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Morning Lineup – November 29

Thursday Morning – Lessons From the Past

Mark Donovan reminded me that yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the infamous Cocoanut Grove nightclub disaster in Boston.  That tragic fire will no doubt be remembered and mentioned by name for another hundred years at least, known as one of the highest life-loss fires in American history with 492 casualties, exceeded only by a fire in the Iriquois Theater, Chicago, in 1903 that claimed 602 lives.

The Cocoanut Grove was a classic "disaster-in-waiting" with limited paths of egress compounded by a revolving door at the main entrance that jammed immediately, basement-level showrooms and highly flammable decorations throughout.  Added to the hazard was the presence of more patrons than the authorized capacity, more than twice as many according to estimates.  It will never be known how many people were in there.

In a good brief, historical description of the event, Wikipedia includes:

The club, a former speakeasy, was located at 17 Piedmont Street, which today is a parking lot in Boston's Bay Village neighborhood. Originally a garage and warehouse complex, the building had been converted to a one-and-a-half-story meandering complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges.

The club offered its patrons dining and dancing in a South Seas-like "tropical paradise" created by artificial palm trees, rattan and bamboo, heavy draperies, and swanky satin canopies suspended from the ceilings, and a roof that could be rolled back in summer for dancing under the stars. The building had acquired a reputation as being a criminal hangout, and this image was enhanced by the murder of its former owner, gangland boss and bootlegger Charles "King" Solomon, also known as "Boston Charlie".

The then current owner, Barnet "Barney" Welansky, boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin.  He was known to be a tough boss who ran a tight ship: hiring teenagers to work as busboys for low wages, and street thugs who doubled as waiters and bouncers. He locked exits, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit to prevent customers from leaving without paying.

There are many histories out there that document the tragedy, many in book form because there is a large story to be told about the event.  The outcome of the fire is still having an impact on us today because it directly led to required – and enforced – exit codes including requiring revolving doors to be easily folded to permit an unobstructed egress and be framed by standard doors that open outwards.  Other code introductions included requiring flame-resistant decorations.

A side note is that the sudden influx of hundreds of burn victims generated a rushed delivery of a new drug being developed for the military to fight infection in open wounds.  The effectiveness of penicilin was thus proven by a true test and it has been a staple of medicine since.

Mark also sent along THIS LINK to a Boston Globe article that recounts the memories of one of the fire's survivors and includes some items that fire and EMS people would pick up on.  Such as the spontaneous and very basic patient triage used by the firefighters.  Also, this survivor who was seriously burned on his face and hands had to take a taxi to the hospital because the ambulances were being reserved for the "bad" medical cases.  The times have certainly changed.  Be sure to read his story when you get a chance.

Surprisingly, I am connected tenuously to the tragedy by a handshake.  The late Howie McClennan who served for several years as the International President of the IAFF started his career as a Boston firefighter and rose through the ranks of the union to become a very popular leader.  After he retired he had season tickets to the Washington Capitals games in the same section as me and we would always say hello and exchange this-n-thats.  Howie always claimed that when he was a rookie fireman, his first working fire was the Cocoanut Grove fire.  Thats what he said, and I believed him.

We'd better make sure we can believe in our equipment for another day and get it checked out now.  It's late and I need more coffee…now.  See you back in the day room.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • mr618

    And yet, we haven’t learned. Look at the Station, for instance: ovecrowded, flammable soundproofing (rather than decoration, but still highly flammable), complicated, somewhat obstructed egress route (via the main entance, which had a hallway, etc), and no sprinklers.

    NIST did a study including computer simulations of the stucture with and without sprinklers. With sprinklers, NIST posits that everyone would have escaped. Without the sprinklers, however, NIST research determined the environment would have been completely incompatible with life in as little as 90 seconds. *90* seconds. Can you imagine being panicked, trying to crawl through an unfami;iar facility, trying to find an exit in the midst of 100 other panicked folks, in an incredibly toxic atmosphere?

    Providence Journal has extensive archives of articles relating to the fire, including their own computer simulations, again showing how minor changes — eliminating the hall, for instance — could have allowed everyone to get out safely.
    Situational awareness, folks. That’s what’s going to keep us alive. Well, that and some common sense and experience applied to building codes. Oh, and eliminating the outrageous influence of cheap-ass builders and their shoddy construction.