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“Phoenix out of the Ashes”

The Cocoanut Grove fire

A fire broke out in Boston’s very popular Cocoanut Grove nightclub on November 28, 1942, killing, 498 as a result of the fire, and 116 were injured and sent to Boston-area hospitals and impacting countless others. This is the deadliest known nightclub fire in the world.

On the night of the fire, there were around 1,000 occupants, about twice as many as the official capacity allowed.

The Cocoanut Grove was a tropical-themed restaurant/supper club (nightclubs did not officially exist in Boston), built in 1927 and located at 17 Piedmont Street, near Park Square, in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. Piedmont Street was a narrow cobblestoned street located near the Park Square theatre district, running from Arlington Street to Broadway.

The fire began in the basement, in what was called the Melody Lounge. According to accounts, a busboy was trying to tighten a light bulb that had apparently been loosened by a soldier looking for some privacy with his girlfriend. While trying to re-screw it, the bulb popped out and trying to get a better view of the socket, the busboy struck a match that caught some of the extremely flammable tropical decorations on fire.

Compounding the tragedy, the club didn’t have any safety precautions set up. The main entrance was a single revolving door, windows were boarded up and other entrances were bolted shut for various reasons that dated back to the time when the club was a speakeasy. The club’s owner was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 12 to 15 years, of which he only served four of before dying of cancer a few weeks after his early release.

The hats of servicemen, gaily checked Saturday night at the Cocoanut Grove Night Club, now may be the only identification of their wearers, on that tragic night. They are oiled up at the Boston Police Station awaiting further inspection.

The destroyed interior of the club after the fire. Boston Public Library/Flickr

Police, firemen, reporters, and the curious gather at the entrance to the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston on November 29, 1942. A fire on the previous evening incinerated the interior of the building, killing 492 and injuring 270, but leaving little apparent exterior damage. The high loss of life was due mainly to a lack of exits and the rapid growth of the blaze.

The Grove” as it was called by locals, was the place to see and be seen.  World-renowned personalities would stop in at the Cocoanut Grove when in Boston; Boston politicians were regulars; the Red Sox and Bruins held celebrations there; families and college students would go the Grove for those special occasions and anniversaries.  It was not unusual for Boston area racketeers to be among the guests.

Mickey Alpert, a previous part-owner of the club was the master of ceremonies. Alpert had made his claim to fame as an orchestra leader and was well-known in the entertainment industry.  He had introduced Thursdays as “guest nights” at the club.  Every Thursday at least one well-known celebrity would be introduced.  Major entertainers played at the club.  Only a week prior to the fire, Irving Berlin and a large part of the cast from “This is the Army” were entertaining at the Grove. Buck Jones, a Hollywood cowboy star was visiting the evening of the fire and later died of wounds suffered in the fire.

The Grove had something for everyone. It was glamorous and exciting, but cosy. The large Main Dining Room with its dance floor, orchestra and stage was an elegant place to dine, dance, see a show, and if the guests were lucky, see the rich and famous.  As celebrities were ushered into the main Dining Room, Alpert would be sure to announce their arrival to the audience.  Tables for celebrities were on a three-foot high platform which overlooked the dance floor.  They could clearly be seen by all.  The Caricature Bar and the new Broadway Lounge were fun places to meet friends for a drink.  The downstairs Melody Lounge was dark and intimate. A pianist accompanied well-known singers, who often were known to sing risqué songs and lead sing-alongs with the customers.  It was not unusual for local colleges and universities to note in their newspapers the line-up of entertainment at the Grove and other Boston clubs.

Also, some of its attraction may have been because of its somewhat shady past and reputation.  One of the previous owners, who had been a bootlegger and head of the Boston crime world, was gunned down in the men’s room of another Boston nightclub.  Barnett Welansky, the current owner was thought to have ties with Boston officials, which granted him certain “privileges” not open to others.

Two men carry one of the fire’s victims to safety. Bettmann/Getty Images

Men in the service of Uncle Sam donned white coats and aprons over their uniforms and assist in helping to identify victims of the fire at the morgue. More than 400 died in the blaze that broke out in a Boston nightclub last night.

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the night of the highly anticipated football game between rivals Boston College and Holy Cross.  Nearly a year after Pearl Harbor, men and women were looking for ways to forget about the war for a few hours. Crowds pushed night clubs and theatres beyond their limits. The Cocoanut Grove nightclub was no exception. Already a very popular venue, a new bar, the New Broadway Lounge, had recently opened within the nightclub.

The Grove was THE place to be in 1942. The building was a single-story structure with a basement beneath. The basement contained a bar, called the Melody Lounge, along with the kitchen, freezers, and storage areas. The first floor contained a large dining room area and ballroom with a bandstand, along with several bar areas separate from the ballroom. The dining room also had a retractable roof for use during warm weather to allow a view of the moon and stars. The main entrance to the Cocoanut Grove was via a revolving door on the Piedmont Street side of the building.

On Saturday, November 28, 1942, the powerful Boston College (BC) football team had played Holy Cross College (HC) at Fenway Park. In a great upset of that period, HC beat BC by a score of 55-12. College bowl game scouts had attended the game in order to offer BC a bid to the 1943 Sugar Bowl game, a bowl BC had previously won on January 1, 1941. As a result of the route a BC bowl game celebration party scheduled for the Grove that evening was cancelled. BC later accepted a bid to play in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1943, subsequently losing to the University of Alabama.

A famous Hollywood cowboy movie star, Buck Jones (real name Charles Gebhart)(photo right), was travelling the country on a War Bond campaign, had attended the BC-HC football game with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin. Despite his reluctance due to illness, Buck was persuaded by movie agents to have dinner that evening at the Grove.

At about 10:15 PM that evening, a busboy had been ordered by a bartender to fix a light bulb located at the top of an artificial palm tree in the corner of the basement Melody Lounge. It is believed that the bulb had been unscrewed by a patron desiring more intimacy with his date. Due to the lack of light in the area of the palm tree, the busboy lit a match in order to locate the socket for the light bulb.

A moment later, several patrons thought they saw a flicker of a flame in the palm tree of the ceiling decorations. As they watched, they saw the decorations change colour and appeared to be burning, but without a noticeable flame. After several moments, the palm tree burst into flames and the bartenders tried to extinguish the fire with water and seltzer bottles. Some patrons started for the only public exit from the Melody Lounge, a four-foot wide set of stairs leading to the Foyer on the first floor. As other furnishings ignited, a fireball of flame and toxic gas raced across the room toward the stairs. A wild panic ensued and attempts to open the emergency exit door at the top of the stairs were not successful. The fireball travelled up the stairs and burst into the Foyer area, where coatrooms, restrooms and the main entrance were located. Amid cries of “Fire, Fire”, customers quickly moved to toward the exit. After a small number of people exited, the revolving door became jammed due to the crush of panicked patrons. Observers outside could only watch in horror as relatives and friends were crushed by the weight of the crowd surging against the jammed door.

A group of firemen, civilians and uniformed men stand around a victim of tragic fire as priest administers last rites. The fire, one of the worst in history, swept through a Boston club.

Hundreds of people died and were injured when a fire swept through the Cocoanut Grove, a swank nightclub, during the night of football celebration. Photo shows a guest being carried to a waiting ambulance by one of the many civilians who helped police and firemen. The fire, one of the worst in the nation’s history, occurred during the height of festivities last night.

The fireball then exploded into the Dining Room area, where a majority of the patrons were crowded together into small chairs and tables, awaiting the start of the 10 PM show, already fifteen minutes late. It was later estimated that more than 1000 persons were inside the Grove at the time of the fire. As with the Melody Lounge, panic ensued and customers attempted to find an exit. Unfortunately, many exits were either locked shut or were not easily identified or accessed by the crowd. The fire now had complete control of the premises, with a tremendous rise in temperature and high levels of toxic gas.

In a strange coincidence, at 10:15 PM, the Boston Fire Department received and transmitted Box 1514, located at Stuart and Carver Streets, located about three blocks from the Cocoanut Grove. Upon arrival and investigation, firefighters found an automobile fire on Stuart Street. After quickly extinguishing the fire, a firefighter noticed what appeared to be smoke coming from the Cocoanut Grove. As they began to investigate, bystanders ran toward them to report the fire. Upon arrival at the Grove, firefighters found a heavy smoke condition emanating from the entire building, with both patrons and employees escaping from the building. At 10:20 PM, the Boston Fire Alarm Office (FAO) received Box 1521, Church and Winchester Streets, apparently pulled by a civilian bystander. The fire chief at the scene ordered his aide to skip the Second Alarm and request a Third Alarm, via fire alarm telegraph, from Box 1521, which was transmitted at 10:23 PM, followed by a Fourth Alarm at 10:24 PM. A Fifth Alarm was transmitted at 11:02 PM.

The small, congested streets in the area of the Grove quickly became clogged with fire apparatus and other emergency vehicles. The fire was extinguished in a matter of minutes, but the damage had already been done. Rescue operations began immediately, but the full horror of what awaited the firefighters inside the building was not fully realized for a period of time. Many patrons who were able to exit under their own power collapsed in the street and stacks of bodies, both living and dead, were buried shoulder-high at many of the exits. Getting inside to help proved nearly as difficult as getting out.

Many patrons were aided in escaping by following employees through the dark back corridors (the lights had gone out shortly after the fire started), while others hid in the giant refrigerators and meat lockers. Others were able to open several concealed exit doors from the Dining Room. However, due to the rapid spread of the fire, the intense heat and toxic smoke, many patrons inside the Grove never had a chance. An exit door in the newly-opened, but officially unlicensed ‘New Lounge’ allowed for the escape of some patrons. However, because the door was installed as an inward-opening door, the rush and weight of those fleeing the fire caused the door to shut, cutting off an important escape route. Other employees escaped through windows in various parts of the Grove, principally because they knew their way around in the back areas.

When the magnitude of the disaster was realized, an urgent call for help was issued. Navy, Army, Coast Guard and National Guard personnel were called into assist in the evacuation and removal of the injured. Newspaper delivery trucks, taxis, and any other means were used to transport the injured. In an interesting twist of fate, area hospitals had practised a disaster drill the week before the fire. Despite the drill, the majority of the injured were taken to Boston City Hospital (BCH). Many others were taken to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Other area hospitals received some victims and could have taken more under a more coordinated victim evacuation plan. BCH received 300 victims in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds. This volume exceeds the treatment rate encountered in London during the Blitz. MGH received 114 victims in two hours. Off-duty staffs were called in at both BCH and MGH, while volunteers provided additional assistance.

A temporary morgue was established in film distribution garage nearby the Grove. A number of presumed dead victims were sent directly to either the Northern Mortuary or Southern Mortuary. Several presumed dead victims, dropped off at the morgue, were actually alive. They were moved to the hospital and survived. At the morgues, staff and volunteers worked to identify the deceased. Identifying female victims was difficult because personal identification was usually kept in purses or handbags, which became separated from the owners in the panic and confusion of the fire.

Cocoanut Grove owner Barney Welansky had suffered a heart attack two days prior to the fire. While injured patrons of his establishment were being treated in the lobby of MGH, Welansky was upstairs resting in a bed. Buck Jones, who did not survive after lingering for two days, was among the victims sent to MGH. Doctors and nurses worked to save the injured, while other personnel worked to identify the victims.

Treatment of burns and internal injuries on such as massive scale caused medical personnel to adopt newly developed methods of care. Some methods had been well tested, while others had not. The first recorded general (non-test patients) use of penicillin to fight infection on burn victims occurred at MGH on December 2, 1942.

A ‘soft’ technique of treating burns was tried at MGH, under the leadership of Dr Oliver Cope, by treating the affected skin areas with a solution of boric petroleum. Purple dyes were used at BCH to coat the skin and to fight infection. Skin grafts were used to help in the healing process. In all, advances in burn treatment were made in four categories: fluid retention; prevention infection; treating respiratory trauma; skin surface and surgical management. It was discovered that many victims, both at the scene and at the hospital, succumbed to pulmonary edema. The edema was caused by breathing-in toxic smoke and gases containing ‘pyrolysis’, which was caused by the burning of the furniture and furnishings inside the Grove.

With stretchers and blankets for the burned victims, soldiers and sailors stand ready at the charred windows of the Cocoanut Grove Night Club where it is estimated that 500 people lost their lives by being burned, suffocated or trampled to death. The night club was jammed to capacity when the fire broke out at 10:30 last night. The death toll is still mounting at hospitals, where morgues are also filled with unidentified victims of the disaster.

Firefighters stand outside the club amid the chaos. Boston Public Library/Flickr

According to District Fire Chief John P. Vahey’s November 1970 report to the Fire commissioner:

As the fire rushed up the stairway it travelled near the ceiling and above the heads of the persons ascending to make their way out of the building. The movement of this fire and great volume of carbon monoxide gas generated by lack of oxygen was accelerated by the narrow (4 feet) width of the stairway which acted like a chimney adding a draft of suction to the room below. In the stairway, the partially unburned gas rapidly mixed with air and increased the temperature and rapidity of flow.

The burning mass passed from the top of the stairway into a narrow connecting corridor. At this end of the corridor was an exit door leading to Piedmont Street (this door was locked the night of the fire). The other exit from the Melody Lounge was by means of a door (used by waiters) leading to a passageway to the kitchen. Located in this passageway was a door leading to an outside alleyway. (This door was locked the night of the fire).

The fire appeared in the street floor lobby within two to four minutes after it was first seen in the Melody Lounge. It was described as travelling rapidly as a “ball of fire” below the ceiling and a yellowish or blue colour.

Most of the lights on the premises became extinguished immediately upon the appearance of the fire.

The fire in the corridor of the Foyer appeared to have been accelerated by a large ventilating fan placed over the further end of the Caricature Bar acting to draw air from the Foyer along the length of the Caricature Bar.

As fire travelled through the lobby toward the Caricature Bar it was soon followed by a thick cloud of smoke. The fire then traversed the length of the area containing the Caricature Bar.

Some few persons, including persons coming from the basement Melody Lounge, passed through the revolving door on Piedmont Street before the mass of flames reached it. The door then appears to have jammed. There was a very great pouring of flames through the exit. The great majority of persons on the street floor had no warning of the fire until the flames actually appeared in the lobby.

Upon reaching the Main Dining Room the flame, moving rapidly, swept high about the room near the ceiling, shortly followed by a cloud of dense smoke described by witnesses as acrid.

The burning and decomposition of wall coverings once again produced material largely gaseous and capable of further combustion and very rapid movement.

The great mass of partially burned gases spread from the Main Dining Room and into the Broadway Lounge.

The rapidly pouring mass of burning gaseous material appeared to have been depressed from its high elevation within the premises in order to pass through the exits. Persons attempting to pass through the exits were overcome by the great heat of fire and of the gaseous material pouring through them at the time.

The fire, within five minutes after it was first seen in the basement room, entirely traversed the street floor of the main building and had passed to the entrance to the Broadway Lounge.

Until such time as they were brought under control, the flames poured out of the exits on Piedmont Street, Shawmut Street and Broadway.

The firefighters had the fire out in little over an hour. The cause of the fire was never determined, and according to the Boston Fire Department’s official report, the origin of the fire is indicated as ”unknown.”

One of the greatest tragedies of its kind in history, the Cocoanut Grove Night Club fire last November 28, took the lives of almost 500 persons. Within a few moments, the hundreds of merrymakers that jammed the club were thrown into a panic as a roaring mass of flame swept through the rooms with an almost explosive speed. Many were burned to death, and many were crushed to death under piles of broken bodies near exits that proved too small to handle panic-stricken men and women. Here, in a photo taken shortly after the holocaust, firemen, priests and service men stand by the rear entrance to the night club, most of them numbed by the terrible sight of charred and broken bodies being carried through shattered windows and doors. One victim is shown on a stretcher, foreground.

This tragic scene outside of the fire-ravaged ruins which once were the swank Coconut Grove, shows dead or injured victims lying on the street waiting to be taken to hospitals or morgues.

The Cocoanut Grove Fire impacted the lives of many people, not just those that were directly involved with the fire.

Survivor Louise Bouvier

There were six in the party journeying from Southbridge, Massachusetts for an evening of fun and merriment in the “big city”. Louise was escorted by Steve Casavant. Steve’s sister Rita and her husband Hiram Bellows together with Ray Martell and his wife Ruth completed the group. They entered the Cocoanut Grove through the Piedmont street revolving door and in spite of having no reservations, were seated for dinner in the main dining room. Louise remembers the club being “very crowded, mobbed, mobbed”.

Survivor Marshall Cole

the six of us left for the Boston College and Holy Cross game at Fenway Park. And then I was told that we had reservations at the Coconut Grove that evening for dinner and, I understood, dancing. And since I really loved to dance, I thought this was going to be wonderful. And the following day I was treated to a stage show in Boston. And the weekend was just going to be a great weekend. Something that young people would look forward to. And so we went to the game. I don’t think Boston College had lost one game that season and Holy Cross beat them. Of course, we were crushed because we were with the Boston College group. And we, after the game, we drove over to the Coconut Grove. Parked the car in the parking lot there. And we were ushered — we had reservations — and we were ushered into one of the newest bars that the Coconut Grove had. The Coconut Grove seemed to have a number of small bars off the main part of the club. And we were rather disappointed because there was a piano player there and that was it.

That was the entertainment. And none of us were drinkers. And, I mean, if you have one drink, you nursed it the whole evening and maybe have a lot left over. But it was kind of disappointing. And having lived in Boston, or rather in the suburb, at that age, I had attended the Mayfair Club across the way. So I suggested to the group that maybe we could move over there. We hadn’t had dinner or anything. And so they were kind of reluctant, in a way, because at least they had a table where we were. But I said, I have a friend who has a neighbour who works there, so maybe we can get a table. We went over there. No luck. So what to do?

We went back to the Coconut Grove, or down to the Melody Lounge. And it was so dark. They have a spotlight on the piano player that was up behind the bar. And so many military. Just maybe 10 deep around. Just all standing. Very few tables. It was very dark down there. It was all lined with black fabric. And I saw this man reach up and unscrew a light bulb. And I thought to myself, its dark enough in here, you know, what is wrong with — well, we couldn’t find a place, and we weren’t satisfied. So someone suggested we crash the Holy Cross celebration up at the Palmer House. So we got in a cab and off we went. Well, it was kind of dull up there because it didn’t seem to be much of a celebration, but they had a lot of food. So we enjoyed it. And at that time we could hear a lot of sirens.

So we decided to go back to the Grove and take the car and drive down to the South Shore and find a place that we knew of that we could have dinner. So the taxi cab driver said, the Coconut Grove is on fire. And he said, is your car parked there? And it was. He said, my suggestion is, you get down there to that car and get it out of the parking lot before the fire engines get in there. Well, he let us off. And as we walked toward the parking lot, there were people walking away from the Grove who were almost like in a dream. They were just so —
They had gotten out. But they just couldn’t believe what was going on. And it seemed like the building behind us, the Coconut Grove building was bursting. It was almost like it was something like dynamite, you know. And later on we came to the conclusion it was probably a lot of the sodas and the beer and everything that was under pressure. And, of course, when the fire hit that. But there was not one person in that bar where we had been that got out alive.

So that was a very sad time. And I was happy to be able to call my parents the next day and say, yes, I was at the Coconut Grove, but here I am. And I am fine.

Richard Wolfe, U. S. Coast Guard

Respectfully request you post any information regarding a Coast Guardsman named Clifford Johnson. From reading many articles he re-entered the Grove many times looking for his date and each time he exited he brought out people. I would like more information on this subject so he can be recognized for his heroic actions. In addition, he was burned over 55% of his body and survived.

M.A.S 9/8/2014

My father, Martin Sheridan, was a survivor of the Cocoanut Grove Fire. He attended that night as Buck Jones publicist working through Monogram Pictures.  He was pulled out by a sailor on leave and spent 3 months in Mass General Hospital. The sailor that pulled my father from the fire came up to my father 2 years later aboard a ship in the Pacific (2000 miles from Boston) when my father was serving as a war correspondent for the Boston Globe. He came up to my father and introduced himself as the sailor that pulled him out. They stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. The sailor on leave that night was Howard Sotherden from RI. My father saw to it that his was given a medal for valour for his actions that night.  He pulled several victims out that night before he went back a last time and found Dad. His wife, Connie Sheridan, died in the fire. My father was a writer and wrote many stories and articles for various newspapers and magazines for years on the anniversary of the fire.

Christopher J. O’Neil

On November 28th 1942, Thomas O’Neil, his wife, Catherine and his sister and her date, Isabelle and Dr. William O’Connor, enjoyed an evening of dinner and dancing that only could be had at Boston’s most exciting nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove.

They had paid their bill and were getting their coats when all four were overcome by fire and smoke. Dr. O’Connor survived with burns to his hands, the O’Neils were not so fortunate. All three perished. Following the fire, Thomas and Catherine’s children Andrew 17, Joyce 11, and Joanne 8 were separated and cared for by extended family. The separation of family after the fire is known to some as the “second tragedy.” It is Andrew’s children who believed that the memory of all those who perished that evening needed to be remembered in some tangible way even though 70 years had passed.

On the 70th Anniversary of the Cocoanut Grove Fire on November 28, 2012, The Thomas H., and Catherine D. O’Neil Charitable Foundation, Inc was introduced. The O’Neil grandchildren established the Foundation to raise and distribute funds for the benefit of paediatric burn victims and their families in memory of the 492 victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire. The Foundation website is located at www.oneilfoundation.org.

William H. Warren      

My aunt’s first husband Henry Warren died in the fire.  She (Connie Warren) was dancing at the CG that night. He worked for NCR and volunteered to cover the register to be with her.  Connie escaped via the stage door. Henry did not make it.  My mother, Connie’s sister lived with the grief from that event all her life.  She was scheduled to dance that night, but asked my aunt to take her place.

Martin Breen

My grandfather Martin Breen was killed in the fire. My mother was 4 years old at the time. Her name was Joan Houde (Breen). She passed away this past February. My grandfather was a bartender in the Melody Lounge according to my mother’s memory from back then. She told us that he was taken to Boston City Hospital alive but died soon after. I do have some pictures of him bartending at the grove. I often wonder about what he was like and what he went through that night.

Joseph Melick, Jr

On November 28, 1942, my father, S. Joseph Melick, Jr., was home on leave from the Army Air Force, and went into Boston to have some fun. In the summertimes before the war, Dad had been a volunteer firefighter in Wells Beach, Maine; and when Dad heard the sirens from the fire trucks Dad headed over to see what was going on. As he arrived at the scene, someone told him “hey, Soldier — we need help over here.” Dad ended up helping to take quite a few people out of the building, some alive but certainly some who were dead.

Growing up, I remember the fire being mentioned in our house, but Dad never said a word about it. It was only after Dad died in March of 2009 that his younger brother Richard told Dad’s story at his memorial service; and it was then that I truly understood why the fathers of my contemporaries who, unlike Dad, saw combat in World War II never liked to talk about their experiences. How could Dad have ever put into words, to me, what he saw and did that night?”

Robert B. Charles and Gladys K. Charles

Bob Charles was my father’s (William A. Faragher, deceased) best friend. They grew up in Oak Park, IL together. The story, as told to me by my Dad, is that Bob and Gladys were celebrating the upcoming birth of their child at the Cocoanut Grove on that fateful night. She was 9 months pregnant and ready to deliver any minute. Her advanced pregnancy prevented them from attending my parents wedding on November 14th. Bob was to have been my Dad’s Best Man. Such a horrific tragedy. So, in our minds, the list of casualties will always include one, “Baby Charles”. And finally, as you might imagine, it is no coincidence that my name is Robert Charles. Just thought I would share this with you as I reflect today.

Jean Levy

My Dad Max Taitel wrote the following: “”Jennie (Max’s sister also known as Jean) married Maurice Levy in March of 1942, and they lived in an apartment on Seaver St. in Roxbury , Mass. — but her life ended tragically when she died eight months later in the terrible Coconut Grove Fire in Boston in November of 1942.  They had planned a night at this popular night club to celebrate Max’s graduation from Officer’s Candidate School.  Max’s leave was cancelled at the last minute and they decided to celebrate anyway, which turned out to be a fatal decision.

Police examine the pocketbooks of women victims of the Boston fire in an effort to establish the identity of the owners. But most women who perished in the blaze carried evening purses containing no cards or papers that could help in determining the names of unrecognizable bodies.

Wards and rooms of Boston Hospital were filled to capacity with victims of the Cocoanut Grove Night Club fire, where hundreds of people lost their lives and over 200 were badly injured. Moving vans, trucks and private automobiles joined ambulances in rushing the injured, dead, and dying to morgues and hospitals.

Research in the early 2000s had indicated that a leading cause of the Cocoanut Grove Fire was the presence of methyl chloride within the air conditioning system, a highly flammable chemical. A brilliant flash-over was reported by witnesses in the ceiling of the lounge, likely due to flammable gases spontaneously combusting at their flashpoints. People were asphyxiated in their seats at the restaurant from a lack of oxygen or from toxic gases.

The final report was published by the Boston Fire Commissioner on November 29, 1943. The report included diagrams, descriptions, witness testimony, and a list of those who lost their lives that night. The following is quoted in the report as the cause of the fire (origin unknown):

“From all the evidence before me I am unable to determine the original cause or causes
of this fire.

I find no evidence of incendiarism.

A bus boy, aged sixteen, employed by the Cocoanut Grove on the night of the fire, testified to lighting a match in the process of replacing an electric lightbulb in the corner of the Melody Lounge, where the fire started and dropping the match to the floor and stepping upon it. After a careful study of all the evidence, and an analysis of all the facts presented before me, I am unable to find the conduct of this boy was the cause of the fire.

I have investigated and carefully considered, as possible causes of the fire, the following suggested possibilities: Alcoholic fumes, inflammable insecticides, motion picture film scraps, electrical wiring, gasoline or fuel oil fumes, refrigerant gases, flame-proofing chemicals. There is no evidence before me to support a finding that any of these or any combination of them caused this fire.

This fire will be entered in the records of this department as being of unknown origin.”

The busboy was blamed by the public for starting the fire due to hearsay or reports in the press. The fire commissioner stated that many fixtures did not even ignite, and the height of the fire was only about two to four minutes in length. It would appear that gases combusted, and the fire quickly ran out oxygen (fuel) for the flames. Samples of the fixtures were not saved for future chemical analysis (deducing what did not cause the fire from samples likely could have eventually led to a conclusive determination).

In the aftermath of the fire, investigations were conducted by several agencies. Fire Commissioner William Reilly’s probe started on Sunday, November 29. Testimony was heard from many witnesses as to the facts surrounding the disaster. Most believed that the busboy was responsible, but others believed the cause was electrical. A Grand Jury would later indict ten persons, but the only person convicted of a crime was the owner, Barney Welansky, on one count of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 12-15 years in Charlestown State Prison. Due to an advanced cancer condition, he was pardoned by Governor Maurice Tobin after serving 3.5 years. He died in 1947, at age 50, several months after his release from prison.

Building codes were amended in the city and elsewhere. Revolving doors were outlawed (later reinstated when a revolving door is placed between two outward-opening exit doors). Exit doors were to be clearly marked, be unlocked from within, and free from blockage by screen, drapes, furniture or business supplies. Use of non-combustible decorations and building materials was ordered, as was the placement of emergency lighting and sprinklers. Popular lore has it that the name ‘Cocoanut Grove’ was outlawed in the city of Boston. That did not occur, however no business since the fire has proposed or been licensed to use the name ‘Cocoanut Grove’.

The final death count established by Commissioner Reilly was 498 dead and 166 injured. The number of injured was a count of those treated at a hospital and later released. Many other patrons were injured but did not seek hospitalization. As the years went by, the recognized number of fatalities became 492. This count of the dead in a single fire event is exceeded only by Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre Fire of December 30, 1903, which killed 603 persons, mostly children. Also, the attacks September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York killed approximately 2,750 persons, but the event was a combination fire and collapse event.

A group of firemen, civilians and uniformed men stand around a victim of tragic fire as priest administers last rites. The fire, one of the worst in history, swept through a Boston club.

In the newspaper articles about the tragic fire, witnesses describe a brilliant flash over in the ceiling of the club. A flashover occurs when built-up gasses spontaneously combust after a certain temperature is reached. A layperson could deduce that a highly flammable gas was likely present. It took 50 years for this to be publicized.

As a result of the Cocoanut Grove fire and tragedy, the fire ordinances were expanded to include larger restaurants and bars, and not just theatres. Building codes were also changed so that outward swinging exit doors with push down “panic bars” must flank any revolving doors in larger facilities. The owner of the club was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spent 3-1/2 years in prison.

During the 1990s, former Boston Fire Fighter and researcher Charles Kenney had discovered and concluded that the presence of a highly flammable gas propellant in the refrigeration systems—methyl chloride—greatly contributed to the flashover and quick spread of the fire (there was a shortage of freon in 1942 due to the war effort). The busboy initially blamed for the tragedy was ostracized for much of his life because of the fire.

Embedded in the sidewalk is a memorial to those who lost their lives. The plaque states: “The Cocoanut Grove. Erected by the Bay Village Association, 1993. In memory of the more than 490 people that died in the Cocoanut Grove Fire on November 28, 1942. As a result of that terrible tragedy, major changes were made in the fire codes, and improvements in the treatment of burn victims, not only in Boston but across the nation. ‘Phoenix out of the Ashes.'”

To memorialize the tragedy, a small bronze plaque is set into the red brick of a sidewalk outside of a parking lot near where the club once stood. It was created by Anthony P. Marra, the youngest survivor of the tragic inferno. The plaque bears a schematic of the club layout with seven palm trees, an explanation of the fire, and the phrase, “Phoenix out of the Ashes,” a reference to the changes in fire codes and advances in burn treatments that occurred as a result of the tragedy.

 


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