Tuesday, February 20, 2007

February 20

On 20 February 1927, humanity was punished with the birth of Roy Cohn, a helpless, squealing neonate who would grow up to be a lawyer and one of the worst public figures of the second half of the 20th century. Quite justifiably, Cohn hated himself, though not for the right reasons. He might have found fault with himself for being a ruthless, unethical jingo who went to his grave believing Richard Nixon to be a model American. Instead, he secretly loathed his homosexuality and took great (though unsuccessful) pains to disguise his gay identity from the rest of the world. As a 24-year-old lawyer, he secured the notorious convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, alleged Soviet spies who would later die for their crimes in the electric chair. As chief counsel in the Senate hearings led by Joesph McCarthy, Cohn hounded accused communists and took special delight in exposing the closeted lives of young gay men whose names were brought before the committee. Roy Cohn enriched himself by ruining others. He defended John Gotti and represented Donald Trump. A ferocious opponent of gay rights, he died of AIDS in 1986, insisting to the bitter end that he was suffering merely from liver cancer.


It’s been four years since a pyrotechnic error at a Rhode Island nightclub led to the deaths of 100 people. On 20 February 2003, the 1980s hair metal band Great White took the stage at The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island; half a minute into their opening number, one of the gerbs -- cylinders that shoot columns of sparks -- set fire to the foam padding on the walls behind the stage. The padding, which was not actual fireproof acoustical foam, instantly burst into flames and poured deadly fumes into the air. Remarkably, many in the crowd initially believed the fire was part of the show and did not recognize the fire for the danger it was. When the band stopped playing, singer Jack Russell observed that “this ain’t good.” Within two minutes, the entire club was in flames -- as the 400 people in attendance tried to escape, many became trapped in the hallway leading to the main entrance. Others managed to find the other three exits, while still more crawled through windows. One out of every four people at the show were killed, including the band’s lead guitarist.

A federal investigation later concluded that a simple overhead sprinkler would have doused the fire within seconds. Because the building dated back to the 1930s, however, it was not subject to more recent fire and safety codes, and the owners elected not to retrofit the club. The flammable padding that fueled the blaze had cost around $600. For twice the expense -- an additional $6 per victim -- the club could have purchased fire-retardant material.

Cohn photo by Mary Ellen Mark
Station Nightclub memorial photo here

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