- Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy and Its Aftermath
- Publisher: Da Capo Press
- Year: 2005
- Pages: 288
Standard social studies fare for most high school students is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which horrifically and succinctly summarizes the excesses of the industrial age that eventually led to novels like The Jungle and the creation of institutions of governmental oversight. For those who don’t know or have forgotten the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, it was an blouse-making factory on the 8th-10th floors of a building in New York which succumbed to an industrial fire; 146 garment workers were killed, in large part because the exit doors were locked (to prevent theft and indigence, most likely) and the building was not set up in such a way as to allow easy egress.
The result of the fire, however, was a movement to regulate fire safety in new buildings (as well as further unionization). It was in this well-intentioned environment of fire safety that Fire in the Grove begins.
I’d been completely ignorant of the Cocoanut Grove fire, which surprises me, considering that it’s one of the worst fires in American history in terms of mortality12: as many as 492 people died as a result of the fire3. Once I heard about it, I did a search for books about it and came across John Esposito’s Fire in the Grove, which is one of the most recent treatments of the issue; the seminal works are Paul Benzaquin’s Holocaust! (1959) and Edward Keyes’ Cocoanut Grove, which vary in some narrative details. What I think Esposito’s book adds is a lot more context: the fire itself is a merely a locus; the book covers a number of subjects which are connected, tangentially, to the fire itself.
Esposito opens a week before the terrible conflagration: it is 1942, and the country is embroiled in World War II. The city of Boston participated in an emergency air raid / disaster drill, an act of enormous prescience when you consider how emergency forces would need to be mobilized when the Cocoanut Grove night club went up in smoke shortly thereafter. Similarly, as Esposito foreshadows, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital had recently theorized a new method for treating burns: with sterile, Vaseline-soaked gauze, rather than constant debridement and irrigation.
Though Esposito begins by giving us a taste of the horror to come—the desperate man attempting to push himself through a small hole in the building wall, burning to death even as firefighters spray him with a hose through the small aperture—his first real narrative function is to introduce the cast of characters. I have not read any of the other treatments of the Cocoanut Grove fire, so I can’t compare their strategies, but I was immediately impressed by Esposito’s holistic take on things: the fire is interesting, and so is the science behind it, but the cause of the conflagration included a lot of other things as well, limited but not included to owner Barney Welansky’s purported connections with Mayor Tobin and other various and sundry members of the city of Boston’s regulatory organs. By 1942, the popular nightclub hadn’t been suitably inspected for fire safety in a number of years, was operating at many times its real safe capacity (initially rated for less than 500, it had well over 1000 that night), did not have fusible doors and other mandated fire safety items, and in fact had locked or otherwise blocked most of the exits…. allegedly in order to prevent less savory clientele from sneaking out without paying.
By all accounts, the fire seemed to start when 16-year-old Stanley Tomaszewski, a busboy, was attempting to screw a low-watt bulb back into place (undone by a randy soldier who wanted to neck with his date) in the Melody Lounge, a dim, low-ceilinged, cloth-festooned room in the basement of the Grove; whether it was the match young Stanley lit to better see, or an electrical malfunction from the bulb/socket4, but there was a soon a small fire, which for a few seconds stayed a curiosity to the well-boozed loungers. It was here that everything suddenly went to hell.
Quickly spreading up the fronds of the fake palm tree in which it had started, the fire race up the walls and ceiling with a præternatural speed, eating ravenously at the draped cloth which served as the Melody Lounge’s decoration. In less than a minute, the cramped lounge was filled with flames, toxic smoke from the burning cloth, and superheated air; it all happened so fast that many patrons sitting at tables died where they sat, too surprised or slow-moving to avoid asphyxiation or death from the superheated (air can quickly heat to 800° or 900°F. Having quickly exhausted the oxygen in the lower level, the conflagration roared up the single stairway, leveling people as it went.
The rest is academic: the upper level fared little better than the lower, though perhaps for different reasons. A panic quickly set it, and the mad rush for the door quickly stymied the evacuation, as the forward push prevented the revolving door from working, as well as the successful operation of the inward-swinging side door. Some enterprising or lucky customers managed to find their way to hidden exits or safe-havens (such as the walk-in fridge); many simply fell down and died, or were trampled. Wives watched their husbands fall down dead or disappear in the smoke; soldiers who had escaped went diving back into the inferno in search of their dates5; some of those who fell and were covered with bodies actually survived thanks to being insulated from much of the superheated air and toxic smoke.
The fire itself lasted just a few minutes, but the mad rush to triage the dead and wounded, and treat the treatable, was a more complicated process. By this point, we’re only about halfway through Esposito’s book; the latter half is given over to the ensuing legal circus, which I think is as important a story as the fire itself. The public, after all, was thirsty for somebody’s blood; the clear choice was Barney Welansky, who, despite being in the hospital when the incident occurred, was seen as the corner-cutting bogeyman whose gross negligence led to the fire. Boston’s prosecuting attorney harrumphed and fist-pounded and generally made a spectacle (in general accordance with the will of the public), and to make a long story short, Barney was found guilty and sentenced to jail. A few years later, diagnosed with terminal cancer, he was released on humanitarian grounds and died shortly thereafter in general ignominy.
Out of this terrible story, what important data can we take away? The Cocoanut Grove fire marked a number of important occasions; it provided the first large-scale test of the newly-minted theory for burn treatment which is the basis for our modern treatment of burns (and without which the death toll would have doubtlessly been higher); it led to more stringent fire safety laws (more on this later); it marked one of the the first wide-scale use of penicillin, and the inaugural use of the area’s new blood bank. Dr Eric Lindemann’s study of the survivors yielded a landmark paper on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which essentially launched dedicated study of the phenomenon. Did the Cocoanut Grove Fire actually improve fire safety? Perhaps briefly, but like most responses to terrible events, we are vigilant for a while, and eventually relax when nothing bad happens. Esposito ends the book with the story of Great White (1980s rock band) playing at The Station club in West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003. Some pyrotechnics set sound insulation ablaze and created a flash fire which kill 100 people and injured hundreds more. Esposito’s point, I suppose, is that we’re never so vigilant that these terrible things cannot happen.
Fire in the Grove is a good book for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s an excellent document chronicling an important (albeit horrifying) event in American history. But I appreciate Esposito’s depth of research, as well; he includes a lot of good material about the dynamics of fire, the treatment of burns, and all the contextual information that gives dimension to the story. Instead of a rote recitation of a death count, Esposito has created a compelling book that seeks to excite, explain, and condemn, and I think he succeeds admirably.
- As distinct from economic damage.[↩]
- The only worse fire in terms of mortality was the 1903 Iroquois Theatre Fire in Chicago, with 602 deaths[↩]
- Oddly enough, the official death tally varies from source to source, I suppose depending on how you attribute a death to the fire itself.[↩]
- It should be no surprise that the Grove’s wiring would also not met regulatory standards[↩]
- Clifford Johnson, a coast-guardsman, did just this in search of a date who had already escaped. Eventually, he received 3rd-degree burns on more than 50% of his body. A true miracle, he managed to recover over an excruciating 10 months. But before you think this is a happy story, Esposito reminds us that Clifford would burn to death in a car wreck a few years later.[↩]