Fire

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“Phoenix out of the Ashes”

The Cocoanut Grove fire

A fire broke out in Boston’s very popular Cocoanut Grove nightclub on November 28, 1942, killing, 498 as a result of the fire, and 116 were injured and sent to Boston-area hospitals and impacting countless others. This is the deadliest known nightclub fire in the world.

On the night of the fire, there were around 1,000 occupants, about twice as many as the official capacity allowed.

The Cocoanut Grove was a tropical-themed restaurant/supper club (nightclubs did not officially exist in Boston), built in 1927 and located at 17 Piedmont Street, near Park Square, in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. Piedmont Street was a narrow cobblestoned street located near the Park Square theatre district, running from Arlington Street to Broadway.

The fire began in the basement, in what was called the Melody Lounge. According to accounts, a busboy was trying to tighten a light bulb that had apparently been loosened by a soldier looking for some privacy with his girlfriend. While trying to re-screw it, the bulb popped out and trying to get a better view of the socket, the busboy struck a match that caught some of the extremely flammable tropical decorations on fire.

Compounding the tragedy, the club didn’t have any safety precautions set up. The main entrance was a single revolving door, windows were boarded up and other entrances were bolted shut for various reasons that dated back to the time when the club was a speakeasy. The club’s owner was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 12 to 15 years, of which he only served four of before dying of cancer a few weeks after his early release.

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Note the Narrow Track and the Meager Protection Along the Grandstands.

Terror at Le Mans

Le Mans 1955 horror crash that killed 84 people, some of them decapitated, will always be motor sport’s darkest day

The Le Mans start is historical now, but this was a regular feature of racing at Le Mans and other circuits until the late 1960s. All the cars lined up angled in the direction of travel. Drivers stood opposite their cars across the track. The flag dropped, drivers ran to their cars, hopped in, fired up—and all hellacious competition broke loose.

Cars were arranged by engine size, the largest in front. However, as shown in this photo (below), a quick-footed Lance Macklin put his Austin-Healey (#26) temporarily ahead of the Mercedes-Benz SLRs of Pierre Levegh (#20) and Karl Kling (#21). Tragically, Macklin, Levegh and Jaguar D-Type driver Mike Hawthorn was to interact 35 laps later in the worst accident of motor racing history.

Along the pit straight, Macklin swerved to avoid a late-pitting Hawthorn. Levegh’s Mercedes hit the Austin-Healey. The Mercedes went airborne and disintegrated into the crowd.

The 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race in Le Mans, France in June 1955, when a crash caused large fragments of debris to fly into the crowd. Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh died and 120 more were injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.

Heading up to 1955’s 24 hours of Le Mans, Mercedes-Benz was a heavy favourite -– the team had set a record at that year’s Mille Miglia with Sir Stirling Moss at the helm, swept various podiums and was the pinnacle of German industrial engineering. Still, Jaguar was planning on upsetting the German juggernaut with its capable D-type racer. While the winners ended up being Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb in a Jaguar, the race is better remembered as the deadliest event in motorsport history.

Blame was put on the track which had insufficient protection for the spectators. Don’t worry though, today those spectator walls stand firm and have an attached chain link fence. People still get killed all the time at race track events but lucky not compared to this.

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Refineries and oil storage tanks of the Monsanto chemical plant burn in the waterfront area in Texas City, Texas, on April 16, 1947. The disaster, caused by the explosion of the nitrate-laden French ship Grandcamp, caused 561 deaths. (AP Photo)

Refineries and oil storage tanks of the Monsanto chemical plant burn in the waterfront area in Texas City, Texas, on April 16, 1947. The disaster, caused by the explosion of the nitrate-laden French ship Grandcamp, caused approximately 600 deaths. (AP Photo)

Disaster Zone

The Texas City industrial disaster explosion of 1947,  was sparked by the fire and explosion of the S.S. Grandcamp in Texas City, Texas. The blast set off a chain of fires as well as a 15-foot (4.5-metre) tidal wave. Between 400 and 600 people were killed, with many thousands injured.

The S.S. Grandcamp was originally christened the S. S. Benjamin R. Curtis in Los Angeles in 1942. It served with the Pacific fleets during World War II. After the war was over, the U.S. government offered the ship to France to aid in the restoration of Europe. A French line renamed it S.S. Grandcamp after the beach at Normandy, “Grandcamp-les-bains.”

Before arriving in Texas City, the Grandcamp made several stops, including one in Belgium where sixteen cases of small arms ammunition were loaded onto the ship. After crossing the Atlantic, it docked in Cuba and Houston to exchange several freights of commonplace items like twine and peanuts before anchoring in the Port of Texas City at the North Slip of Pier O. The Grandcamp had docked in Texas City to pick up a load of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

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In a 7:30pm update, station manager Thomas F. Burley Jr. at WCAP radio told his listeners, “The Morro Castle is adrift and heading for the shore.

In a 7:30pm update, station manager Thomas F. Burley Jr. at WCAP radio told his listeners, “The Morro Castle is adrift and heading for the shore.

 The Mysterious Fate of the Morro Castle

In 1934 the Morro Castle Burned off the New Jersey Coast, Killing One Hundred and Thirty Five People. Was it a Terrible Accident, or Something More Sinister?

In the early morning hours of Saturday, September 8, 1934, the cruise ship Morro Castle on its 174th return voyage from Havana was only hours from docking in New York City but never reached her destination. A perfect storm of ominous developments, bad weather, the ship’s design and questionable decisions doomed the ship.

Christened in 1930, the SS Morro Castle was one of a pair of passenger and cargo liners designed by Naval architects for the Ward Line. Both the Morro Castle and her sister ship the SS Oriente were designed to hold 489 passengers and 240 crew. Named for the stone fortress that stands vigil over Havana bay, the Morro Castle was built to carry passengers from New York to Havana, Cuba—which was a popular stop during Prohibition.

For four years, the Morro Castle made the voyage regularly. However, on September 5, 1934, the Morro Castle began what was to be her last return voyage from Cuba. She would never again reach harbour.

By the morning of September 7, the ship was sailing alongside the coast of the United States and encountering increasing clouds, intermittent rain, and wind—the beginning of a savage nor’easter. While the weather drove many passengers into their berths, the storm would prove to be the least of the dangers facing the Morro Castle.

On the evening of September 7, Captain Robert Wilmott, who had been the captain of the Morro Castle through all her years of voyaging, asked for his dinner to be served in his quarters. Shortly thereafter he complained of stomach trouble and died, leaving Chief Officer William Warms in charge of the ship.

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Photo: New Zealand Archives. Nursing Staff In Front of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum.

Photo: New Zealand Archives.
Nursing Staff In Front of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum.

Raging Inferno

Shockingly Sudden

No Chance to Rescue

 Lunacy and troubles of the mind have never been easy topics. The early days in the colony of New Zealand saw gaols as the repository for society’s misfits. Lunatics took their place alongside military deserters, convicts, delinquents, debtors, drunkards, vagrants and prostitutes.

Early gaolers apparently tolerated lunatics. There is no reported instance of the mentally disturbed being punished while in gaol. Those who became violent were restrained by irons, fetters and occasionally straight-jackets. However, the imposition of the insane on the prison system was seen as unsatisfactory, leading to demands for separate housing and proper treatment for those of troubled mind. Prior to the 1870s, asylum-keepers noted that nothing could be done for many patients, except to watch them ‘at the full of the moon’. Humoral treatment (relating to the four bodily fluids) was still in vogue, as were techniques like head-shaving and bowel control.

The solution was the development of rural asylums, of which Seacliff was to be the largest and grandest. This afforded the removal of the disturbed from the purview of society, with their incarceration in the country away from prying eyes. The further appeal was undoubtedly the measure of self-sufficiency, achieved through institutional farming, which offered both employment of the (unpaid) inmates and provision of food from the asylum farm, all of which helped keep costs under control.

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Flyer about the Sodder children. Courtesy of Jennie Henthorn

Flyer about the Sodder children. Courtesy of Jennie Henthorn

Mystery of the Missing Sodder Children

For nearly four decades, anyone driving down Route 16 near Fayetteville, West Virginia, could see a billboard bearing the grainy images of five children, all dark-haired and solemn-eyed, their names and ages—Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; Betty, 5—stenciled beneath, along with speculation about what happened to them.

Fayetteville was and is a small town, with a main street that doesn’t run longer than a hundred yards, and rumours always played a larger role in the case than evidence; no one even agreed on whether the children were dead or alive.

What everyone knew for certain was this: On the night before Christmas 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children went to sleep (one son was away in the Army). Around 1 a.m., a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children escaped, but the other five were never seen again.

George had tried to save them, breaking a window to re-enter the house, slicing a swath of skin from his arm. He could see nothing through the smoke and fire, which had swept through all of the downstairs rooms: living and dining room, kitchen, office, and his and Jennie’s bedroom.

He took frantic stock of what he knew: 2-year-old Sylvia, whose crib was in their bedroom, was safe outside, as was 17-year-old Marion and two sons, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr., who had fled the upstairs bedroom they shared, singeing their hair on the way out. He figured Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty still had to be up there, cowering in two bedrooms on either end of the hallway, separated by a staircase that was now engulfed in flames.

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(Chicago Daily Times) The ghostly handprint in 1939.

(Chicago Daily Times)
The ghostly handprint in 1939.

The Firefighter’s Fingerprint

Firefighter Francis X Leavy was washing the inside first floor  window. A hardworking man, Frank Leavy was a dedicated thirteen-year veteran. He joined the fire department after an eight-year stint in the navy, in which he had enlisted by falsifying his age; he had been fourteen.

In 1915, Leavy married Mary Pucell and by 1921, he was the father of a girl and a boy. Struggling on his $2,220 annual income, Leavy drove a cab and did odd jobs to make extra money.

Friendly, cheerful Leavy was beloved by his family neighbours and comrades in the firehouse.

One day the usually jovial fireman was uncharacteristically quiet and sullen.

His work and that of the other firefighters had been interrupted several times as the register, a stock ticker like device, tapped out signals for the fire in the stockyards that had grown to four alarm proportions.

Although the engine, hook and the Fifteenth Battalion chief buggy were not on the response card, every man knew any or all could wind up at the big fire if special alarms sounded.

As they waited for a possible call, Leavy wasn’t making much progress on the house window.

“This is my last day on the fire department,” he said to fellow firefighter Edward McKevitt.

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Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Last remnants of the razed Mount Carmel Center burn down.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raid the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas, prompting a gun battle. The federal agents were attempting to arrest the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, on information that the religious sect was stockpiling weapons. A nearly two-month standoff ensued after the unsuccessful raid.

Those who died here hailed from around the world. Among the dead, according to their memorial stones, were 52 Americans, 23 English citizens, four Australians, two Canadians, one Israeli and one New Zealander.

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Photo: Robert S. Van Fleet/Associated Press

Photo: Robert S. Van Fleet/Associated Press

Fire Raged, and They Played On …

Spectators in Massachusetts divided their attention as the Mount Hermon football team hosted Deerfield Academy while a fire burned in a Mount Hermon science building on Nov. 20, 1965.

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Photo: Reuters/John Gress It's an incredible sight. A building covered in ice, with fire fighters working to extinguish an enormous blaze in a warehouse in below-freezing temperatures on January 23, 2013.

Photo: Reuters/John Gress
It’s an incredible sight. A building covered in ice, with fire fighters working to extinguish an enormous blaze in a warehouse in below-freezing temperatures on January 23, 2013.

Chicago‘s Freezing Fire

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