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Check for the exits before you sit down. And leave if anything seems wrong. No reader can come away from Fire in the Grove without an acute fear of fire and a hair-trigger readiness to run. As author John Esposito notes, no one went to Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub on Nov. 28, 1942, expecting to flee a fire that night. But 492 people died because they couldn’t get out fast enough. Another 500 survivors were reminded how ruthlessly arbitrary life can be. Joyce Spector lived because she left the downstairs Melody Lounge to retrieve her brand-new leopard-skin coat in the upstairs checkroom. “It was just a little fire then,” she said later. Her fiance, Justin Morgan, died because he was going to meet her upstairs in a minute. But the fire that began in an imitation palm tree in the poorly lit basement lounge, possibly caused by a careless match, did not give anybody an extra minute. The first flames licked upward at about 10:15 p.m. By 10:17 the fire was gobbling up the dark-blue satin that draped the ceiling, filling the windowless room with smoke and superheated air, and charging toward the only source of more oxygen � the staircase. By 10:18 a ball of fire and smoke had reached the upstairs lobby and the main exit. By 10:23 it had raced through the Cocoanut Grove’s dining room, across the dance floor, and down the corridor to overwhelm the New Broadway Lounge as well. By 10:23 the first firemen had also arrived. A mere half-hour after it began, the main fire was out. But nearly 500 people were also dead or dying, inside the club, dragged out onto the icy cold streets, crowding the corridors of the nearby hospitals and the Northern and Southern Mortuaries. Step by horrifying step, moment by fateful moment, Esposito leads the reader through that evening, and then the subsequent investigation and trial. The investigation revealed 100 little acts of corruption that created this dangerous nightspot. The owner of the Cocoanut Grove, Barney Welansky, had been generous to city officials since he acquired the club in 1933. And over the years, they had turned a blind eye to repeated failures to meet fire and building safety standards. Just eight days before the end, a fire inspector had signed off on the safety of the whole enterprise: no problems. No problems except for the multiple locked exits, many of them also deliberately camouflaged behind potted plants and wall coverings or blocked by pipes or hidden in administrative offices. (The overwhelming majority of Cocoanut Grove staffers survived because they knew where the usable exits were.) No problems except for the flame-retardant leatherette, bamboo, and satin that burned in bare minutes. No problems except for the 1,000 people in a nightclub officially licensed for 460 seats. The author loudly and inexorably pounds the drumbeat of evidence against Welansky, his contractors, and all the incurious city officials. Esposito is himself a lawyer, so it’s not surprising that he spares some fellow feeling for Welansky’s defense attorney, Herbert Callahan. Bad case, unsympathetic client, nearly 500 dead bodies � Callahan started with a bad hand. The public hearings held by the fire commissioner not long after the conflagration � hearings in which a lot of bad facts were previewed for a fascinated press � didn’t help either. The jurors’ visit to the burned-out club on the second day of trial did not lean them in Callahan’s favor. Indeed, by the time the prosecutor declaims in summation that there “should have been the sign which Dante inscribed over the Gates of Hell � Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” we can all wince for Herbert Callahan. Oddly enough, it’s in his discussion of the fire’s legal aftermath that Esposito disappoints. He writes somewhat summarily that the case of Commonwealth v. Welansky expanded the law of involuntary manslaughter to cover cases of disregard for safety by those who owed a duty of care. Esposito could have provided some discussion of subsequent cases without making the book too legalistic. But that’s quibbling over a smart, well-paced, eminently readable account of an American disaster. The Cocoanut Grove fire received extensive press coverage at the time, and fire codes across the country were strengthened. Several books have already been written on the tragedy. So why did Esposito add another? Maybe because on Feb. 20, 2003, just a little fire raced through the overcrowded Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. There was no sprinkler system because the law grandfathered in older buildings without sprinklers. Panicked patrons jammed the main entrance within minutes. One hundred people died.
Elizabeth Engdahl can be reached at [email protected].

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