The Cocoanut Grove Fire

The Cocoanut Grove was one of Boston's most elegant clubs.   Located in what is now the historic Bay Village in Boston's downtown, the club was a former speakeasy that had been decorated in a tropical style with artificial palm trees, cloth draperies on the ceiling, and an overall Casablanca theme.  Equipped with restaurants, bars, an upstairs dining room and the Melody lounge on the main floor, the club  was often packed on weekends.

And so it was on November 28, 1942. While the club's official capacity was 460, there were an estimated 1000 people that Saturday night when the fire broke out.  Shortly after 10 PM, while Nightclubfire_1942 Goody Goodelle was performing on a revolving stage in the Melody lounge, a young couple had unscrewed a light bulb near their seat to give themselves more privacy.  When a bartender noticed that the light was out, he told a 16-year old busboy, Stanley Tomaszewski,  to replace it.  Tomaszewski climbed a seat and struck a match to find the empty socket and, after he had finished replacing the bulb, blew out the match.   Spectators immediately noticed flames spreading across the satin ceiling although nobody took it seriously at first.

While staff attempted to put out the fire, it quickly spread to the artificial palm trees.  Patrons laughed at seeing waiters trying to put out the fire with seltzer water but their amusement was short-lived.  The fire swept across the ceiling and up the stairwell leading to a tremendous explosion in the upstairs dining room.  One witness later said that the fire raced across the dining room floor with the speed of a 20-mile an hour wind.  Many customers found themselves on fire while  others began racing for the exits.  Unfortunately, not all of the fire exits were clearly marked and some of the doors were found to be locked. 

One revolving door became a deathtrap as it jammed while filled with people.  Although firefighters arrived quickly on the scene, the extent of the fire and rush of patrons trying to leave made firefighting next to impossible.  By the time the blaze was contained, more than 187 firefighters, 26 engine companies, five ladder companies, and a water tower would be needed.   More than 492 people died in the tragedy, the second-worst fire in U.S. history.  Only the heroic actions of the firefighters and volunteers on the scene kept the death toll from being even higher. 

Emergency departments all over Boston were strained to capacity in handling the surge of admissions.  For 75 minutes after the fire, Boston City Hospital averaged a new patient every 11 seconds. Of the first 200 patients to arrive, 150 were already dead (most from smoke inhalation).  Due to wartime conditions, the hospitals were already well-equipped with oxygen tents and IV units although doctors and nurses worked long hours to treat all the patients.  Dozens stayed in hospital for months after the blaze and the last fatality was on May 5.

Public outrage over the blaze was heightened by revelations that the club's owner, Barney Welansky, had used his Mob connections to allow him to run the club without any regard for Boston's (already lax) fire code.  Welansky was later charged with nineteen counts of manslaughter (nineteen victims were randomly selected in the charges) and sentenced to twelve years in prison.  He was pardoned after four years in prison when he was found to be dying from cancer.  In his last interview with reporters following his pardon, he stated that he wished he had died with the others.  Although Stanley Tomaszewski was also charged, he was exonerated.  Massachusetts and other states later enacted tougher fire codes to ensure better protection for public establishments and their patrons.

The Cocoanut Grove fire had another legacy however.   Dr. Erich Lindemann was a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School as well as Massachusetts General Hospital where he worked with patients dealing with acute grief following traumatic loss.  The aftermath of the fire left hundreds of survivors and grieving relatives dealing with the tragedy and provided Lindemann with an opportunity for research.  In 1944, he published a seminal paper titled, "Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief" in which he outlined what he learned from psychiatric interviews with the disaster victims.  In the paper, he reviewed the clinical features found in grief sufferers including somatic distress, preoccupation with the image of the deceased, guilt feelings, hostile reactions, and behavioural changes.  Lindemann also outlined important new principles including grief work ("emancipation from the bondage to the deceased, readjustment to the environment in which the deceased is missing, and the formation of new relationships) as well as different types of morbid grief reactions. 

Lindemann's paper laid the groundwork for modern crisis theory and the role of mental health professionals in preventative intervention following disasters.  In 1948, he founded a mental health training program at the Harvard School of Public Health based on the ideas that he explored in his groundbreaking paper.  The Wellesley Human Relations Service was a multidisciplinary research and practice community laboratory project that became a model for the comprehensive community mental health centres that became prominent during the 1960s.  Through its multidisciplinary treatment model, the Wellesley project developed liaisons with various community-based organizations, clergy, consultants, and experts in epidemiology which has since become a standard in many countries around the world.

By the time of his death in 1974, the principles that Erich Lindemann had learned from treating survivors of the Cocoanut Grove fire had been taught to a generation of grief and crisis counselors.  His ideas on morbid grief and the debilitating effect of unresolved grief are still used in dealing with survivors who have experienced devastating loss.  It seems a fitting legacy for what was otherwise a senseless and avoidable tragedy. 



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