Two Stories, One Mission
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2012
At first glance, Ann Gallagher, an 86-year-old lifelong resident of New Hampshire, and Princella Lee Bridges, a former operating room nurse and Desert Storm veteran from South Carolina, appear to have little in common. But both had single days in their lives that changed them forever. Those days, separated by a half century, recently brought these remarkable women to NFPA, and their stories are powerful reminders of why our mission is so important.
Ann was 16 in November, 1942, when her high school boyfriend invited her and her parents to join his family for an exciting outing in Boston. They traveled from Keene, New Hampshire, to watch a college football game, followed by an evening of dinner and dancing at the popular Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Seventy years later, Ann still does not know how she escaped Cocoanut Grove that night, when a fire killed 492 people — including her parents, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s father. She doesn’t know how she avoided being crushed to death, or killed by the smoke that hospitalized her for 24 days.
In March, 1992, Princella was at home in Greenville, South Carolina, when a heating unit started a fire on a newly polyurethaned floor. The family activated its home escape plan, but Princella could not find her daughter at the predetermined meeting place. Desperate, she raced back into the house to look for her. Firefighters rescued her daughter, who was suffering from severe smoke inhalation, but Princella was burned over half her body before she got out. Two months later, when she came out of an induced coma, Princella learned that she had been severely scarred and had lost the use of her hands.
Ann and Princella survived, but the burdens they carry never go away. They also learned that along with their own unimaginable losses had come an opportunity to be of service to others.
For 70 years the Cocoanut Grove Fire has never been far from Ann’s mind, even as she married, became a mother, then a grandmother and great-grandmother. But she doesn’t dwell on all that she lost. As one of the last remaining survivors of the fire, Ann came to NFPA to let us make a video of her as she told her story, because she knows there are still important lessons to be learned that can save lives. Her story will be available not just as an inspiring historical artifact, but as a permanent testimonial to the consequences of ignoring the threat of fire.
Princella endured a long fight back from the fire that almost killed her, as well as the knowledge that the loss of her hands meant the end of her career as a nurse. Undaunted, she returned to college, earned a degree, and has dedicated her life to helping others who have suffered severe burns.
But for her it wasn’t enough. She wanted to put her own story to use to help others, and she has become a relentless advocate for residential sprinklers through our “Faces of Fire” campaign.
We are an organization dedicated to finding technical answers to advance safety, but the human element — the lives affected, the courage of human endurance — is never far from our minds. Ann and Princella and all of the other extraordinary people we are privileged to work with remind us of the true value of those efforts.