I’ve been following the news about the night club fire in Brazil. The numbers change, but currently they are saying that it killed 233 people – scratch that, 234. Sadly, I’ve read this story before – I’ve seen the pictures, listened to eyewitness accounts, and heard the excuses. I’m rarely a person who asks why when something bad happens, but in this case I am left wondering its caustic, snarky equivalent: Really?

I am glad we learn from our mistakes, from our tragedies. It doesn’t redeem them, but it does allow us to transcend them and, with time, heal. So I’m sure in time we will learn from this one. But somehow this one, in particular, seems so needlessly senseless, so cruel, so stupid, and so very unnecessary. And it’s not even because of what we’re hearing in the news about how similar it is to the Buenos Aires fire in 2004, or to the Rhode Island night club fire in 2003, or to the China fire in 2000 – though that would be enough. It’s because of how similar it is to a much older tragedy that I haven’t seen mentioned once in any coverage of the latest one: Boston’s Cocoanut Grove.

I’ve been fascinated and haunted by fire for a long time, and by the major fire events in our country’s history. Several years ago I read a book called Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown and portions of David von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. More recently I read both Barbara Ravage’s Burn Unit: Saving Lives After the Flames and John Esposito’s Fire in the Grove: the Cocoanut Grove Tragedy and its Aftermath. Both offer startling accounts of the famous night club fire in Boston in 1942 that killed nearly five hundred people. Ravage’s book goes much further into the history of burn treatment and is also a case study in burn care at the Massachusetts General Hospital, while Esposito’s book chronicles the characters and events of the fire and turns into a spellbinding courtroom drama.

Anyone who has read about the Cocoanut Grove will see startling similarities between what happened there on November 28, 1942 and the coverage of what happened this week in Brazil:

  • blocked exits – either concealed or locked (fear of patrons skipping out on the tab)
  • a “frenzied and violent rush for the main exit”
  • stampedes that led to piles of bodies
  • many died of smoke inhalation – the smoke spread very quickly
  • people trapped by barriers erected to prevent a crowd from spilling out onto the street – reminders of the people who died in the main dining room at the Cocoanut Grove because they got trapped by a decorative railing surrounding an elevated seating area which they could not see due to smoke

And what about sprinklers? Cocoanut Grove is too far in the past to have had them, but final analysis of the Rhode Island fire determined that had there been sprinklers in the club, the smoke would have been contained to an extent that a majority of those who perished could have made it to safety. Were there sprinklers in Brazil? Did they work? (Turns out No and, therefore, N/A).

After I read these books I became great fun at concerts and parties, especially during events held at large, old venues. Like when we went to see Neko Case at the Roxy in Boston. As we climbed higher into the old theatre, making our way toward one of the upper balconies, I began reminding my friends about the fact that, in the event of a catastrophic fire, the likelihood of our survival diminished with each step we climbed. I became distracted trying to locate evidence of a sprinkler system on the dark ceiling, coming very near to summoning a manager to inquire. While Neko was playing and everyone else was bopping along and having a good time, I was busy locating emergency exits and scanning the room for smoke. And why did they have all these metal railings everywhere? Didn’t they know how many people perished at the Cocoanut Grove because of just such railings, that in a dark room filled with smoke no one can see them and they become impediments to escape? And why are the blazing orange EXIT signs only up near the ceiling? They should also have glowing EXIT signs on the floor so they can be seen by people who are crawling beneath a thick blanket of black smoke. It all sounds a little hysterical, I admit. But after this week’s events, it should be obvious that it isn’t.

I attended my first concert at the Birchmere in Alexandria last year; we went down to hear Joan Osborne play, and we have tickets to hear the Cowboy Junkies perform The Trinity Session this spring. The first thing I thought, though, when I walked through the doors into the main concert hall, was that it looked like a modern day Cocoanut Grove.

And instead of scanning the menu and figuring out what I wanted to drink, I immediately began thinking about how to escape – and wondering what everyone might learn if the whole place burned down. What happened at the Cocoanut Grove transformed both fire safety codes and burn treatment in this country. Ever notice how all building egresses open outward? Cocoanut Grove. How next to every revolving door you’ve ever walked through there were adjacent hinged doorways? Cocoanut Grove. Even though it sounds like a no brainer, people die because they cannot get out. In the case of the Grove, they could not get out because the main exit was a revolving door that quickly jammed with bodies and ceased to revolve, causing a massive back up of people trying to escape but with, literally, no exit. Many more exits were concealed by draperies and decorations, and others still were locked to prevent people from dining and dashing. Other exit doorways opened inward, so the very crowd of people trying to escape through it are what prevented it from opening. The club became a tomb in which everyone either suffocated or burned to death.

For those who enjoy this sort of dark trivia, you would have loved walking into the Birchmere with me and noticing all the similarities between it and the Cocoanut Grove. But the events of this week, unfortunately, make clear the fact that this is more than just trivia. In the event of a fire, it can be life and death. The National Fire Protection Association offers these safety tips when entering any building of public assembly. Their website is full of fascinating information and reports, like this page dedicated entirely to nightclub tragedies. I understand that these are American standards and American codes, so therefore they don’t apply to the current case. But nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder: in the wake of this week’s devastating inferno in Brazil, what will we learn? Will it be anything we haven’t known since 1942?

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3 Responses to Inferno

  1. MIchelle says:

    This is exactly the stuff I worry about, Bill. You and I sure are fun at parties. Thanks to you, in addition to my usual safety regimen, I now also keep the toilet seat closed to prevent rat attacks. Someday we’ll be perched by the exit of our nursing home dressed in life preservers and non-flammable pajamas clutching CO2 detectors. And there’s no one I’d rather share that with than you.

  2. randasfans says:

    This sounds like a perfect plan; just pour a couple of bottles of wine into our CamelBaks and we’ll be set! And Michelle, we should definitely catch a show together sometime.

  3. Dan says:

    Good post! Whenever I see a show in a small venue, I am a bit irrationally concerned about the place catching fire. That said, it doesn’t deter me that much. 😉

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