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John Heyman, oldest Cocoanut Grove fire survivor, dies at 99

Mr. Heyman in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming in 2010. Joan Yogg

On the night of Nov. 28, 1942, John Heyman and his date walked downstairs in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub to a lounge where a band was playing — a room that “was dark, but when a bulb was pulled from its socket, perhaps by a couple desiring privacy, it became even darker,” he would later recall.

“I watched as a busboy struggled to replace the bulb just 10 feet in front of me,” Mr. Heyman wrote. “He could not see in the dark, so he struck a match, which immediately ignited both the artificial palm tree holding the socket and the palm fronds above the tables. The cloth ceiling caught fire and flames exploded upstairs almost instantaneously, spreading choking smoke and heat everywhere.”


His recollection, published in the Globe in 2012 on the fire’s 70th anniversary, was among the infrequent times he revisited memories of that night. Though Mr. Heyman would require multiple surgeries for his injuries, and the woman he was with died the day after the fire from smoke inhalation, he survived to provide a precise first-person account of one of the nation’s deadliest tragedies, which killed 492 people.

Mr. Heyman, who for the past couple of years was the oldest living survivor of the Cocoanut Grove fire, died March 30. He was 99 and had lived in his Wilbraham home until three weeks before his death.

Now only five known survivors of the fire are still alive, said David Blaney, the unofficial historian of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee. The survivors range in age from 93 to 96.

Mr. Heyman “had remarkable health and mobility up until four years ago,” said his daughter, Joan Yogg of Wellesley.

At 80, he climbed Mount Katahdin in Maine, and at 91, he returned to one of his favorite destinations and hiked in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.


“My mother, who knew him more casually before the fire, always said that after the fire he developed a much lighter, more optimistic point of view, or way of living,” Joan said. “I think it actually informed a lot of key decisions he made in his life.”

The night that changed his outlook was to be a celebration.

“It was the war that brought me to Boston on the day of the Cocoanut Grove fire,” Mr. Heyman wrote.

He had graduated from what is now the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Even before the United States entered World War II, he aspired to become a Navy pilot.

During the summer of 1939, he learned to fly, and on the day of the fire, “I traveled from my home in Springfield to Boston’s main post office to take the final exam,” he recalled. “I was to be sworn in the following Monday but never made it.”

That Saturday afternoon, he and his date went to the legendary football game in which Holy Cross upset undefeated Boston College, 55-12. Hours later at the Cocoanut Grove, they initially were seated at a street-level table, before heading downstairs around 10 p.m. When the fire began, they hurried back upstairs.

“No one panicked until they saw the main entrance, a single revolving door jammed shut by bodies pressed against it,” Mr. Heyman wrote. “We went back toward our table, which was only 15 feet from an exit, but it was locked to prevent patrons from leaving without paying. Other exits opened inward and were blocked by the panicked crowd. We were trapped.”


Amid calls to stay calm and the screams of the injured, “we nearly passed out,” he recalled. “Then, almost immediately, firemen, coming from the outside, forced open the locked exit by our table. An icy blast of air revived us and we dashed for the door and into the cold night.”

The youngest of four siblings, John Heyman was born in Wheeling, W.Va., on Sept. 4, 1919. His mother, Susan Halley, was a homemaker. His father, Oliver Heyman, worked for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., and his work brought the family to Philadelphia and then to Springfield.

Mr. Heyman was the valedictorian of his 1937 graduating class at Cathedral High School in Springfield, his family said, and he attended UMass Amherst, which was then Massachusetts State College, where he led the campus Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and a Catholic organization.

His injuries from the Cocoanut Grove blaze prevented him from serving in the military. Instead, he worked as a quality control inspector at a Hartford weapons plant.

Of his trip to Boston, Mr. Heyman once said: “I came in 1A, and I left four weeks later 4F,” recalled Dr. Kenneth Marshall of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, who has spoken with many of the fire’s survivors.

Mr. Heyman was discussing the abrupt change in his military draft status from being available for any assignment to being excluded for medical reasons.


“My biggest contribution to the war effort would be as a patient receiving experimental surgical procedures developed by Dr. Varaztad Kazanjian, procedures that not only saved my life, but those of countless pilots and other victims of the war,” he wrote in his Globe essay.

In 1946, Mr. Heyman married Grace Marion Havens. “They met in Springfield,” their daughter said. “She was a dental assistant and he went to the dentist, and met her.”

Mrs. Heyman, who died in 2001, joined her husband and their children on what would become years of camping trips.

“He was an adventurer in that way,” Joan said. “He convinced my mother — who was very feminine, and who you couldn’t imagine doing these things — to go camping, too.”

Following his father into the insurance business, Mr. Heyman joined Northwestern Mutual in 1946 and was an insurance agent for more than 50 years. He also taught classes in insurance underwriting.

But having survived the fire, Mr. Heyman decided there would be more to his life than work.

“When my brother and I were young, he decided to take six to eight weeks off each summer to go and visit all the national parks in our country and Canada,” Joan said.

“He just decided that these things were too important,” she added, “that he needed to have the balance of family life and adventure and work, and not wait until he was much older.”


In addition to his daughter, Mr. Heyman leaves his son, Robert, of Wilbraham; five grandchildren; and four great grandchildren.

Family and friends will gather to remember Mr. Heyman’s life Sunday at 11:30 a.m. in Byron Keenan Funeral Home and Cremation Tribute Center in Springfield. A celebration of life service will begin at noon. Burial will be private.

When Mr. Heyman was younger, he performed in many community theater productions. “He had a beautiful baritone singing voice and he sang until two days before he died,” his daughter said.

“He also had an unusual sense of humor,” she added. “He was just the funniest person I ever met. And would do it not just in jokes — he would create these scenes and skits that were just hysterical.”

Other than his 2012 essay, Mr. Heyman generally avoided anniversary commemorations of Cocoanut Grove, and he considered himself profoundly fortunate to have survived.

After the fire, “a report in the Springfield Daily News that I was ‘near death’ turned out to be an exaggeration,” he wrote. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at