Wednesday, November 28

Panic at The Cocoanut Grove


By Art Cashin

On this day in 1942 (as you may have heard), America was at war.  Already absences, apprehension of the future and the aura of aisles grown thin by rationing added to anxiety and signaled sacrifice today and more to come tomorrow. Even in purportedly Puritanical Boston, the worries of war were wearing on women and warriors (even would-be warriors).

Now this particular November 28th was a Saturday in Boston (as it was in most of America) and Saturday is a day (and even more of a night) when Americans (even in Boston), lean toward pleasure rather than privation and sacrifice.  Maybe that's why a lot of folks who were in town for the annual "Holy Cross vs. Boston College game" decided to break their thirst and their sacrifice at a popular local night-club.  It was called the Cocoanut Grove. 

The Cocoanut Grove was already crowded with sailors, soldiers, secretaries and sundry citizens seeking surcease from said sense of sacrifice.  The club's management (surely out of a sense of charity) decided to let everybody in. 8:00 p.m. there were about 1100 people in a place that the Boston Fire Dept. said could hold 500 safely.

About 9:40, a prankster stole a light bulb in the hallway near the restrooms of the basement cabaret.  We presume he (or she) may have hoped to have fun frightening or fondling friends in the darkened hallway.  But someone complained and a busboy was sent to replace the bulb.  Since he had no flashlight, he lit a match to find the socket.

As you might imagine, a place called "The Cocoanut Grove" fancied itself a jungle lodge (even in Boston).  So it was decorated like the nightclub in "Mighty Joe Young."  There was even a false ceiling of draped burlap everywhere.

The busboy's match caught the burlap and soon smoke was everywhere.  People began to scream "fire!" and, in panic, crowds surged toward doorways (remember, the lights were still on).  As was the custom at the time, however, most doors opened the more people who surged toward a door the less likely was it to open.

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Hearing the noise downstairs (and smelling the smoke), the folks up at ground level began to panic too.  But here the doorways also opened inward and the halls were also narrow… the results were equally tragic.  When the fire department finally put the fire out, they found nearly 500 dead and another 200 severely injured.

There were heroes of course.  One patron smashed a basement window and forced others to climb over the glass to safety.  A kid with a bit part in the "floor show" led a group up some back stairs, across the roof and to safety.  Less appreciated was the nightclub manager who saved himself and a few friends by sealing his group in the meat locker.

The aftermath was typically American…..investigations, indictments and new legislation.  But what was omitted in most reports was the fact that the bulk of the fatalities were not the result of the fire…..most were the result of panic.

To mark the day, stop by the Taki Tiki Lounge and point out to some big gorilla that Wall Streeters have long known that panic can be a bigger killer than any calamity.  But check where the windows are before you sit down.

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

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