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The Cocoanut Grove, Nov. 28, 1942
A Boston Globe Editorial, 11/28/1992
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Boston's Cocoanut Grove inferno. Like the superheated smoke that filled the swanky nightspot shortly after 10 p.m. on Nov. 28, 1942, the story of the Cocoanut Grove retains its power not only for survivors and on-the-scene rescuers but for those whose job it is to protect and preserve public safety.
The toxic fumes and flames at the Cocoanut Grove claimed 492 lives. The unthinkable death toll was attributed in large part to locked exit doors, overcrowding and naked panic.
We have learned much from the horror and heroism of that night. Modern building and fire safety codes, effective treatment for skin and pulmonary burns and improvements in disaster planning have emerged from the rubble of the Cocoanut Grove.
Fifty years ago, the city's building and safety codes were neither comprehensive nor rigorously enforced. The Cocoanut Grove's New Lounge section had opened just eight days before the fire. It lacked a certificate of inspection from the city's Building Department. Charges were leveled later that the need for certificates and wiring permits could be dismissed with a wink.
In the club's Melody Lounge, where the fire started shortly after 10 p.m., patrons were relaxing among the palm fronds under the blue satin ceiling fabric. There were no laws on the books to prevent the use of inflammable materials for decorative purposes.
DOORS WERE LOCKED
Venality played a large role in the tragedy. An estimated 1,000 people had been admitted to a club authorized for 460. Panic doors had been locked to prevent the occasional patron from slipping out with an unpaid tab. According to Paul Benzaquin's powerful book, "Fire in Boston's Cocoanut Grove," a nightclub employee had even tried to block a revolving door during the early moments of the fire. "Nobody gets out of here until he pays the check."
More common were acts of bravery and self-sacrifice by patrons, employees, firefighters, passersby and medical personnel.
A Gloucester sailor, Stanley Viator, was passing by the club's Shawmut Street door when the blaze broke out. Three times he rushed inside and dragged patrons to safety. He never emerged from his fourth rescue attempt.
Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson raced into the New Lounge four times to rescue trapped patrons before he was engulfed in flames. Second- and third- degree burns covered more than 60 percent of his body. His courage and devotion were matched by doctors and nurses at Boston City Hospital who patiently and skillfully restored his life and mobility through long months of painstaking treatment.
More than 300 victims, living and dead, would arrive at the doors of Boston City Hospital within an hour of the blaze. Never before had such demands been placed on a US medical institution.
An understanding that the gravest risks in fires are often from asphyxiant gases and toxic particles rather than flames, came directly from the tragedy on Piedmont Street. The discovery of the life-saving importance of intravenous fluid resuscitation is also linked to the blaze.
Boston's reputation as a world-class medical center, it can be argued, was created in the wards of Boston City Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in the fire's aftermath.
A revolution was also taking place in the laws applying to building and fire safety. Within a year of the tragedy, laws would be enacted requiring that exits must be unobstructed and clearly marked and that doorways and windows used for egress must open outward. Inflammable decorations were outlawed in many public places.
These statutes stand as grim reminders of the need for strict legislation and enforcement.
The lessons of the Cocoanut Grove have gone unheeded by some.
On May 28, 1977, 164 employees and patrons died at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. The investigation report of the blaze is horrifyingly redolent of the events at the Cocoanut Grove: a chain and padlock found on the panic bar of an exit door; poorly marked directions to exits; unburned fatalities covered with soot indicating death by toxic dust; and the hysterical pleas of the living whose bodies were intertwined in piles with those of the dead.
More recently, 25 died in a Sept. 3, 1991, fire at the Imperial Food Products chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. The plant had been checked not even once by state safety inspectors during its 11 years of operation. Some exits had been blocked. Others were unmarked.
The need to remember is great.
At 1 p.m. today, representatives of the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, the Boston Fire Department, the Boston Department of Health and Hospitals, the Red Cross and others will dedicate a plaque at the rear of the 57 Park Plaza Hotel at Shawmut and Piedmont streets. It is intended both to memorialize the dead and honor the rescuers at the original site of the Cocoanut Grove.
Following that, in the Georgian Room of the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, a reception and panel discussion will be held for survivors and their families, public safety officials, medical personnel and members of the public.
Many have been waiting to reinforce their belief that in Boston, at least, cool logic and goodness have emerged from the searing heat and suffocating smoke of the Cocoanut Grove.
This story ran on page 10 of the Boston Globe on 11/28/1992.