Nightmare on Piedmont St.

27 December, 2008
Rat Fink

Years ago, I saw a special on TV — probably on PBS — about the horrifying fire that destroyed the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub in Boston on 28 November, 1942. I can’t remember the name of the TV program, but the memory of how it scared the living bejayzus out of me is still fresh, even 30-some years hence.

The tiny club, with a capacity of 600 between the restaurant and adjoining lounge, was packed that night with close to 1,000 people. Half of them met their end that very evening, in unthinkable ways.

Imagine seeing flames spreading across the ceilings, and smoke filling the small, windowless room. Panicked patrons racing all over the place, flying towards the emergency exits…only to find them all chained shut.

Imagine finally reaching the only emergency exit not chained, and finding (along with a crushing press of hundreds of other hysterical, screaming people trying to push their way out) that the doors only open inward. Towards you.

And this was how they died. According to the Boston Herald reports, when firemen finally broke through the chained emergency exits, they were greeted by a stack of crushed bodies, piled chest-high.

Believed to have been started by a busboy who lit a match in the basement so he could see to change a lightbulb, the fire totally engulfed the cellar in five minutes,

and many people died stacked up at the one stairwell. The exit door at the top of the stairs was bolted shut. The fire spread to the ceiling on the first floor, and totally engulfed it within another five minutes. Many people died trying to exit through the revolving door–pushing from both sides and preventing escape. Some diners in the restaurant never even had a chance to leave their seats, having been asphyxiated by smoke and toxic gases. (Celebrate Boston.com – The Cocoanut Grove Fire)

I hate, hate, hate revolving doors. Always have, for that very reason. What if I got stuck? What if I were trapped in that little space? I experience a Godfather moment whenever I see one. Shudder. When I was a little girl, I’d walk on tippytoe through them really really fast, for fear that the part of the door behind me was going to creep up and run me over.

I also hate, hate, hate staying on upper floors in a hotel. I always ask for the ground floor, or at least nothing higher than the highest floor a fire department rescue ladder can reach. [I know. I’m weird.]

Anyway, if any good can come out of a tragedy like Cocoanut Grove, it was that fire regulations were tightened up bigtime. No more blocking off or chaining of doors, and no more emergency exits that opened inward. You’d think that something that horrible would teach everyone a lesson. But, alas…not so.

More on that another day.

I can’t believe this week is over. For the past 5 days, we’ve had my nephew staying with us. It’s been great. Jean-Claude and I have lots of common interests, as he’s the full time music director here . (What a gig, lucky dog.) Anyway, he leaves today, and we will miss him.

However, I am excited about having friends over tomorrow night to watch The Godfather, parts II and III, on the new television beast. Fun.

Fink out.

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