[9 May 2006]
“The flames at the Cocoanut Grove and the flames of corruption charring Boston were one and the same.”
On 28 November 1942, tragedy struck the city of Boston. In a basement room at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, a stray match ignited a decorative palm tree. In the firetrap of an establishment, flames spread quickly. Hundreds of the club’s patrons quickly became disoriented from the smoke and were unable to seek nearby exits—most of which were blocked. A number of these patrons died in the club that night, and a good many more followed at hospitals later.
The events at the Cocoanut Grove were nothing short of a mass disaster, turning Boston and its inhabitants upside down for months. Couples were separated and friends lost each other in the flames; it took days to sort out who had fallen victim to the fire and who had made it out safely. Some of those lost were never identified. Without doubt, witnesses to this fateful occurrence would never forget the images of the flames, the smell of flesh burning, or the sounds of the victims’ screams.
As John Esposito notes in his exploration of the tragedy, Fire in the Grove, by coincidence, the hospitals of Boston at this time had been preparing for the mass treatment of major burns. Prior to 1942, little was known about the treatment of burns. The US role in WWII, however, predicated advances in treatment as mass burn casualties were anticipated in Europe. After the Cocoanut Grove fire, the Boston hospitals had risen to the cutting edge of burn treatments. The new methods developed there would prove instrumental in saving many lives over the years following.
Esposito blends the events of the fire and the advances in burns treatment remarkably well. He deftly weaves in, too, the scandalous aftermath of the event when the blame game began. Nary a single Boston politician escaped the initial finger pointing, but most managed to eventually slither out of justice’s grasp. Nonetheless, one of the outcomes of the fire was corruption in Boston’s political machine had been split wide open. Esposito does not spare us the details or the mudslinging that ensued.
Esposito is at his best when exploring the sociological implications of this moment in Boston’s history. The author fearlessly searches for a deeper explanation of what went wrong to cause the tragedy, rather than just simply presenting a narrative retelling of events. “A crowd in panic has no sense,” he notes, at one point. “Of course, not every assemblage degenerates in chaos… what was added to the mix at the Grove was a universal fixation, the generally perceived fear of the fire and the smoke, compounded by the fear that there was no escape.”
The contemporary implications of the 60 year old tragedy do not escape Esposito either. Given natural disasters and not-so-natural terrorist attacks in America’s very recent history, the discussion of emergency preparedness provided by Esposito is timely. Unmistakably, emergencies and disasters have sprinted to the forefront of the public conscious as empirical research demonstrates what we all already guessed: that 11 September has significantly increased fear among citizens. And as Esposito explains, a fearful crowd is far more dangerous and deadly than a calm one. With the country in such a heightened level of terrorist threat, our best defense in times of crisis is clearly an educated populace: one that can defend itself, and is prepared and capable of handling unexpected fallout from any disaster.
Esposito attempts some of that education by offering the reader with advice for preventing this tragedy from recurring—or at least recurring again, as lethal nightclub fires have occurred in several locals since the Grove, the most noteworthy being the Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003. Some of his tips for avoiding being caught in a burning public building include looking for exits upon entering a public space and reacting immediately if a fire alarm sounds the smell of smoke becomes noticeable. Clearly, as with any emergency, it is best to have an advance plan. Esposito suggests such a thing is likely to decrease individual panic and thus increase one’s chances for escaping unscathed.
The moral lessons of the Cocoanut Grove tragedy and its aftermath are legion, for what really caused the number of deaths is not attributable only to fire, but also to the greed of the owner of the Grove, Barney Welansky. Attorney General Robert Bushnell puts it quite succinctly during the sensational sentencing hearing in April 1943. Court records depicted him shouting at “full voice.” “The Grove”, he said, “was diabolically designed to lure people into blind alleys, blocked passageways, with doors locked… just so that the click of the cash register could be heard.” Esposito’s message does not miss its mark. Let this not happen again, we can hear him saying, but if it does, be prepared.