It was Nov. 28, 1942. Thomas and Catherine O’Neil had just gone to the Boston College vs. Holy Cross football game and were at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub for dinner and dancing.
The O’Neils shared a meal with Thomas’s younger sister, Isabelle, and her date, William O’Connor, and were ready to head home. Isabelle O’Neil went to use the restroom, while the others paid the bill and got the coats.
“Shortly thereafter, the fire came up the stairs from the Melody Lounge and the smoke pushed them back away from the only doorway that was available to them at the time,” said Christopher O’Neil, grandson of Thomas, who was a 48-year-old Registry of Motor Vehicles inspector, and Catherine, 43, both of New Bedford.
O’Neil’s grandparents and great-aunt Isabelle were three of the 492 people killed in Boston’s deadliest fire to date. Isabelle, 35, worked at B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River. O’Connor, 35, a doctor, fell to the floor when the smoke filled the elegant club on Piedmont Street, but was able to escape the fire.
To mark the 70th anniversary of the tragedy, the O’Neil grandchildren are announcing a foundation named in honor of Thomas H. and Catherine D. O’Neil to benefit pediatric burn victims and their families, Christopher O’Neil said.
“We started it as our own means of giving back on their behalf,” he said. “We thought it was important to do something, even though it’s been 70 years.”
The charity has been in the works since February, but the founders are still waiting for approval from the IRS, he said.
The O’Neil family will announce the foundation at a private reception at the Country Club of New Bedford on Wednesday, he said.
O’Neil and his brother, Mark, are vice president and president of the Tomlinson & O’Neil Insurance Agency in New Bedford. The brothers plan to give funds from the foundation to Shriners Hospital for Children, Sumner Redstone Burn Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, and other burn trauma centers.
Christopher O’Neil said Wednesday’s reception will serve as an opportunity to recognize the work of the Cocoanut Grove Coalition. He hopes to call attention to www.cocoanutgrovefire.org, the coalition’s website, which contains theories, photographs, videos, and witness statements about the catastrophic blaze.