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Night of hell recalled
Cocoanut Grove fire that killed 492 was 50 years ago today
By Tom Coakley, Globe Staff, 11/28/1992
Then, exhausted, he took the MTA home to a three-decker on Forbes Street in Jamaica Plain. He ate breakfast and told his wife, Lillian, of the tragedy. He got up from the kitchen table and went into the living room.
There, he broke down and cried.
It was nearly 40 years before Doogan could bring himself to talk about the tragedy in any detail, about how he was one of the first police officers to report that there was a fire "on Broadway near the Grove" in what is now Bay Village.
In January 1982, at his son Jim's house in Walpole, he spoke into a tape recorder for an hour, the memories piling up just as the bodies did that night in 1942. Even then, his voice cracked in a sob as he told his tale of the nightclub fire that killed 492 people 50 years ago today.
"You wonder how something like that, 40 years ago, can affect you now, but it does," Doogan said, according to a transcript of the tape made available this week by his son.
"Well look what I've lost: Pete, Jim, Johnny, Ma, Catherine and Pa, all young, and nothing bothered me. Yet this thing here, every time I think about it, it bothers me. I could cry again now."
Last year, Doogan, on the force seven years when the Cocoanut Grove fire exploded, died at the age of 82. But the tape and its transcript survive him as one man's history of a tragedy that shocked the world in its enormity.
On the tape, Doogan recalled that he was sitting in patrol car "4-O" on Columbus Avenue near Braddock Park shortly after 10 p.m. Nov. 28, 1942, waiting for his partner, John Decker, to emerge from a drugstore with a pack of cigarettes, when a call came in: There was a car on fire in the Park Square area.
When his partner returned, they headed up Columbus Avenue until Doogan noticed a young sailor running frantically down the street, scaring people.
"I jumped out of the car and headed toward him," Doogan related. "He was hollering for help and screaming, and as he ran to me I could see there was smoke coming out of his clothes.
"When I looked closer I could see some of the skin hanging off his fingers and I could see skin hanging off the inside of his thighs. I lost all track of everything around me. My only thought was to get this kid to City Hospital."
Doogan said he put the sailor in the back seat and as the patrol car sped off, asked him, "What the hell is going on?" The sailor told him there was a fire at a club around the corner and Doogan radioed word to the police dispatcher.
Four days later -- days filled with the enormous task of helping to identify the dead -- Doogan would be reprimanded by a captain because he had not filed a report on the car fire call -- an important beginning for police trying to reconstruct the events that set off the days of anguish.
On the tape, Doogan recalled how he and Decker brought the first fire victim to Boston City Hospital, where Dr. Crawford Adams, seeing the sailor and hearing the story, ordered emergency room nurses to prepare for a disaster.
"By that time we could hear more sirens coming and the reserve workers started bringing in the victims," Doogan said. "They brought them in faster than you could imagine. This might seem strange to people that don't want to believe it, but newspaper trucks, dump trucks, taxi cabs . . . any kind of conveyance was used to transport these victims.
"I even saw a dump truck come into the hospital with the tail board down and four or five victims on the back. They were treated as nicely, as humanely as possible, but conditions were rough."
Doogan and others helped carry in the dead and injured as doctors checked the victims. The dead went to the morgue; the injured to waiting operating rooms. Soon, the bodies had to be laid on the floor.
"Space was so precious we had to stack them up against the wall and drop a sheet over them," said Doogan. "That would save the doctors from seeing the same victim twice."
Some who came to the hospital seemed to be unhurt, but they died because heat from the fire had seared their lungs.
"I distinctly remember having one of them ask for water and by the time I could go and get some and bring it back she had gone into unconsciousness. That was the end of her," Doogan remembered.
As night moved to morning, the scene worsened. "Bodies were piled on the floors and many of them were outside," Doogan said. "Honest to God, they looked like some of the wood I see stacked here near the fireplace."
At one point, Doogan accompanied Adams, the doctor, to a garage on Piedmont Street where a makeshift triage area and morgue had been set up.
"Everywhere you looked there was nothing but screaming and hollering from men and women," said Doogan. "I was to stand by the door with the doctor and every time someone came we'd lay them on the floor."
Through the night and into the morning, Doogan stayed with Adams, who was designated an acting medical examiner. In the following days, the young officer worked morgue duty.
"Usually, family members came in to look at the victims," said Doogan. "People trying to make an identification had to go through and perhaps just see many victims before they found the person whom they sought.
"Not only that, they had to sit in waiting rooms and wait outside in the street for hours for their chance to search. It reminds me of those big sales at Filene's Basement when people stand out on the cold sidewalk.
"It didn't make any difference who you were. You had to wait."
Some visions seared themselves into his memory: a sailor searching among the shrouded bodies for his brother; the woman from Wellesley College identifying students burned beyond recognition by reading the names on their underwear; a doctor quietly searching amid the corpses for his daughter, lifting one sheet and saying simply, "That's my Mary."
Doogan, the father and grandfather of Boston police officers, served 30 more years on the force before retiring in 1973 -- a tenure marked by service at other tragedies, including a plane crash at Logan Airport.
But the Cocoanut Grove fire always stood out in his life.
"I think, honest to God, no matter what kind of disaster they say was around, you'd have to go maybe 50 or 100 years before anything could equal the disaster of the Cocoanut Grove fire," said Doogan.
"I will always remember Dr. Adams, the bodies piled like bags, the morgue, the chaos and the sadness."
This story ran on page 13 of the Boston Globe on 11/28/1992.