Saving Clifford Johnson

Scroll slowly. You have decisions to make.

Clifford A. Johnson

©Jo Frey.

Your name is Clifford A. Johnson. You are 21 years old, Missouri-grown, a Coast Guardsman. The year is 1942. The day: Saturday, November 28. You’re taking Estelle Balkan to the Cocoanut Grove night club at 17 Piedmont Street in Boston. This is your first date.

This night will suck for you.

You and Estelle are in the New Broadway Lounge, a recent extension to the nightclub, when the fire begins in the basement of the main building. The Melody Lounge, a 55’x35′ room with walls of rattan, bamboo, and unfinished wood, is a crush of patrons and fake palm trees. Fabric hangs from wooden strips anchored into the concrete ceiling.

Nobody quite knows what happened–some people say a busboy accidentally lit up a fake palm tree with a match–but he’ll deny it, and investigators will consider an electrical malfunction. Whatever the spark, the first flame that blossoms takes one starved breath and explodes so quickly across the cloth ceiling that the wooden strips suspending the fabric remains untouched.

The fire sweeps over the heads of people scrambling up the staircase into the first-floor lobby of the main building. In its hungry hunt for oxygen, it sometimes leaps from the blackened ceiling onto the oily, hairy scalps of the fleeing folk below. Patrons between the lobby and the main dining room stand inexplicably frozen as the approaching fireball lashes at them with yellow and blue runners. Few take the time to consider the thick, poisonous smoke trailing behind the inferno.

Screaming patrons are flooding the Broadway Lounge–where you, young Clifford, stand. The crowd jostles you to and fro, maybe towards an exit, maybe into the eye of a crushing whirlpool of panic–but definitely away from Estelle. You’ve lost her hand. You’ve lost her.

The main entrance is a single revolving door, already clogged with desperate, dying bodies. Fortunately, the Broadway Lounge has another exit, and you are outside and safe while hundreds of others are just realizing that they’re trapped.

What do you do now?
Choose wisely.



Find Estelle.

Find Estelle.

Against your instincts, you decide to go back. Not only are you a Coast Guardsman, but you are a gentleman.

You re-enter the burning building four or five times, each attempt hotter, more harrowing, and more horrible than the last. You drag out whoever you can lay your hands on and carry, depositing them out in the freezing night and plunging back into the inferno in search of that one girl.

In the end, you emerge from the Cocoanut Grove’s hellish maw with heavy smoke and toxins scorching your lungs. You’re covered in flames that dig their barbed teeth deep into your skin, parboiling the epidermis and deeper dermal layers, melting fat, incinerating nerves, ripping through veins and capillaries, cooking muscles and nipping at your very bones.

Pain ravages your senses. You willingly surrender consciousness.

You don’t know it while you lay gasping for breath, but over half of your body is covered in third-degree burns. Your pulse and body temperature are dropping, and you’re hemorrhaging precious fluids. Firemen are looking at you and proclaiming you dead.

I regret this decision.

You’re missing a lot of skin, which is your first line of defense against dirt and germs. You’re a peeled orange, and it’s only a matter of time before something begins eating away at you.

Which hospital do you want to go to?

Boston City Hospital.

Boston City Hospital.

Massachusetts General Hospital.

Massachusetts General Hospital.

At Mass Gen, patients under Oliver Cope and Francis Allen Moore do not undergo the painful debridement process to remove dead or damaged skin before treatment. Wounds aren’t even cleansed. Medical students and interns bandage all burns–even face injuries–with gauze soaked in boric petroleum jelly. Intravenous injections replace lost fluids.

Cope will receive criticism for deciding not to debride or clean wounds. In the summer of 1983, he will explain that compromising intact skin didn’t seem worth the risk, and since the boric petroleum treatment doesn’t depend on a quick and thick scab to form like the old tannic acid treatment, the preparatory cleansing is more of an inconvenience than necessity. The tannic acid and triple dye treatments, in his opinion, are unnecessarily complicated and merely delayed healing. He will be vindicated.

The petroleum jelly in the bandages provides soothing relief, but the antiseptic qualities of the added boric acid is not enough to prevent infection for serious burns. Practitioners use sulfadiazine, synthetic antimicrobials, on most patients, but the hero of the hospital turns out to be the newly discovered antibiotic derived from a mold: penicillin.

Because the treatment is easy, anybody working at the hospital is qualified to help out. Patients are treated quickly. Cope’s gentle and effective boric petroleum and penicillin methodology will push tannic acid and triple dye treatments out of the picture for burn victims in the future.

Of all the patients admitted, only three people have burns covering 30% of their bodies. All of them die.

I regret this decision.

Remember, over half your body is covered in third-degree burns. You probably die, too.

You end up at Boston City, where doctors and nurses are too flustered and short on supplies to follow some new protocols for burns, which recommends bandages soaked in boric petroleum jelly. They instead rely on tried and true methodologies.

For burns on the torso or limbs, the default treatment uses a mixture of tannic acid-silver nitrate, a technique developed by E.C. Davidson from 1925 to 1927.

Nurses scrub the patients down (after, of course, a calming dose of morphine or codeine) to remove damaged and dead skin and to pop blisters. This process, known as debridement, is meant to prevent blood poisoning but runs the risk of disrupting healthy skin. Preparing the wounds for the tannic acid treatment is necessary so as to not trap potentially infectious material under the eventual scab.

Every fifteen minutes for ten to eighteen hours, attendants spray patients down with a 5% tannic acid solution (silver nitrate added to speed the tanning process). Tannic acid in larger doses is used to tan animal skins into leather. The medical application accomplishes the same effect, creating a tough layer that will prevent the loss of precious body fluids and outside bacteria from infecting the wounds. The scab’s toughness makes this treatment inadvisable for face and hand burns, as plastic surgeon Sir Archbald McIndoe discovered when treating World War II pilots (his solution was gentle saline baths).

Your doctor, Newton Browder, subscribes to Robert Henry Aldrich’s 1932 findings and treats you with triple analin dye–a water-based cocktail composed of gentian violet (to fight gram-positive bacteria), methyl green (A.K.A. “brilliant green,” to fight gram-positive bacteria), and acriflavine (general antimicrobial). He credits your survival to this treatment.

Over the next year, Browder performs roughly 30,000 pinprick skin graft surgeries–excising bits of your healthy skin with a Gillete blue blade and methodically arranging them on your open wounds in hopes that the bits would take and grow together.

The skin grafts fail to stick and slough off. Browder insists on starting the process over again. At this point, you’ve found out Estelle had been out of the building for many of your rescue attempts, and she is alive. That’s great! But you still hate everything.

Wait, let’s go back…

You want to kill yourself, but after a grueling year and the care of your 24-hour nurses, you are able to walk out of the hospital on your own steam.

Sounds good. So what now?

There is only one authentic ending, but in short:

Against the odds, you survive your ordeal, probably largely in part to the intense personal care your doctor and nurses gave you. You marry Marion A. Donovan, one of your dedicated nurses at Boston City Hospital, and enjoy a normal life until the day you die in 1956.


In a car accident. On fire.

2 Responses to “Saving Clifford Johnson”

  1. Alonzo

    Very interesting. I was just reading about this poor fellow. The only thing I take issue with is the bitterness you seem to have toward women. I know you were sort of trying to be humorous but I don’t really see why the “that bitch” comment was necessary. It takes away from the obvious genuine feelings this man felt for the woman he was seeing at the time. I am sure he would have been glad to know that she did not die; after all, he was trying to save her. What would be better, him being severely burnt and her being dead? Or her being alive? It is certainly a tragic story, but I don’t like to assume he hated her after the fact. He did eventually marry his nurse, though, which at that point was likely a better match for him….

    • Hannah Cheng

      You’re right, the comment wasn’t necessary. I did imagine Clifford would be a little bitter that the woman he was trying to save had already been saved, but there’s no basis for that thought and he ended up saving a lot of people besides. So I removed the comment. Thanks for pointing that out.


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