Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cocoanut Grove: Part II

I had been planning on writing more in the previous post, but something came up. You know how that goes, right?

Anyway, to get back to the tragedy that happened 65 years ago today, we have seen the same factors cause multiple deaths in fire after fire... and we never seem to learn.
Life Safety Issues

The only access to the Melody Lounge was a narrow staircase. Once the fire started, this stairwell was jammed with people. Although there were at least two other potential exits from the lounge, they were known only to the staff members; few people were able to escape using these routes.

The revolving door on the Piedmont Street side of the Grove was the main entrance. As with all the other revolving doors of the era, the leaves were fixed in position. As panicked patrons attempted to exit through that door, their bodies jammed it, rendering it completely useless. Boston police officer Elmer Brooks recalled that when rescuers tried to pull bodies from the door, arms and legs came off in their hands. Stephanie Schorow, in her book The Cocoanut Grove Fire: New England Remembers, cites rescuers looking through the glass panels, watching victims burn before their eyes. Primarily as a result of the fire, revolving doors were redesigned with "break-away" leaves, meaning the leaves would fold out of the way under sufficient pressure.

A fire exit was located at the top of the stairs leading from the Melody Lounge, but owner Barney Welanski had locked and bolted this door to prevent people from leaving without paying their tabs. The door had been equipped with panic hardware (a so-called "crash bar"), which should have allowed the door to open. Investigators found dozens of bodies stacked up by this exit.

As I noted in the previous piece, the only usable exit from the Broadway Lounge opened into the club; the crush of fleeing customers jammed this door solid, and again, dozens of bodies were found here. Several researchers have postulated that as many as 300 additional people might have survived, had the doors opened outward -- with the flow of traffic.

A number of survivors complained of a "sweet" odor to the smoke. While the source has never been conclusively proven, many believe it may have been a product of the burning imitation leather used on the walls. Additional sources of toxic by-products included the seat covers and many of the furnishings. Burning plastics emit such toxic gases as benzene, toluene, butane, and xylene, along with the more-common toxic gases like carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and phosgene. It may have been any of these gases -- or a combination of them -- that caused the "sweet" odor.

Another aspect of the fire that has never been satisfactorily explained is why the fire spread so fast. Some researchers cite sources indicating that the Melody Lounge was completely engulfed within two minutes, and that the fire had spread from the basement to the Broadway Lounge -- the opposite end of the building -- in as little as five minutes. Such fire spread is highly unusual. Of course, the flammable decorations had much to do with it, but some witnesses also claim to have seen unusual colors in the flames and/or smoke. Again, this could be caused by the fuels feeding the blaze.

Recently, attention had turned to the refrigerant in the cooling systems at the Grove. It is claimed that methyl chloride -- a highly flammable and toxic coolant which had replaced Freon during the war -- was responsible for both the rapid spread of the fire and for many of the fatalities.

With the exception of the methyl chloride, we have seen the same factors time after time. Whether it was the Iroquois Theatre (1903), the Rhythm Club in Natchez, MS (1940), or the Station in West Warwick, RI (2003), flammable furnishings, blocked exits, and overcrowding continue to claim lives to this day.

There were also witnesses who stated the walls felt "unusually warm" the night of the fire. This may have indicated a fire smoldering within the walls. Subsequent investigation determined that at least some of the wiring in the club had been installed by an unlicensed electrician; obviously, defective wiring could have either caused the fire or contributed significantly to it.
Medical Isues

On the medical front, perhaps the most amazing story of survival was that of 20-year-old Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson. Johnson received second- and third-degree burns over approximately 75% of his body. In the 1940's, that was virtually a death sentence. Johnson, brought to Boston City Hospital, was given up for dead. Doctors administered morphine to ease his pain and moved on to victims with "better" chances. Four days later, however, Johnson was still alive, and doctors decided they had to help this tough sailor. Johnson was one of the very few survivors who did not have serious lung damage. Over six thousand tiny skin grafts were applied to Johnson's back and seemed to be holding. Unfortunately, doctors turned Johnson over too soon, and the grafts on his back failed. All told, Johnson suffered through twenty-five to thirty-five thousand "pinprick" skin grafts. He also had to deal with a kidney infection, edema, high fevers, and a codeine addiction. Johnson was finally discharged from the hospital in November... of 1945. Johnson wound up marrying one of the medical students at Boston City, and took his new bride home to Missouri with him. Johnson's miraculous story ends on a bitter note, however: in 1956, Johnson -- now working as a park warden -- rolled his jeep into a ditch. He was pinned in the overturned vehicle; leaking gasoline ignited and he burned to death.

Another notable name at the Grove that night was famous before the fire: Buck Jones, cowboy movie star. Jones, one of the famous "Rough Riders" was appearing in Boston to sell war bonds. He had also appeared at Boston Children's Hospital, where he signed autographs for thrilled fans, before attending the BC-Holy Cross game. After the fire, it was claimed that Jones had re-entered the building several times, rescuing trapped patrons. It was subsequently determined, though, that he was rapidly overcome by smoke. He was pulled from the building and died several days later. Jones' local publicist, journalist Martin Sheridan, received such severe burns on his hands that he had special cards printed up: "Not that it's any of your damned business, but my hands were burned in the Cocoanut Grove and don't ask any more questions!!" An understandable reaction, of course, but not what one would expect from a professional publicist.
In addition to proving the value of penicillin, the disaster was validation of several medical research projects being undertaken at Boston City and Mass general. Up to this time, burn victims had been painted with tannic acid to form a leathery scab, sealing the wound to reduce the chances of infection. The new protocol -- gauze impregnated with a mixture of petroleum jelly and boric acid, administered with intensive intravenous fluids -- was proven quite successful. It was also proven that treatment for shock and internal injuries was just as important -- if not more important -- than treating surface injuries.
Many victims suffered severe damage to their lungs and airways, due to the toxic chemicals inhaled during the fire. Much of the internal trauma was located below the vocal cords. Dr Stanley Levenson suspected the presence of phosgene in the smoke, a belief buttressed by Suffolk County Medical Examiner William J. Brickley: "Many of the victims had the appearance of soldiers I had seen gasses in the First World War."
So much medical knowledge was gained as a result of this tragedy that the entire June 1943 issue of The Annals of Surgery was devoted to a wide-ranging symposium discussing the injuries, fatalities, and findings of the medical professionals involved.
Enforcement Issues
A number of sources report that just a weekbefore the fire, Boston Fire Prevention Lieutenant Frank Linney, who declared the club's condition to be "good;" Linney declared the club had sufficient exits and non-flammable decorations. It became obvious, however, that Boston's building and fire inspectors in 1942 were no better than those in Chicago in 1903. In both cases (the Grove and the Iroquois), buildings that were inherently unsafe were allowed to be open to the public (which was also the case with the E2 Club in Chicaho, which experienced 23 fatalities in a 2003 crowd stampede); it was never determined whether incompetence or corruption was to blame (experience would lead me to say both).
Furthermore, a Boston police captain, James Buccigross, was in the club that night, along with Suffolk County assistant district attorney Garrett Byrne. The presence of two high-ranking public officials, in a club with such a questionable legal history, is at best suspicious. The club had originally been financed by a "Jack Berman;" Berman was actually Jack Bennett, a professional con artist and stock manipulator. A later owner of the club, Charles "King" Solomon, was described this way by Stephanie Schorow, quoting an unidentified source:
[Solomon] was at the peak of his crime renaissance, with a complete sideline of alki-cooking, morphine, heroin, cocaine and the dandruff-like little granules which produce delirious uproar. He hogged the bail-bond market, owned a large loan shark company at usurious rates, held full partnership in the white slave industry, a cut in a growing lottery racket and drivers and such like et ceteras built on human mischief."
In 1933, Solomon was murdered in the bathroom of the Cotton Club in Roxbury, another of his clubs.
Tomorrow, in Part III of this article, we'll look at what changes came out of this fire.

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