ambulances from 22 hospitals, doctors, and 500 Red Cross workers rushed to the scene, as did taxicabs, newspaper trucks, and other commercial vehicles. All were overworked transferring the dead and injured to mortuaries and hospitals. The fire was extinguished within an hour of the first alarm, but in order to get everyone out, martial law had to be declared, enforced by police, soldiers, sailors, and coastguardsmen.

It was six in the morning before the last body was removed, and days before the death list was completed. There is no record of those who got out safely and went home. Of those who were caught in the club, only a hundred escaped the gruesome fire unscathed. A few found their way to the walk-in icebox off the kitchen. Others, small in stature, broke windows in the basement and inched their way to safety. Still others felt their way through pitch-blackness to the roof, then leaped to the tops of parked cars.

Journalist Martin Sheridan later recalled: "... We had just been served with an oyster cocktail when, above the babble ...someone at the end of our table screamed, 'Fire!' Then I heard the loud crackling of flames consuming the tropical decorations...the lights went out for me and...the roof caved in..."

Aftermath: When it was all over, almost unbelievably, there were those who had much to be thankful for. The Boston College football team, unmercifully trounced by Holy Cross 55-12, had been too embarrassed to go through with their planned victory party at the Grove. Their embarrassment saved their lives. Others were saved by transfusions of blood plasma for shock, not a common practice at the time. The wonder drug penicillin, not yet on the market, was credited with the recovery of many patients with third-degree burns. All nightclubs in Boston were closed until they could be inspected and approved by the Building Commission. A cabaret ordinance was added to the Fire Prevention Ordinance by the National Board of Fire Underwriters. City officials and the managers of the Grove were indicted, but only the Grove's owner, Barnet Wilansky, was given a prison sentence. He died of cancer after serving three years.

After the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago in 1903, it was common belief that never again could such a disaster happen. New building and safety laws would prevent it. But between 1903 and 1942, that tragedy was forgotten. Politics again took over the leading role in business for profit. In the Cocoanut Grove, much of the electrical wiring had been done without a permit. Barboy Tomaszewski was a minor working illegally in a business that dispensed alcoholic beverages. The Grove carried no liability insurance. The periodic fire-prevention inspections consisted of little more than a cursory glance around the premises. Such irresponsible practices are too often the foundation for man-made disasters.

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