From Miami to the South Seas

“Here we go. . . .  Here’s your ballgame, folks, as Flutie takes the snap.  He drops straight back . . . has some time, now scrambles away from one hit . . . looks . . . uncorks a deep one to the end zone, Phelan is down there. . . . Oh! He got it!  Did he get it?  He got it!  Touchdown!  Touchdown!  Touchdown!  Touchdown!  Touchdown Boston College!  He did it!  He did it!  Flutie did it!  He got Phelan in the end zone!  Touchdown!  Oh my goodness. . . . What a play!  Flutie to Gerard Phelan! . . . No time on the clock, it’s all over!”

With this call, Dan Davis, longtime Boston College football radio announcer, immortalized the “Hail Flutie” last-second, improbable 47-45 victory of Boston College Eagles over the University of Miami Hurricanes on November 23, 1984.  With Boston College trailing with six seconds on the clock, Boston College quarterback, Doug Flutie, scrambled away from Miami’s defense and launched a Hail Mary pass 63 yards in the air against 30 mph winds.  Miami’s defense allowed Boston College receiver Gerard Phelan to run past them to the end zone where Phelan caught the game winning score.  The Miami defenders later stated that they did not believe that Flutie could throw the football that distance in those conditions.

Improbable?  Perhaps.  But the Miami defenders just witnessed a game with 919 yards of passing offense (Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie – 472 yards; Miami quarterback Bernie Koser – 447 yards).  The game included total offense output of 1,282 yards under hurricane like conditions.  Gerard Phelan alone, who caught the Hail Flutie pass, accounted for 227 receiving yards.  The quarterbacks combined for 84 pass attempts.  No defender should have taken either offense for granted, especially these quarterbacks on that day.  Improbable or not, this college football game between two top-ranked teams playing before a national television audience the day after Thanksgiving, remains a defining moment in both the legend of Boston College football as well as among the most memorable sports moments ever.

Yet, I suggest that the Boston College football program played a much more consequential game decades before on November 28, 1942.  Boston College entered the big game in 1942 against then rival, Holy Cross.  Boston College, then ranked No. 1 in college football and posting a record of 8 wins and 0 losses, remained heavily favored to easily dispose of Holy Cross at Fenway park.  Holy Cross stood as Boston College’s sole obstacle to an invitation to the national championship game in the Sugar Bowl.

This 1942 Boston College squad deserved high praise.  In reaching a record of 8-0, Boston College outscored all adversaries by a combined score of 249-19.  Boston College scored more than 31 points per contest while limiting challengers to fewer than 3 points each game.  Of the eight wins, Boston College shut out five opponents.  After defeating Wake Forest on October 24 by a score of 27-0, the sports section of the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer ran the headline: “Baptists Beaten in Boston Battle”.  Great alliteration, but try to get away that headline today!

Preparations were in place for this lead-in game to an invitation to the Sugar Bowl.  After the Holy Cross game, the celebration would continue throughout Boston culminating at the Coconut Grove nightclub.  Coconut Grove, the multi-story Polynesian themed nightclub could accommodate the anticipated crowds of fans as well as the sailors on leave from the Naval fleet docked a few blocks away in Boston Harbor.  The Boston College football team would show up late that evening to the anticipated cheers and adoration of all.  What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, no one advised Holy Cross of the invincible nature of the 1942 Boston College Eagles.  Holy Cross embarrassed Boston College by a score of 55-12 thereby dashing all national title aspirations.  All celebrations were abruptly cancelled, including the alumni, fans, students and football players gathering at the Coconut Grove.

Not to worry at the Coconut Grove.  19 naval vessels remained at port in Boston Harbor providing ample patronage for the nightclub.  The crowds would even be larger as many enjoyed some time off for the Thanksgiving weekend.  Having lived in Boston for a number of years, I speculate that at least some Boston College fans might still seek to attend the festivities at establishments such as the Coconut Grove even with a Boston College football loss.

Indeed, on Saturday night, November 28, 1942, as many as 1,000 people packed Coconut Grove to enjoy the South Seas ambience.  Coconut Grove offered large dining rooms, dance areas, and cocktail lounges.  Floor shows would begin about 10:30 p.m. to make certain that guests remained well-entertained into the night.

The basement level of the Coconut Grove housed the Melody Lounge.  At about 10:15 p.m., a small fire started in a corner of the Melody Lounge.  Once flames hit the South Seas paper decorations and fake palm trees, fire raced up the walls and across the ceiling covered with additional, flammable decorations.  Heavy black smoke filled the basement with both smoke and flames quickly traveling upstairs to the street level and the main dining room.

As shouts of “Fire!” rang out, electricity at the club was lost.  A witness who survived the fire, Navy Lt. John Edwards, noted: “it seemed that when the lights went out, everybody’s intellect went with them.”  Unfortunately, it appears that Coconut Grove included only two operational exits:  the main revolving door and an inward opening door.  The revolving door became jammed almost instantly overwhelmed by the rush of hundreds of patrons trying to escape.  The second exit did not fare any better with the wall of people pushing to flee through limited space.

With billowing black smoke, many could not even get out of the basement level Melody Lounge.  Smoke filling the main levels added to the chaos in the darkness.  492 people died in the Coconut Grove fire.  The cause of death of most – asphyxiation.  For those trapped in the Melody Lounge, extreme burns caused the most deaths.  Yet, many died due to injuries suffered while trying to escape.  These victims were trampled to death by their fellow patrons.

The occupancy limit at the Coconut Grove nightclub was fewer than the 492 people who lost their lives that evening.  On that fateful night, 1,000 patrons packed in Coconut Grove.  Coconut Grove did have additional doors.  However, to maximize the areas for paying guests, these other doorways were blocked or obscured for club operation.  One door with a “panic” lock designed to release in the event of emergency had been bolted shut.

Fire investigators could not assign a specific cause to the Coconut Grove fire.  Suspicion followed busboy Stanley Tomasewski who was in the area of fire origin to change a decorative light bulb.  Tomasewski admitted to lighting a match to assist with light bulb replacement in a dark corner, but denied starting the fire.  The fire department could not connect Tomasewski’s actions with the fire.

Even greater suspicion followed Coconut Grove club owner Barnett Welansky.  Despite failure to meet fire codes concerning occupancy limits and intentionally blockading exits, no actions were initially taken against Welansky.  Welansky remained close to Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin with this association bringing into question the zeal with which officials “investigated” the fire.  In addition, Welansky, a lawyer, possessed a long-standing relationship with his client Charles Solomon.  Upon his death a few years earlier, Solomon, a known mafia boss, transferred ownership of Coconut Grove to Welansky.  Close ties to top politicians and mob bosses with no real investigation pursued?  Tough to believe.

Nonetheless, removed from these local pressures, the Navy conducted its own, independent investigation determining that fault rested with Welansky in failing to comply with fire codes.  Further, the Navy found that Welansky expanded Coconut Grove without building permits or authorization from City officials.  These expansions failed to meet minimum code requirements and played into the poor safety conditions already in place.

With these public findings by the Navy and corresponding public outrage, the state opened a criminal investigation into Welansky.  A grand jury returned an indictment charging that Welansky failed to comply with building standards and allowed overcrowding.  A trial resulted in the conviction of Welansky on 19 counts of manslaughter.  Charged to serve 15 years, Welanksy spent but months behind bars only to be released for his supposed “failing health”.

The state charged nine others including a Boston firefighter lieutenant, police captain, building inspector and employees of the nightclub.  These officials and employees secured acquittals.

The fire commissioner did propose various measures to improve safety in public buildings designed to enhance the chances of escape in the event of emergency.  Chief among the these recommendations were installation of automated sprinkler systems and use of powered, illuminated EXIT signs.  Those recommendations served as the basis for establishment of new public safety codes adopted by municipalities and states over the next decade.

Doug Flutie’s 63 yard, last-second pass to Gerard Phelan will remain “The Pass” for college football fans.  This 1984 victory over Miami rightfully resides at the zenith of Boston College football lore.  And yet, Boston College’s 55-12 loss to Holy Cross in 1942 proves more impactful.  Absent that 1942 loss, hundreds of additional patrons would have been in attendance at Coconut Grove on that Saturday evening.  Many students and perhaps even the entire football team would have been present at the ill-fated nightclub.  Additional loss of life, while difficult to imagine, surely would have been a reality.

Wooden theater houses existed since the late 1590s, illuminated with open-flame oil lamps.  Movie houses existed since the early 1900s.  Certainly, it should have dawned on someone prior to 1942 that well-placed, illuminated EXIT signs should be mandatory in public settings.  It is of little solace to the families of the 492 who perished in the Coconut Grove tragedy that this loss served as the impetus for part of the modern public safety system.

In Estate Planning, we do consider legacy impacts.  None of my clients will throw a 63 yard Hail Mary pass on national television to salvage a victory in a flash moment establishing their legacy.  Nonetheless, some of these clients encountered the pain of tragedy as did the family members of the 492 Coconut Grove victims.  These clients desire to do something, anything, to seek to prevent their own tragedy being repeated for others.

For these clients, we consider charitable gifting to organizations and institutions to tackle the underlying problems.  We also evaluate establishing longer lasting foundations with educational, research, or action goals to address these issues.  For these clients, seeking solutions to, and prevention of, their own tragedies represents a step on the path forward.  These efforts become their own legacy, just as important and impactful as any football contest.

Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy in 1984.  The voting for the Heisman concluded prior to the Boston College vs University of Miami football game.  Even so, this Miracle in Miami cemented Flutie’s legacy.  Years later, Doug Flutie reflected on the Hail Flutie pass.  Flutie opined: “Without the Hail Mary pass, I think I would have been very easily forgotten.  We would have gone to the same bowl game, the Heisman voting was already in, and the direction of my career set.  Everything would have been the same, except that pass put this label on me as ‘it’s never over ’till it’s over’ guy.”

I suspect Flutie may be correct in this self-assessment.  Everyone knows Doug Flutie.  A few can name Gerard Phelan as the trivia answer to who caught The Pass.  No one can readily name other players from the 1984 Boston College football team.  No names from the 1942 Boston College football team immediately come to mind.  No legend or legacy plays capped a comeback against the underdog, Holy Cross.  The Boston College faithful crowds had no reason to gather at the Coconut Grove nightclub on November 28, 1942.  Losing that football game is a legacy for the 1942 Boston College football players worth cheering.

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