The Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire

I occasionally help teach EMT classes, and one of the topics I enjoy covering is multiple casualty incidents (MCIs). I frequently use examples from real incidents, and I've searched for so many recordings of fire-rescue radio transmissions during active shooter incidents that I probably have my own electronic file somewhere in a bland national security data warehouse.

As a firefighter, I'd heard of the Cocoanut Grove fire, which played a tragic role in the advancement of fire safety regulation in the US. I stumbled across it again and took an unexpected deep dive into the history of the fire.

In 1942, despite passing routine fire inspections, the nightclub was a fire trap, even by the lax regulatory standards of the day. In addition to placing cloth and palm-frond decorations on the walls and ceilings, the club owner had locked up emergency exits and windows to prevent patrons from slipping out without paying their tab. 

The Cocoanut Grove was full beyond capacity on the night of November 28, 1942. A patron in the downstairs lounge removed a light bulb so he could kiss his girlfriend in the darkness. A sixteen year-old waiter, who took the job to help pay expenses for his ill mother, was told to screw the bulb back in. He climbed on a stool, struck a match to see what he was doing, and restored the bulb to its place. Shortly afterward, flames began to spread across the ceiling. Flames and choking smoke spread so quickly that some patrons were overcome at their seats, their bodies later recovered with hands still grasping their glasses. Archive.org includes hundreds of pages of witness statements.

In all, 492 people lost their lives that night. The fire is credited with spurring changes to both fire protection standards and burn treatment

Investigators said they could not point to the match as the cause of the fire (other investigators have theorized the fire began as a result of an electrical spark igniting fumes from the club's air-conditioning system), but many people blamed the young waiter for the tragedy, and he bore the stigma for the rest of his life. 

What was missing from Stranger Things

Some shows I just watch. The Netflix show Stranger Things, a supernatural/horror/sci-fi series set in the 1980's, has stayed on my mind since I finished the 8-episode season. It's like if E.T. and Stephen King's "It" had a love child, and I fell in love with it.

Stranger Things hits so many high points: it's beautifully filmed (as discussed in this video), the synth soundtrack is both evocative of the times and ethereal in its own right, and the acting - particularly the performance of the children - is unbelievably good. What's more, it calls forth 80's imagery and filmmaking so well that it scratches a nostalgic itch for anyone who was young in the decade - particularly a certain D&D-playing social set who were nerds long before it was considered cool. Hell, it even has a requisite product placement, evoking that moment when we saw E.T. gobble Reese's Pieces and wondered, with naïveté that seems now both refreshing and depressing, if the film makers actually got money to put that in the movie. 

Stranger Things can seem so familiar, and employ so many of the hallmark plot devices of the time, that you can at times predict where it's going next, but I seldom cared. The show is a paean to how old stories are reinvented and made new again. The first couple episodes are jammed with moments that are so, so 80's: kids run around on their bikes out at night, with little parental supervision. People don't form commas around cell phones during every moment of inaction. The school is open and unsecured against any threat.  In general, it feels like the kids live in a world in which the very concept of safety is almost unrecognizably different, an alien set of rules as surprising as anything from a speculative fiction novel. 

Herein lies the one aspect where I couldn't help but feel the show fell short. The dichotomy between what frightened us in the 80s and what scares us now is like a great vein of gold beneath the characters' feet, and I kept expecting someone to stick a shovel into the earth and start digging. 

It's OK to set a series in the past, to evoke and honor the techniques and narratives that formed your own aesthetic sense.  Stranger Things succeeds in part because its characters live in a time that's at once both familiar and impossibly strange, a lost world. It's an exceptional show; this and Mr. Robot are the best TV I've seen in years. 

But once I got through all 8 hours or so, I began to think about it as a supernatural/horror film. Horror is often an evocation of what scares us as a culture, a reflection of our collective anxiety - death, loss of control, the seemingly mindless actions of people we don't like or understand.

There is a monster in Stranger Things, but some of the tension in the series is carried by the fact that the kids are on their own, trying to deal with a frightening presence that is far beyond their ability to control. If you were alive during this time, maybe you experienced that feeling yourself while watching The Day After, Threads, or the news, and wondering if you would be among those unlucky to die in the coming nuclear war, or unlucky enough to be one of the survivors. 

Now, that fear has been replaced by post-911 anxiety and an amplified concern over being victimized by the unsavory among us. The freedom the kids in the show enjoy, biking at night out of reach of cell phones, would be terrifying to many parents now. This is true even though crime is significantly lower now than in earlier decades, and the omnipresence of cell phones means no one is very far from emergency services.

Fears change with the times. We are taught what to fear, through some sort of emergent property of our culture. Someone out there will succeed or fail, profit or lose, based on what you makes you feel helpless and afraid. That's a very strange thing, and I would love to see the capable producers of Stranger Things go spelunking down that darkand murky cave in Season Two. 

 

Thankless jobs

Within the world of fire/rescue, there are two particularly thankless jobs. First, 911 dispatchers, who are the first point of contact for the emergency system, and who must sort out the chaotic, frightening moments of an unfolding emergency*. The other thankless position is the one who arranges to have the correct staffing at every fire station, every day. Both these positions have this in common: when they do their jobs exceptionally well, no one pays any attention. When they screw up, letting their humanity show over the phone or radio, or short-staffing a station, everyone calls them out on the mistake. 

I would have thought that was the textbook definition of a thankless job: one in which good performance goes unrewarded, but bad performance is immediately condemned. This chart proposes more axes of thanklessness, including pay, public opinion, stress, and environment. 

For obvious reasons, I found it interesting that this and other lists classified fire/rescue as "thankless." It's true, I don't always get thanked for what I do, but I also enjoy having a career that's lauded and seen as worthwhile. More importantly, firefighting is listed as one of the careers with highest job satisfaction. That list, which discusses the "crummiest careers" and what makes them so rough, is worth a read. Not surprisingly, we don't reward the people who have to deal with our junk (literally and metaphorically) nearly as much as we should.

[* If you want to hear why I have so much respect for dispatchers, listen to this audio of a dispatcher handling emergency radio traffic after three police officers were shot while responding to a domestic disturbance. She is calm and controlled on an extremely tense and emotional incident.]