Ann Marie Gallagher, who survived Cocoanut Grove fire as a teen, dies at 90

Ann Marie Gallagher (center) spoke with mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh in 2013, after a ceremony honoring the victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire. It was Gallagher’s first return to the site since the night of the fire in 1942.
Ann Marie Gallagher (center) spoke with mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh in 2013, after a ceremony honoring the victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire. It was Gallagher’s first return to the site since the night of the fire in 1942. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Seventy-one years passed before Ann Marie Gallagher was ready to return to the scene of the Cocoanut Grove fire.

“I’ll never, ever, forget that day,” she said in December 2013 as she gathered with other survivors in Bay Village when Boston honored the fire’s victims by renaming the street where the nightclub once stood as Cocoanut Grove Lane.

Mrs. Gallagher was 90 when she died May 24, in the Bentley Commons at Keene senior living community, from complications from a fall.

She had nearly lived to see the 75th anniversary of the fire. “Whenever this time of year comes, I still have things that hit me. It’s something that never leaves you,” Mrs. Gallagher said in an interview a few days before the 2013 street commemoration. The ceremony, she added, “will be closure for me.”


On Nov. 28, 1942, she was only 16 when she traveled from her Keene, N.H., home to Fenway Park with her boyfriend and their parents. The six of them attended what became a legendary football game, when the College of the Holy Cross upset Boston College — a rout that was quickly overshadowed by the events of a few hours later.

The BC team had intended to celebrate at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, but canceled after the loss. Mrs. Gallagher’s group, however, had planned a night out. She was dating Fred Sharby Jr., a star football player at Keene High School.

“We rode around for a while, and then it was about 7:30 when we went for dinner. It was packed with people,” she said in a video interview with the National Fire Protection Association.

She and her boyfriend wanted to dance, and joined scores of others under a suspended ceiling of blue cloth. When they spotted the fire, “Fred said to me, ‘Ann, get on your hands and knees and cover your face.’ That’s the last thing I remember,” she told the Globe.


Her next memory is waking up in a hospital, where she was treated for respiratory damage from the smoke and toxic fumes. Mrs. Gallagher’s parents, her boyfriend, and his father were among the 492 people the fire killed. Of their group, the only survivors were Mrs. Gallagher and her boyfriend’s mother, Hortense Sharby.

Patrons had rushed to escape the Cocoanut Grove, only to become trapped in what would become one of the deadliest fires in the nation’s history. The main entrance was a revolving door, and others doors had been locked shut or opened inward, rendering them useless in the crush of the crowd. The tragedy led to fire safety reforms nationwide, and improvements in how hospitals treat and care for burn victims.

With the death of Mrs. Gallagher, just four survivors of the fire are still alive, according to Dr. Kenneth A. Marshall, who leads the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, which is preparing for the fire’s 75th anniversary this November.

In the years immediately after the fire. Mrs. Gallagher and two younger sisters grew up separately, in different families.

Yet in the decades that followed, “she had an outlook on life that was like no other, and a lot of that probably was because of the tragedy,” said Mrs. Gallagher’s daughter, Patricia Aumand of North Hampton, N.H. “She figured out she was going to make the most of life because she was given a second chance, and she did. She had a very, very positive attitude. She was a very great role model for me. She inspired me.”


Mrs. Gallagher’s youngest sister, Carole Robinson of Croydon, N.H., said she was “the most kind, considerate, loving person anyone could ever meet. She just had this countenance about her that you would look at her and see this beautiful woman, inside and out.”

As girls, they had grown up in a musical household. Their father was a pianist who had played in a band and been the organist and choir director at St. James Episcopal Church in Keene. With musical tastes that ranged from big band to classical to rock, Mrs. Gallagher “had a CD collection that would put mine to shame,” said her son Tim of Keene.

Sting was a particular favorite. She had seen him perform at the Red Rocks amphitheater in Colorado several years ago, and her family played his music during her wake.

“She really enjoyed music that she could dance to,” Patricia said. “She would dance at home — she didn’t care who was around. And she was a good dancer. She had rhythm.”

The oldest of three daughters, Ann Marie Clark was born in New York City. Her father, Clyde Clark, was a musician and later a manager at a lumber company. Her mother, the former Mabel Bushaw, was a dietician.

Mrs. Gallagher was a young girl when her family moved to Keene, which was her home the rest of her life. Nearly two years after the nightclub fire, she graduated from Keene High School in 1944. She attended what was then Colby Junior College in New London, N.H., and then Chandler Secretarial School in Boston.


She worked as a secretary at a manufacturing company in Keene before marrying Joseph L. Gallagher, with whom she had attended high school, on July 30, 1949. He worked in manufacturing at American Optical in Keene and they had four children.

“Family was foremost for her,” Tim said. “Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren — they always came first. She was at her best when she was with family.”

When her children were in school, Mrs. Gallagher began working for more than 20 years at what is now Antioch University New England, first as an administrative assistant and then managing the bookstore.

“She loved that job,” Patricia said. “Of course, she was surrounded by people all the time. That was the perfect fit for her. She was always like a mother figure to everybody.”

With her husband, Mrs. Gallagher often attended social functions, where they loved to dance. “They were always the first ones on the floor and probably the last to sit down,” Patricia said. “They were great dancing partners.”

Mrs. Gallagher’s husband died in 2004, and their other daughter, Susan Leslie of Colorado, died last year.

In addition to her son Tim, daughter Patricia, and sister Carole, Mrs. Gallagher leaves another son, Thomas of Fountain Hills, Ariz.; another sister, Martha Mortenson of Charlestown, N.H.; 13 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.


For decades, until the street commemoration in 2013, Mrs. Gallagher rarely spoke of the Cocoanut Grove fire. “It was too traumatic. I remember her at times, when I was young — she would just break down and have to be alone,” Tim said.

Patricia recalled that their mother “was very cautious. If we were to go out to a restaurant, for example, she’d always want to be near the exit. She never liked lighting candles, obviously.”

Perhaps as a balm to ease troubled memories, Mrs. Gallagher devoted herself to family, and to activities at St. Bernard Church in Keene, where her funeral Mass was said on Wednesday. She also had volunteered at American Red Cross blood drives and was a poll worker for elections. Along with her expansive family, friends from all parts of her life filled the church to bid her farewell.

“I was absolutely amazed,” said Carole, who delivered a eulogy at the Mass. “Here was a woman who was 90 years old, and so many people loved her so much and respected her. We should all such be so lucky.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.