Grandchildren of Cocoanut Grove victims start charity for burn victims

November 29 1942 / fromthearchive / Globe file photo / Firemen stream water into the Cocoanut Grove Lounge through the windows. Although the windows were wide and not more that four feet above the sidewalk level, they were made of "brick glass" 3 inches thick. Each individual pane of this glass was set in cement. The effect of this construction was that the windows, which might have been avenues of escape, became part of the trap. Firemen had to use axes to break these windows so that they had access to the interior.
Firefighters sprayed water into the club after smashing through the thick glass windows the night of the tragic fire.
The Boston Globe

It was Nov. 28, 1942. Thomas and Catherine O’Neil had just gone to the Boston College-Holy Cross football game and were at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub for dinner and dancing.

The O’Neils shared a meal with Thomas’s younger sister, Isabelle O’Neil, and her date, William O’Connor, and were ready to head home. Isabelle went to use the restroom, while the others paid the bill and got the coats.

“Shortly thereafter, the fire came up the stairs from the Melody Lounge and the smoke pushed them back away from the only doorway that was available to them at the time,” said Christopher O’Neil, grandson of Thomas, a 48-year-old Registry of Motor Vehicles inspector, and Catherine, 43, of New Bedford.

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O’Neil’s grandparents and great-aunt Isabelle were three of the 492 people killed in Boston’s deadliest fire to date. Isabelle, 35, worked at B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River. O’Connor, 35, a doctor, fell to the floor when the smoke filled the club, but was able to escape.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the tragedy, the O’Neil grandchildren are announcing a foundation named in honor of Thomas H. and Catherine D. O’Neil to benefit pediatric burn victims and their families, O’Neil said.

“We started it as our own means of giving back on their behalf,” he said. “We thought it was important to do something, even though it’s been 70 years. All of the victims need to be memorialized in some way and this is our response to that need.”

The charity has been in the works since February, but the founders are still waiting for approval from the IRS, he said.

The O’Neil family will announce the foundation at a private reception at the Country Club of New Bedford from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, he said.

O’Neil and his brother, Mark, are vice president and president of the Tomlinson & O’Neil Insurance Agency in New Bedford.

The brothers plan to give funds from the foundation to Shriners Hospital for Children, the Sumner Redstone Burn Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, and other burn trauma centers, O’Neil said.

Christopher O’Neil said that Wednesday’s reception will serve as an opportunity to recognize the work of the Cocoanut Grove Coalition, a collaboration among the Boston Fire Department, Boston Fire Historical Society, Boston Fire Museum, Boston Public Library, City of Boston Archives, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the National Fire Protection Association.

O’Neil hopes to call attention to the coalition’s website, cocoanutgrovefire.org, which contains theories, photographs, videos, and witness statements about the catastrophic blaze.

“It’s incredible the amount of work that people are putting into the portal,” he said. “It’s giving family members throughout the country and throughout the world that have some connection to the fire a means of getting information about it.”

O’Neil and his siblings had searched for information about their grandparents and great-aunt for years and finally got some answers from transcripts that were posted online. (O’Connor’s account of the fire can be seen in volume 2 of Boston police interviews recently posted by the Boston Public Library on the Internet.)

“All of the siblings were kind of in the dark as far as the details of that night,” he said. “We actually found out what happened to our grandparents that night through the use of the portal.”

Witnesses, survivors, and loved ones are still bringing forth information and artifacts from that night in 1942, O’Neil said.

“There’s so little information because of the lack of communication back in the ’40s,” he said.

But he hopes the online portal will provide a platform for people to continue the discussion and share their personal stories about how the fire changed their lives.

O’Neil’s father, Andrew, was 17 when his parents died. He and his two younger sisters were all separated after the blaze, Christopher O’Neil said.

Remembering the tragedy can highlight positive outcomes of the fire, including stricter egress regulations, emergency lighting and capacity laws, and medical advances, he said.

“I think that the anniversary just brings it a little bit closer every year,” O’Neil said. “I think it’s important that people remember that a lot of good came out the fire.”