The Naked City Nov 28 2012
BOSTON INFERNO
How it started nobody can remember for sure. How it ended nobody can ever forget.


Above is a photo of the aftermath of the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942. Its appearance belies the scope of the disaster that took place there. The Cocoanut Grove had been founded as an illegal speakeasy and, after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, became Boston’s trendiest nightspot. It consisted of several properties that had been consolidated into one, and was a labyrinth of tropical-themed bars, lounges, and dining rooms, complete with a famous “rolling roof” that allowed patrons to dance under the stars during warm summer nights. The club’s cobbled together construction meant there were many points of egress, but owner Barnet “Barney” Welansky was preoccupied with the possibility of people using these to dash without paying their checks, and had hidden some exits behind curtains, locked others, boarded up a plate glass window, and bricked over an emergency exit.

About 10:15 p.m. one frigid November night a fire started for the most banal of reasons. A soldier in the Melody Lounge, which was in the basement, had either loosened or removed a light bulb in an artificial palm tree to create the privacy he desired in order to make out with his date. A busboy was ordered to replace or tighten it. He climbed onto a chair and lit a match so he could see, very likely using one from a matchbook like the one at right. Moments later the canopy of artificial palm fronds overhead caught fire. Whether it was the match or the light bulb that started the blaze nobody ever figured out for sure, though the busboy unambiguously blamed himself and the match.

But in any case, flames blossomed through the paper and rattan decorations. Waiters tried to douse them but they quickly became what witnesses described as a fireball. This fireball raced up a staircase to the lounges and bars on the ground floor and men and women ran upstairs with their hair ablaze. The flames burst into the main level and triggered a deadly crush at the revolving door entrance, which was immediately rendered useless as patrons tried to escape by pushing in opposite directions. Another crush formed at a set of double doors that opened inward from the street. In the panic, the patrons couldn’t organize themselves enough to step back so the exit could be opened. As people struggled, passed out, and piled up before the doors, the flames consumed everything.
 
Many people escaped. They ran through the kitchen, or squeezed through barred windows. The house band’s bass player, Jack Lesberg, who later went on to perform with Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan, among others, smashed his way out using his stand-up bass. Five survivors barricaded themselves in a walk-in freezer. In all, about half the occupants escaped, but in the end the fire killed 492, which was thirty-two more people than were legally allowed to inhabit the building. Some patrons were so quickly overcome by fumes that they died sitting at their tables. Firemen described charred corpses with glasses in their hands. Barnet Welansky went to jail for multiple counts of manslaughter, but was pardoned after only four years by Massachusetts Governor Maurice J. Tobin, who had been the mayor of Boston at the time of the fire. Helps to know people, and helps even more to drink with them. The Cocoanut Grove fire—or inferno might be a better word—was today in 1942.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
February 05
1919—United Artists Is Launched
Actors Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, along with director D.W. Griffith, launch United Artists. Each holds a twenty percent stake, with the remaining percentage held by lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo. The company struggles for years, with Griffith soon dropping out, but eventually more partners are brought in and UA becomes a Hollywood powerhouse.
1958—U.S. Loses H-Bomb
A 7,600 pound nuclear weapon that comes to be known as the Tybee Bomb is lost by the U.S. Air Force off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, near Tybee Island. The bomb was jettisoned to save the aircrew during a practice exercise after the B-47 bomber carrying it collided in midair with an F-86 fighter plane. Following several unsuccessful searches, the bomb was presumed lost, and remains so today.
February 04
1906—NYPD Begins Use of Fingerprint ID
NYPD Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Faurot begins using French police officer Alphonse Bertillon's fingerprint system to identify suspected criminals. The use of prints for contractual endorsement (as opposed to signatures) had begun in India thirty years earlier, and print usage for police work had been adopted in India, France, Argentina and other countries by 1900, but NYPD usage represented the beginning of complete acceptance of the process in America. To date, of the billions of fingerprints taken, no two have ever been found to be identical.
1974—Patty Hearst Is Kidnapped
In Berkeley, California, an organization calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnaps heiress Patty Hearst. The next time Hearst is seen is in a San Francisco bank, helping to rob it with a machine gun. When she is finally captured her lawyer F. Lee Bailey argues that she had been brainwashed into committing the crime, but she is convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment, a term which is later commuted.
February 03
1959—Holly, Valens, and Bopper Die in Plane Crash
A plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa kills American musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, along with pilot Roger Peterson. The fault for the crash was determined to be poor weather combined with pilot inexperience. All four occupants died on impact. The event is later immortalized by Don McLean as the Day the Music Died in his 1971 hit song "American Pie."
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