Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pathei Mathos

I think the reason most people don't bother reading classical Greek literature is because it was all written thousands of years ago, and people probably think and act differently now than they did in those ancient stories. That's a mistaken idea about the past, though – – folks have always worried about their kids, listened to bad advice, made incredibly stupid decisions for the silliest of reasons, and suffered a lifetime of regrets.

Aesop is probably the best-known Greek writer to modern audiences. He's given us morals that spanned the gamut from "he who hesitates is lost," to "look before you leap." The take-away lessons we get from Aesop are as applicable now as they were in ancient Athens.

Aeschylus. Live 'n' Learn.
Although not as well-known as Aesop, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus also understood how bumbling and shortsighted people could be. One of Aeschylus's greatest insights into human nature comes from his play Agamemnon. Aeschylus wrote:

"A man crying triumph for Zeus
will meet with wisdom totally —
Zeus who put men on wisdom the road,
who gave 'SUFFER and LEARN' authority.
Misery from pain remembered drips;
instead of sleep before the heart;
good sense comes even to the unwilling."

Suffer and learn ("Pathei Mathos" in ancient Greek) - that seems to sum up all human knowledge. We stay on our toes and pay attention to new information when presented with agony, and the promise of more agony to come. November 28th is the anniversary of a night in Boston when many suffered, and many learned.

Not quite a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Boston in November of 1942 was a busy mix of military servicemen, civilian and civil service workers, and the usual crowd of collegiate students from the city's many universities. These varied groups shared a common interest on weekends: a chance to unwind and relax with friends in Boston's numerous bars and nightclubs.

One of the most popular destinations was the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, a sprawling collection of buildings centered around 17 Piedmont St., in the Bay Village section of Boston. Bay Village straddled the invisible line between the Back Bay and downtown Boston, attracting both the upper crust and the hoi polloi with live bands and a cheesy South Seas decor. The owner, Barney Welansky, supposedly had Mafia ties, lending an air of Prohibition-era intrigue to the goings-on,  and making The Grove that much more enticing to the young crowd it attracted.
Floor plan of the Cocoanut Grove. Click for full-size.
November 28, 1942 was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The undefeated Boston College football team had scheduled a victory party at the Grove that night in anticipation of beating the rival Holy Cross team from Worcester, but after being trounced 55 – 12, Boston College canceled its reservation. Despite the cancellation, the crush of holiday partiers filled the Grove to more than 1000 people, in rooms rated for no more than 460 people. Customers shouldered past each other on narrow stairways, navigating between the downstairs Melody Lounge dance floor and the upstairs bar and ballroom. The place was packed like a box of matches.

16 year old busboy Stanley Tomaszewski was told to tighten a Christmas light-sized bulb in one of dim booths ringing the Melody Lounge dance floor. As Stanley grabbed the bulb, it slipped out of his hands and rolled under the table. Tomaszewski struck a match under the table, spotted the bulb, and retightened it in the light socket. As he did this, customers noticed a burst of flame leap up from beneath the table and ignite the crêpe paper and satin palm fronds draped across the walls and ceilings.

Nearby waiters grabbed empty champagne buckets and seltzer bottles and threw ice water on the decorations, but the fire outraced their feeble efforts. Flames licked up the stairwells, exploding into a fireball in the upstairs ballroom. In less than five minutes, every public room of the Grove had turned into a roiling inferno of smoke and flames.
What the bar looked like after they cleared out the hundreds of dead bodies.

Human nature being what it is, customers naturally headed to the only exit they knew: the revolving door entrance on the first floor where they had arrived. Unfortunately, the mad scramble for the same door simply filled the stairwells and corridors with the bodies of patrons who had become overcome by smoke inhalation. Bodies also clogged the single revolving door, making it not only impossible for customers to escape by that route, but also for rescuers to enter and render aid. Other escape routes had been blocked by the management: Barney Welansky had ordered the side doors locked so that customers couldn't skip out on their checks. The few exit doors that were not locked opened inwards, and were soon blocked by the crush of customers frantically trying to escape.

Two blocks away, firemen were dousing a car fire when they noticed smoke pouring out of the Cocoanut Grove. They were soon joined by 26 engine companies, three rescue companies, five ladder companies, and an eventual total of 187 firemen to fight the blaze.

The carnage was horrible. As officer Elmer Brooks later told the Boston Globe, when rescuers attempted to remove bodies stacked against the revolving doors, arms and legs came off in their hands.

Weather slowed the recovery efforts. After midnight, the temperature dropped to the mid-20s. Water froze on the cobblestone streets and fire hoses became difficult to bend. The sheer numbers of dead bodies stacked in the Grove made it difficult to attend to the living. The Motor Mart parking garage on nearby Charles St. was turned into a multistory makeshift morgue, where in the following days, survivors would come to try and identify their next of kin.

Almost half the losses of Pearl Harbor, all in just 15 minutes.
Possibly one of the most fortunate aspects of the fire was that it took place during wartime. Local hospitals, expecting German air raids, were stocked with bandages, blood plasma, oxygen bottles, and saline solution. Additionally, a citywide air raid drill the week before prepared civil defense workers on how to handle large-scale catastrophes.

Despite the preparedness of the medical and fire teams, the death toll was staggering. The final number of deaths reached 492. As to the cause, there was more than enough blame to spread around. Flammable decorations passed inspection by the fire department just a week before the fire. The nightclub's lighting system had been installed by an unlicensed electrician. Locked fire doors and boarded up windows trapped hundreds in the burning building. Management packed the club with almost twice the legal capacity of the building. 400 lawsuits were filed against the owners of the Grove, yielding only about $150 for each of the survivors and their families. The only person to be convicted of a crime in the Grove fire was owner Barney Welansky, who was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. Stricken with terminal cancer, he served only four years of the sentence. His only words to the press when he was released in 1946 were, "I wish I died with the others in that fire."

Small miracles.
What about Aeschylus's "suffer and learn" lesson? It turns out there were many lessons learned from the suffering. Both Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston City Hospital discovered new ways of treating burns and smoke inhalation. The new miracle antibiotic, penicillin, was found to be effective in preventing staph infections during this first use in a non-laboratory environment. Decreased staph infections also meant that pioneering skin graft operations would be more effective in saving lives. The use of a blood bank, Boston's first, aided in preventing shock due to loss of bodily fluids. New psychiatric treatments dealing with loss and grief were established in hospitals after the fire, becoming some of the first research into post-traumatic stress disorders.

It's been 70 years since the Cocoanut Grove fire, and little physical evidence remains of the catastrophe. The Motor Mart parking garage is still there, but not even the outline of the Grove buildings remain. A small plaque about a half block away from the site of the tragedy has been left as a memorial to those lost in the fire, but unless you're looking for it, it's difficult to notice. The more important reminders are nationwide changes in fire safety codes. Revolving doors can no longer be installed in buildings unless they are book-ended with outward opening fire doors. Exits must be clearly marked with separately powered, lighted signs. All fire doors must be unlocked during business hours.

The Boston licensing board also ruled that no restaurant in Boston could name itself "The Cocoanut Grove."

Not just an empty lot: the streets were moved and that particular area is now buried under a Radisson Hotel.

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