Rescue Men


By Charles C. Kenney

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The men in Charles Kenney’s family have been drawn to firefighting since his grandfather Charles “Pops” Kenney joined the Boston Fire Department in 1932. In his working class, Irish-Catholic neighborhood, there were other jobs that offered a decent wage, but none had the sense of belonging that comes with being a fireman, or the purity of purpose that comes with saving lives. Pops was on the scene of the notorious Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942; the author’s father, “Sonny” served with distinction until an explosion blew him from a third-story window; and two of the author’s brothers were “sparks” as children, amateur firefighters, whose career goals were thwarted by a court order integrating the Boston fire department and changing the rules for employment forever. One became a cop, the other a paramedic and rescue man with an elite squad sent to Ground Zero in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center. Spanning sixty years of firefighting history in America, Rescue Men captures what it’s really like to be a fireman.


This book is dedicated to my brothers—
Michael, Thomas, Patrick, John, and Timothy.
And, of course, to my father.

"Withersoever Thou callest me, I am ready to go."

Preface: A Family Story
My father, nearing age eighty, sits surrounded by boxes of files, notes, audio- and videotapes, photographs, and transcripts. All of this and more has made him one of the world's leading experts on the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire of 1942. A couple of decades ago, my father set out to try to understand one of the worst fires in American history and eventually became intimately knowledgeable about an inferno that killed 492 people in minutes.
"I was just a firefighter doing something as a hobby," he says offhandedly. "I wanted to try and find out as much as I could."
My father was a rescue man on the Boston Fire Department. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who was also a rescue man and who had been at the Cocoanut Grove fire. In the process of research and investigation, my father gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the fire. He had never written a book, never written anything longer than a few pages, in fact, yet he had set himself the task of writing a history of the fire.
Now it is the winter of 2004, and we sit in his home in a small Cape Cod village. There is the quiet here of a summer place in the dead of winter. Sunlight slants through the sliding glass doors leading to the yard and my father sits with his boxes and files and notes and tapes, and he talks about the fire, as he has done since I was a child.
"The first person I called was George Graney," he says, recalling that day in 1987 when his research began. "He was at the Grove with my father. I called George at home in South Boston, Athens Street. He was long retired, I had not spoken with him in forty years. When I called, George said, 'I was just sitting here talking about your father. We were talking about the Cocoanut Grove and I was talking about how your father saved those people.'"
My dad recalls the conversation with a certain satisfaction, as though, yes, of course, when you call someone after forty years they would surely, at that very moment, be talking about your father and the fire at the Grove.
As part of the research he began in 1987, my father—nicknamed Sonny—called the Boston fire commissioner, Leo Stapleton, who invited him to fire headquarters. As young men, Sonny and Leo had fought fires together, and the commissioner greeted him warmly. At the commissioner's direction, an assistant led Sonny upstairs to the department files on the Grove, where he found tens of thousands of pages of documents buried away. To Sonny, the dusty files were a gift. He focused on the Form 5s—official reports filed by each Boston Fire Department officer after a fire. Here was every detail: which companies arrived when, what they did, and the name of every firefighter on the scene. Sonny also found the transcript of the official department investigation into the fire—a hearing that had been convened less than twenty-four hours after the fire and had continued for weeks. Sonny found the testimony from hundreds of witnesses, twelve volumes of transcripts in all.
He went home and read through the Form 5s. He read them a second time and then a third, comparing them, studying them, committing many to memory. Then he read the twelve-volume transcript of the investigation and when he was done reading every word, he read it again—then again. Using this mass of information, he calculated that within just eight minutes on the night of the fire, twenty-five engine companies had arrived upon the scene.
Sonny and I sit together on this frigid winter day in 2004, the sun bright in the sky, and I listen as he tells stories of the Grove. Soon, the subject of his book comes up. He sits and draws on a Lucky Strike, letting the smoke gather in his lungs, then slowly, languidly releasing it, letting it drift upward, creating a cloud that rolls and rises slowly through the slanting sunshine. "All of the reports, the testimony, everybody said that the fire did not behave as an ordinary fire," he muses. He had known that at the time, of course, from his own father. But this thought has stayed with him through the years, puzzling him, eventually haunting him. He turns his face toward the sun streaming in and says softly: "The fire that got me didn't behave in a normal way, either."
The Cocoanut Grove fire defined our family in a way. It was, as Sonny once put it, "the magnetic center of our attraction to firefighting." For Boston, the Grove was a moment in history and we were part of it, forever connected. My paternal grandfather—who was known as Pops—was with one of the first companies to arrive on the scene, and he was able to save numerous lives. Through the years, the legacy of the Grove has been passed down through three generations in our family. Pops was badly injured at the fire. Notwithstanding what happened to him, Sonny was drawn to follow in his footsteps. Later, to Sonny's eternal satisfaction, my brother Tom not only followed them—the third generation of Kenney rescue men—but proved to possess something of a genius for the work, engaging in a series of rescues through the years that would please Sonny as nothing else could.
When my father brings up the subject of the book he wants to write, I believe I know what is coming. For my father sits in the sunlight, enjoying his stubby, filterless cigarette, his white wavy hair pushed back, surrounded by his treasure trove of research and revelations—and he tells me that the book ... well, there is no book. We sit in silence for some time. I have questions I want to ask but I remain silent, hoping that he will reveal something to me. He is careful with his thoughts and emotions, even stingy at times. And soon, as I persevere in the increasingly brittle silence, he speaks.
"There were so many interruptions," he says, frowning, trying to explain. "There was Nana's illness," he says, referring to his mother, Molly. "Theresa's death," he says—his second wife. Then he pauses and catches himself, shaking his head as though scolding himself.
"That's an excuse," he says. "The truth is I didn't have the drive. I didn't have the discipline to do it." His words hang in the air. His jaw is fixed in a frown.
But I wonder whether there isn't more to it. I wonder whether, along the way, he saw inside of the history, saw the arc of a story that began and ended with the Grove but contained within it the story of our family. Perhaps he realized that to tell the story of the Cocoanut Grove in the context of his own family would require revealing history better left undisturbed. I wonder whether during his work he caught a glimpse of the story he would have to tell and flinched—the story of how bedrock institutions, including the U.S. government in the form of the federal courts and the Roman Catholic Church, betrayed him and his family, leaving him confused, angry, and hurt. How would he write about the loss of his closest boyhood friend? His first wife? His father? How would he handle the loss of the only job he ever truly loved? The dark period where he lost his way and sought refuge in alcohol? How would he describe his fear when his son Tom was sent as a rescue man to Ground Zero on September 11, 2001?
Perhaps he focused only on the difficulties and challenges and did not see the determination that he, my grandfather, my brother, and all of their fellow rescue men displayed—the determination and courage that are essential elements of their stories.
As I sit with him, I realize that in the Grove and its story—inside its mystery—he has sought a kind of redemption. It always bothered my father that the official cause of the fire, how and why it moved with such murderous speed, had never been determined. After months of investigation, including interviews with technical experts and dozens of eyewitnesses, the fire commissioner concluded in 1943 that the Cocoanut Grove fire was "of undetermined origin." Could my father somehow find a clue to solve this half-century-old mystery?
I look at his wrinkled brow, his bony fingers, the cane leaning against his chair; and I realize what I must do. I must take all of this and do what he set out to do: record the history of this event. To me, it is a mystery story, a story about a cultural tradition, about the fraternity of firefighting and rescue men, the story of a man's struggle and determination. I suppose, ultimately, this is the story of how my father's devotion to the fire and its history would prove to be his salvation.
And so I will pick up where he left off. I tell him this and he nods, for just as I knew what he would reveal, he knew I would take this on, knew I would finish what he started.
He smiles, draws on his cigarette, and he tells me stories about the Cocoanut Grove.

On the night of November 28, 1942, my grandfather—Pops—was working on Rescue 1 of the Boston Fire Department. Shortly before 10:00 PM, an alarm sounded for a fire at Stuart and Carver Streets in the city's South End, about a half mile from the firehouse. Rescue 1, along with trucks from Engine Companies 7, 22, and 26 and Ladders 13 and 17, roared into the night, sirens wailing, speeding through a densely populated warren of old commercial and residential buildings. After a brief ride, the trucks pulled up and Pops was relieved to see that it was only a minor car fire. The vehicle was unoccupied, leaving Pops and the other rescue men with nothing to do for the moment except stand and watch the hose men douse the flames.
Though it was a cold night, only 28° F, these few idle moments were a welcome break. It had been a heartbreaking couple of weeks, the most difficult Pops had faced during his ten years as a Boston firefighter. Just thirteen nights earlier, a fire had broken out at the Luongo Restaurant in East Boston, a night when Pops had been off duty. The Luongo Restaurant blaze had seemed routine. The first alarm struck at 2:27 AM, with multiple alarms quickly following. Soon enough, dozens of firefighters had controlled the blaze. But just then—without warning—a wall collapsed, killing six firefighters. It was the worst loss of life since the department's inception in 1678.
There had been a massive memorial service for the men, and Pops, along with thousands of other firefighters, had donned the coarse wool of their dress-blue uniforms and lined the streets outside Holy Cross Cathedral. Pops had known the men who perished: Peter Mc-Morrow, Daniel McGuire, Malachi Reddington, John Foley, Francis Degan, and Edward Macomber. John Foley was on the verge of retirement, while Francis Degan, who was just twenty-four years old, had only recently come on the job. Like so many Boston firefighters, Francis Degan followed in the footsteps of his father, who was on Ladder 1. Edward Macomber, the father of eight, had been on the job for almost thirty years.
Pops ached for these men and their families. The Luongo Restaurant fire was a haunting reminder of how dangerous the job could be. He knew that their fate could be his on any given night—for the fundamental truth of firefighting is that the most routine fire holds within it the power to inflict grave harm.
Pops was forty-two years old at the time, a husband and father of three children, ages seventeen, thirteen, and ten. He thought not only about the dead but also about the forty-three firefighters who had been injured at Luongo's. Some would be back to work soon enough, but the word was that a dozen or more would be forced into retirement. Through the 1920s and up until 1932 when he joined the Boston Fire Department, Pops had held many jobs, yet none brought him the satisfaction of firefighting, and he couldn't imagine being forced to retire. You could be from a poor family, from immigrant stock, as so many firefighters were, and you could achieve a measure of financial stability. But for Pops there was more to it, something deeper that drew him to the work. There were other jobs that paid decently—at the gas, electric, and telephone companies, for instance—but those jobs provided a week's pay and little more. As a firefighter you had the chance to do something that mattered; something that was, in its way, noble. It was a job with a rare purity, a beautifully simple mission: to save lives.
Pops was born in Somerville, a densely populated immigrant area just outside Boston. His father had been a marble cutter—and a drinker. Pops was the second of five children, and family circumstances dictated that he work from a young age. When he was twelve, he came home one evening from his job as a Western Union messenger and saw a wreath on the front door of the apartment, a signal that there had been a death within. He went inside and discovered that his mother had died. Pops was soon forced to quit school entirely and work full-time, so he soon joined the New Haven Railroad as a machinist.
In the evenings, after work, Pops used to go down to the local boxing gym and work out. Though he was small, he was compactly built, and as a teenager he was one of the most skilled amateur boxers around. I remember vividly when he was in his sixties and a housefly would make it through a torn screen into his kitchen. We would fall silent and watch respectfully as Pops assumed a boxer's pose, his right hand cocked just below his chin, his left ready to jab. He would move around the kitchen, watching the fly, his concentration absolute, just as it must have been in the ring. We would watch as, suddenly, he would flash his left hand out so fast he snatched the fly out of midair. He worked his way up in the amateur ranks and eventually won a Golden Glove championship, and with it the only piece of jewelry he ever wore, a gold ring imprinted with a boxing glove.
After his mother died, Pops could see that his widowed father was not up to the task of caring for his children. The family broke up and the five siblings scattered in different directions. Pops was on his own and enlisted in the U.S. Navy at seventeen, as soon as he was eligible. It was 1917, World War I was winding down, and he never made it overseas. Eventually, he got the job he loved: as a rescue man on the Boston Fire Department.
A few minutes after ten on November 28, 1942, with the car fire extinguished, the men prepared to return to quarters. Just as they were about to do so, however, someone began shouting. Everyone turned and looked toward Broadway, where clouds of smoke were billowing above the streetlights. Engines 22 and 26 and Rescue 1 raced down Stuart Street less than a hundred yards and turned onto Broadway. This was an area Pops knew well. He had lived for some years in an apartment on St. Botolph Street, and when he walked to work he used to follow these very streets—along Shawmut over to Broadway. Pops frequented Eddie's Lunch on Broadway. Recently, though, Eddie had gone out of business and his space had been turned into a bar, now part of the sprawling nightclub complex that Pops could see up ahead. Although he had never been inside, Pops knew it was the place to see and be seen in Boston, the place where the swells—political movers and shakers, entertainment industry people, a few mobsters, and anyone who wanted to be seen—went for a night on the town.
It was a raucous night in Boston, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, with throngs of revelers mixing with thousands of servicemen either on leave or about to ship out. There was an urgency in the air—people wanted to set aside thoughts of the war for a moment to enjoy themselves. Thousands more who had attended the big Boston College–Holy Cross football game that day at Fenway Park—and seen the stunning upset of national power BC—were also out for some fun. The Boston College loss forced many BC fans and team members to cancel plans for a victory celebration that night at the Cocoanut Grove. The streets were crowded with couples dressed for the evening: women with ornate hats, longish skirts, and ruby-red lipstick; cleanly barbered men in suits with wide lapels and equally wide neckties, fedoras atop their heads.
There were countless nightspots in Boston, but the jazziest, the biggest name, was the Cocoanut Grove, housed in an old cement box of a building running about a full block along Broadway. The revolving door at the main entrance led into a glitzy foyer with red carpeting and fancy draperies. Just beyond was a huge dining room with 100 tables, each with a crisp white linen tablecloth, and a dance floor surrounded by mock palm trees, giving the space a tropical feel. Adjacent to the dining room was the Caricature Bar, with stylish drawings of celebrities lining the walls and a forty-eight-foot bar top, the longest in Boston. Beyond the Caricature was the Broadway Lounge, formerly Eddie's Lunch, where Pops used to go, a new addition to the complex. All of the club's public areas were at street level, except for a darkened bar called the Melody Lounge in the basement, thirteen steps down a narrow stairway just thirty-six inches wide.
On this particular Saturday night, people stood three and four deep at the bars. Every seat at every table was occupied. Though the legal limit for the establishment was 600, the best estimates were that 1,000 people had jammed into the club that night.
Downstairs in the Melody Lounge, a couple of minutes after 10:00 PM, about 150 people were drinking, singing, and laughing. Within the perimeter of the octagonal bar, Goody Godelle, perched on a revolving platform, played the piano and sang. The Melody Lounge had an intimate, subterranean feel. Fish netting lined the walls of the narrow stairway; the lounge itself was decorated with a dark blue satiny fabric that draped from the ceiling, and rattan-type material covered the walls.
Suddenly, bartender John Bradley looked up and saw a "flash" near the ceiling. Intent on dousing the flame, Bradley ran over with a pitcher of water while another bartender joined him with a bottle of seltzer. Along with a young busboy, they worked to pull the imitation coconut tree down, away from the fabric on the ceiling and walls. The Melody Lounge had become rather boisterous as some patrons joined the pianist in a sing-along. The place was so noisy, people were so preoccupied enjoying their cocktails and one another, that almost everybody was oblivious to what was happening. Those who did see it, perhaps affected by the liquor, found it amusing. In any event, nobody moved.
Then a shimmering blue flame formed a smooth arc on the ceiling fabric. The arc began to move—surprisingly swiftly—and as it did so, smoke and burning bits of fabric suddenly dropped onto patrons. Layers of smoke folded over one another, descending on the people in the bar. Nearly everyone in the room realized simultaneously what was happening, and when they did, there was pandemonium—crashing tables, smashing glass, and people clutching and shoving and grabbing. En masse, people sprinted out the way they had come in: up the stairs. But the fire gained strength and speed, seeming to race the throng to the stairway. People clawed, scratched, and bulled their way to the staircase, their primal instinct for survival taking over. Then the lights in the Melody Lounge went out, plunging the space into blackness. Men and women screamed, crying out as the fire caught up with those on the stairwell, showering fire down upon their skin, their faces, ears, and necks bursting into flame.
The fire and the people engaged in a desperate race for oxygen, and the only source was precisely where the panicked throng was headed: up the stairs. The fire raced the patrons, easily overtaking them and in the process destroying most of those at the bottom of the stairs or in the stairwell itself. The stairwell was acting like a funnel—a chimney of sorts—propelling the fire along. As it emerged at the top of the stairs, on the main floor of the Grove, it was no longer a flicker of blue flame, no longer an incandescent wisp, a simple arc: It had become a ball of flame, yellow and blue, speeding forward up around ceiling level. Somehow, a demonic, otherworldly force had been created. This was no ordinary fire, no benign bit of flame crackling on a piece of wood. Something incredible was happening here. "Nothing about that fire was normal," a news reporter later observed, "not its terrible speed, not its mysterious fumes, not its strange twists of fate that left some without a scratch and others to die horrible deaths."
The fire moved so fast that it had completed its destruction of the Melody Lounge, killing or injuring most of the patrons there, before anyone in the dining room upstairs was even aware there was fire in the building. The National Fire Protection Association later calculated that the fire raced 400 feet through the club in one minute.
Throughout the dining room, people thought they heard someone yelling "fight." The assumption was that a couple of drunken sailors had begun to mix it up. Though the fire was literally seconds away from destroying the dining room, there was no way to anticipate the impending doom. When the call of "Fire!" went out, some people started toward the coatroom to retrieve coats and hats. At the first stirring of the crowd, a waiter shouted: "No one leaves until they pay their bill!"
At the foyer, the fire divided itself and drove its way into the Caricature Bar and at the same time burst into the dining room, where it sped high around the room, greedily consuming oxygen. The fire devoured the flimsy fabric on the walls and ceilings, but it also seemed to burn by itself, attached to nothing at all, appearing to burn the atmosphere. Around the room, elaborate gowns burst into flame. The fire created a dense cloud of smoke that descended upon the people as it generated gases that rolled throughout the space. Suddenly the temperature shot up as an intense, searing heat settled upon hundreds of screaming people scrambling for exits amid the crash of overturned tables and chairs, breaking china, shattering glass, and screams of terror. The lights failed and the pandemonium intensified. In the dark, there was the feeling of deathly heat, the smell of smoke, of burning fabric and seared human flesh. Separated couples cried out for one another. There was the sinister sound of the fire itself, of wind and energy moving together. A double door at the far end of the dining room opened onto Shawmut Street, but it was concealed by draperies. A waiter parted the curtains to reveal the door, and a group of men pounded it open.
Rescue 1 had pulled onto the scene at the main entrance. Pops ran down to the exit on Shawmut Street and arrived as the fire was flashing out into the street and the bodies were starting to pile up. People cried out for help, while a man staggered out, took a few steps, wheeled and collapsed, dead on the pavement.
Pops went to work pulling people out.
While the Shawmut Street exit allowed for escape, it also quickly became one of the only sources of oxygen. The fire raced to the exit and began to incinerate those fighting to get out. Flames shot twenty feet into the street. The exit became jammed, blocked by stacks of bodies—people dead, dying, others still fighting for breath. Most of the diningroom patrons had rushed back to the foyer, but it was a fatal mistake. People scratched, clawed, and trampled each other in a stampede for the revolving door, but as the crowd charged forward, some fell dead or were injured within the door as it became hopelessly jammed. Those lucky enough to have managed to escape in the early stages of the fire stood outside the revolving door, watching helplessly through the glass as scores of people burned to death before their eyes.
There was nothing that could have prepared Pops for this madness. He was a religious man, and he saw this as the Hell described in Revelations as "a lake of fire," or as written in Matthew, the unquenchable fire, "a furnace of fire [and] there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth"—a place of perpetual torment.
At the Shawmut Street exit, superheated air sped from within the building. It collided with the oxygen outside, up around the top of the entryway, then propelled flame into the street, torchlike. Heavy smoke made it difficult for Pops to see or breathe. He ducked low, beneath the flame and smoke, and pulled bodies free from the pile.
Pops tried to force his way inside, but it was impossible. To him, this was intolerable. For a rescue man to do his job, he must be able to get inside the building, to search out the victims, to lead them or drag them or carry them to safety. That was my grandfather's job, what he had been trained to do and what he had done so well so many times. But now he literally could barely get past the threshold of the building. Dear God, he wondered, what had gone on in there?
He scanned the pile, trying to identify the living, as he worked to burrow as deeply into the doorway as possible. He reached in and pulled a body, half carrying, half dragging it to safety. He went back and grasped arms, shoulders, anything he could get hold of to pull people out of this hell. He repeatedly ducked into the doorway to grasp a person, while breathing the smoke and gases and half crouching below the flames, then dragged or carried the body back out into the narrow cobblestone street and handed the person off to a volunteer rescue worker for transport to the morgue or hospital. In the street, where he could gulp clean air before going back in again, people lay dead, others burned and screaming, still others crawling on hands and knees, trying to get away from the fire and heat. There were people whose clothes had burned off, whose hair had been burned, people crying, vomiting.
Smoke billowing into the Boston night attracted crowds from throughout the area. Even as civilians were drawn to the scene, hundreds of firefighters, police, and other rescue workers were converging on the Grove. While Pops worked to pull bodies from the pile, police and ambulance workers ferried the injured and dead in taxis, ambulances, police cars, newspaper delivery trucks—whatever was available. The narrow streets around the Grove were quickly clogged with vehicles, spectators, and volunteers offering help. Fire trucks and other emergency vehicles could get no closer than 400 to 500 feet from the fire. Newspaper and radio reporters, photographers, priests, ministers, and rabbis, along with city and state political leaders, descended upon the scene. Suddenly, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub was the epicenter of Boston. Hundreds of volunteer workers from the army, navy, coast guard, and Red Cross arrived on the scene to assist firefighters. The new arrivals helped ferry the dead and injured to Boston City Hospital or Massachusetts General Hospital. The great majority of the initial casualties were taken to City Hospital, about half a mile away.


On Sale
Jan 30, 2007
Page Count
352 pages

Charles C. Kenney

About the Author

Charles Kenney is the author of many books including The Best Practice: How the New Quality Movement Is Transforming Medicine.

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