From the Ashes
Fire protection engineering, or the application of science and engineering to protect people and their environment from fire, has been around for centuries. The problem with advancements in this field is that they are preventative and, if ahead of their time, often seen as unnecessary. As a result, they are usually not considered or implemented until after severe tragedy has struck. A prime example of this is also the first recorded use of fire protection engineering. In AD 64, Emperor Nero had regulations drawn up that required fireproof materials used in the external walls to the city. This, of course, happened only after an estimated seventy percent of Rome was lost to fire. More noticeable regulations happened in England in the 17th century, when London adopted codes requiring stone and brick houses with fire-resisting wall separations. It only took eighty percent of the city to burn to the ground in the Great London Fire of 1666 to get that progress made. (Cote) This reactionary interest is the basic issue with fire safety. While advancements in the field are useful and no doubt save many lives each year, the only way an interest in advancement takes place is a devastating fire that snuffs out the lives of many. This becomes a double-edged sword. Would it have been better for the Great London Fire not to have happened? Probably, but the advancements in urban building code, and the interest in the development of firefighting equipment have contributed to the greater good, and perhaps prevented a more catastrophic event. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, many changes came about to help the prevention or containment of building fires. As building engineering progressed, popular flammable building materials were replaced with non-flammable steel and concrete. Urban engineering led to the installation of water mains and hydrants. Public fire departments are formed and outfitted with specialized equipment. Throughout the 1800s, the main purveyors and pioneers of fire prevention were the insurance companies. They would inspect factories, encourage them to install automatic sprinklers, and if they were deemed safe enough, sell them fire insurance.(Cote) While most likely motivated by capitalism and profits, their use of fire protection engineering to prevent the loss of property probably saved many lives and businesses. The Cocoanut Grove was Boston’s premier club. Fully outfitted with a bar, restaurant, lounge, and an upstairs dining room, the former speakeasy was often packed on weekends. (Thomas) The theme of the club was a South Sea “tropical paradise,” and as a result was decorated with artificial palm trees, bamboo, and rattan furniture. Heavy draperies and satin canopies hung from the ceiling and walls. The bar was lined with artificial leather and suspended ceilings and fake walls concealed the original construction. (Duval) On the night of November 28, 1942, the club was packed with forty percent more than its official capacity of 600 patrons. Shortly after 10 pm, a young couple in the Melody Lounge unscrewed the light bulb above them to give them more privacy. When the bartender noticed that the light was out, he told a busboy to replace it. The busboy, 16 year old Steve Tomaszewski, used a match to find the socket, and upon replacing the bulb, blew it out. Flames immediately started spreading across the highly flammable satin ceiling covering. No one in the Melody Lounge took the fire seriously at first and some even laughed as the staff attempted to put it out. The smoke and flames spread rapidly, however, and within seconds the fire had spread throughout the lounge. (Duval) The patrons were forced quickly to the only exit, the stairs towards the lobby. The fire, seeking oxygen, was faster though, and it reached the stairwell before the escaping patrons could. A young woman running through the lobby with her hair on fire was the first sign of the fire...
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