The Shawmut Street side of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub after the fire
|Date||November 28, 1942|
|Time||Around 10:15 pm|
|Location||Bay Village, Boston, Massachusetts, United States|
|Cause||Ignition of decorative cloth|
|Charges||Manslaughter, numerous building code and safety violations|
The Cocoanut Grove Fire was a nightclub fire in the United States. The Cocoanut Grove was a premier nightclub during the post-Prohibition 1930s and 1940s in Boston, Massachusetts. On November 28, 1942, it was the scene of the deadliest nightclub fire in history, killing 492 people (which was 32 more than the building's authorized capacity) and injuring hundreds more. The scale of the tragedy shocked the nation and briefly replaced the events of World War II in newspaper headlines. It led to a reform of safety standards and codes across the US, and to major changes in the treatment and rehabilitation of burn victims internationally.
It was the second-deadliest single-building fire in American history; only the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago had a higher death toll, of 602. It was only two years after the Rhythm Club fire which had killed 209.
The club had opened in 1927 as a partnership between two orchestra leaders, Mickey Alpert and Jacques Renard. (Although neither held an interest in the club by 1942, Alpert was leading the house band the night of the fire.) It was located at 17 Piedmont Street, in the Bay Village neighborhood of Boston, a few blocks south of the Boston Public Garden. Alpert and Renard's mob-connected financiers gained control and opened a speakeasy in the complex, and it gained a reputation for being a gangland hangout. Gangland boss and bootlegger Charles "King" Solomon, also known as "Boston Charlie," owned the club from 1931 to 1933, when he was gunned down in the men's room of Roxbury's Cotton Club nightclub in 1933. Ownership passed to Solomon's lawyer Barnet "Barney" Welansky, who sought a more mainstream image for the club while he privately boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin. He was known to be a tough boss who ran a tight ship: hiring teenagers to work as busboys for low wages, and street thugs who doubled as waiters and bouncers. He locked exits, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit to prevent customers from leaving without paying. Coincidentally, on the night of the fire, he was still recovering from a heart attack in a private room at Massachusetts General Hospital, where some of the victims would be sent.
Originally a garage and warehouse complex, the brick and concrete buildings had been converted to a one-and-a-half-story meandering complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges. The club offered its patrons dining and dancing in a South Seas-like "tropical paradise" and a roof that could be rolled back in summer for dancing under the stars. The decor consisted of leatherette, rattan and bamboo coverings on the walls, heavy draperies, and "swanky" dark blue satin canopies and covering on ceilings. Support columns in the main dining area were made to look like palm trees, with light fixtures made to look like coconuts. That theme was carried over into the basement Melody Lounge, with what little light there was provided by palm tree light fixtures.
The "Grove" had become one of Boston's most popular nightspots, featuring a restaurant and dancing in the main area, floor shows, and piano-playing entertainers in the Melody Lounge. The restaurant was visited on occasion by movie and music stars, who would have their entry announced by the maître d'. Across from the main dining area was the "Caricature Bar," which featured renditions of the establishment's more prominent guests. The club had recently been expanded eastward with the new Broadway Lounge, which opened onto adjacent Broadway between Piedmont Street (south side) and Shawmut Street (north side).
Wall coverings and decorative materials had been approved on the basis of tests for ordinary ignition, which showed resistance to combustion from sources such as matches and cigarettes. Decorative cloth was purportedly treated with ammonium sulfate as a fire retardant upon installation, but there was no documentation that the fire retardant treatment was maintained at the required intervals. Since the US entry into the war, air conditioning systems had been serviced and the freon refrigerant was replaced by methyl chloride, a flammable gas, due to the wartime shortage of freon.
On November 28, 1942, the Boston College football team played Holy Cross College at Fenway Park. In a great upset of that period, Holy Cross beat Boston College by a score of 55–12. College bowl game scouts had attended the game in order to offer Boston College a bid to the 1943 Sugar Bowl game. As a result of the rout, a Boston College celebration party scheduled for the Grove that evening was canceled.
It is estimated that on that Saturday night more than 1000 Thanksgiving weekend revelers, wartime servicemen and their sweethearts, football fans, and others were crammed into a space rated for a maximum of 460 people.
Official reports state that the fire started at about 10:15 pm in the dark, intimate Melody Lounge downstairs. Goody Goodelle, a young pianist and singer, was performing on a revolving stage, surrounded by artificial palm trees. The lounge was lit by low-powered light bulbs in coconut-styled sconces beneath the fronds. A young man, possibly a soldier, had unscrewed a light bulb in order to give himself privacy while kissing his date. Stanley Tomaszewski—a 16-year-old busboy—was instructed to put the light back on by tightening the bulb. He stepped up onto a chair to reach the light in the darkened corner. Unable to see the bulb, he lit a match to illuminate the area, tightened the bulb, and extinguished the match. Witnesses first saw flames in the fronds, which were just below the ceiling, immediately afterward. Though the lit match had been close to the same fronds where the fire was seen to have begun, the official report determined that Tomaszewski's actions could not be found to be the source of the fire, which "will be entered into the records of this department as being of unknown origin".
Despite waiters' efforts to douse the fire with water, it spread along the fronds of the palm tree. In a final desperate attempt to separate the burning fronds from the fabric-covered false ceiling the decoration was pulled away from the corner, taking with it a triangular plywood panel at the ceiling level and opening the enclosed space above the false ceiling. Coincidentally or not, that was the point at which the fire spread to the false ceiling which burned rapidly, showering patrons with sparks and burning shreds of fabric. Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of patrons fleeing up the stairs. A fireball burst through the front entryway and spread through the remaining club areas: through the adjacent Caricature Bar, down a corridor to the Broadway Lounge, and across the central restaurant and dance floor as the orchestra was beginning its evening show. Flames raced faster than patrons could move, followed by thick clouds of smoke. Within five minutes, flames and smoke had spread to the entire nightclub. Some patrons were instantly overcome by smoke as they sat in their seats. Others crawled through the smoky darkness trying to find exits, all but one of which were either non-functioning or hidden in non-public areas.
Many patrons attempted to exit through the main entrance, the same way they had entered. The building's main entrance was a single revolving door, which was rendered useless as the crowd stampeded in panic. Bodies piled up behind both sides of the revolving door, jamming it until it broke. But then the oxygen-hungry fire leaped through the breach, incinerating whoever was left alive in the pile. Firemen had to douse the flames to approach the door. Later, after fire laws had tightened, it would become illegal to have only one revolving door as a main entrance without being flanked by outward opening doors with panic bar openers attached, or have the revolving doors set up so that the doors could fold against themselves in emergency situations.
Other avenues of escape were similarly useless; side doors had been bolted shut to prevent people from leaving without paying. A plate glass window, which could have been smashed for escape, was boarded up and unusable as an emergency exit. Other unlocked doors, like the ones in the Broadway Lounge, opened inwards, rendering them useless against the crush of people trying to escape. Fire officials would later testify that had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared.
From nearby bars, soldiers and sailors raced to assist. On the street, firefighters lugged out bodies and were treated for burned hands. As night deepened, the temperature dropped. Water on cobblestone pavements froze. Hoses froze to the ground. Newspaper trucks were appropriated as ambulances. Smoldering bodies, living and dead, were hosed in icy water. Some victims had breathed fumes so hot that when they inhaled cold air, as one firefighter put it, they dropped like stones.
Later, during the cleanup of the building, firefighters found several dead guests sitting in their seats with drinks in their hands. They had been overcome so quickly by fire and toxic smoke that they had not had time to move.
Boston newspapers were filled with lists of the dead and stories of narrow escapes and deaths. Well-known movie-cowboy actor Buck Jones was at the club that night, and his wife later explained that he had initially escaped then gone back into the burning building to find his agent, the Monogram Pictures producer Scott R. Dunlap. However, after the blaze, Jones was discovered slumped under his table severely burned, so some doubted accounts of his escape. Although rushed to hospital, Jones died of his injuries two days later. Dunlap, who was hosting a party at the nightclub in honor of Jones, was seriously injured but survived.
Those in the employ of the establishment fared better in escaping than customers, owing to their familiarity with service areas, where the fire's effects were less severe than in the public areas, and which provided access to additional window and door exits. A double door opposite the public entryway to the main dining room was unlocked by wait staff and was soon the only functional outside exit from public areas. Although several members of the band, including musical director Bernie Fazioli, lost their lives, most of them escaped backstage and through a service door that they rammed open. Bandleader Mickey Alpert escaped out of a basement window and was credited with leading several people to safety. Bassist Jack Lesberg went on to play music with Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, and many others until shortly before his death in 2005. A passage in an unpublished section of the autobiography of fellow bassist Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog, stated that Lesberg "made a door" during his escape. That statement has been interpreted literally, with the additional color of Lesberg using his bass to create a new opening in a wall, and in the context of the vernacular use of the term "made," which can mean attained or achieved. No witness statements refer to the use of Lesberg's bass as a battering ram or its presence anywhere along the escape route. The legend lives on in hip-hop performance inspired by Mingus' unpublished writing.
Three bartenders, cashier Jeanette Lanzoni, entertainer Goody Goodelle, other help, and some patrons in the Melody Lounge escaped into the kitchen. Bartender Daniel Weiss survived by dousing a cloth napkin with a pitcher of water and breathing through it as he made his escape from the Melody Lounge. Those in the kitchen had escape routes through a window above a service bar and up a stairway to another window and a service door that was eventually rammed open. Five people survived by taking refuge in a walk-in refrigerator and a few more in an ice box. Rescuers reached the kitchen after about ten minutes.
Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson went back in no fewer than four times in search of his date who, unbeknownst to him, had safely escaped. Johnson suffered extensive third-degree burns over 55% of his body but survived the disaster, becoming the most severely burned person ever to survive his injuries at the time. After 21 months in a hospital and several hundred operations, he married his nurse and returned to his home state of Missouri. Fourteen years later he burned to death in a fiery automobile crash.
Busboy Stanley Tomaszewski, who survived the fire and later testified at the inquiry, was exonerated, as he was not responsible for the flammable decorations or the life safety code violations. He was nevertheless ostracized for much of his life because of the fire. He died in 1994.
The Boston Fire Department investigated possible causes of ignition, the rapid spread of the fire and the catastrophic loss of life. Its report reached no conclusion as to the initial cause of ignition, but attributed the rapid, gaseous spread of the fire to a buildup of carbon monoxide gas due to oxygen-deprived combustion in the enclosed space above the false ceiling of the Melody Lounge. The gas exuded from enclosed spaces as its temperature rose and ignited rapidly as it mixed with oxygen above the entryway, up the stairway to the main floor and along ceilings. The fire accelerated as the stairway created a thermal draft, and the high-temperature gas fire ignited pyroxylene (leatherette) wall and ceiling covering in the foyer, which in turn exuded flammable gas. The report also documented the fire safety code violations, flammable materials and door designs that contributed to the large loss of life.
During the 1990s, former Boston firefighter and researcher Charles Kenney discovered that a highly flammable gas refrigerant, methyl chloride, had been used as a substitute for freon, which was in short wartime supply. Kenney reported that floor plans, but not the fire investigation report, showed air-conditioning condenser units near street level on the other side of a non-structural wall from the Melody Lounge, and that these units had been serviced since the start of the war. Kenney also reported that photographic evidence indicates an origin for the fire in the wall behind the palm tree and suggested ignition of methyl chloride accelerant by an electrical failure caused by substandard wiring. Methyl chloride combustion is consistent with some aspects of the fire (reported flame colors, smell and inhalation symptoms) but requires additional explanation for ceiling-level fire as the gas is 1.7 times as dense as air. A review of Kenney's work by historical investigator John J. Deady, Sr., provides a hypothesis for the accumulation of flammable concentrations of methyl chloride in enclosed spaces near the ceiling of the Melody Lounge.
In 2012, the Boston Police Department released the transcripts of witness interviews following the fire, which are posted online. Witnesses Stanley Tomaszewski, Morris Levy, Joyce Spector, David Frechtling and Jeanette Lanzoni (Volume 1) provided accounts of the ignition of the palm decoration and ceiling in the Melody Lounge. Frechtling and Lanzoni described the start of the fire as a "flash." Tomaszewski described the spread of the fire across the ceiling as like a gasoline fire. The flame front across the ceiling was faint blue, followed by brighter flames. Witness Roland Sousa (Volume 2) stated that he was initially unconcerned about the fire because, as a regular customer of the Melody Lounge, he had seen the palm tree decorations ignite before and they were always quickly put out.
Barney Welansky, whose connections had allowed the nightclub to operate while in violation of the loose standards of the day, was convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter (19 victims were randomly selected to represent the dead). Welansky was sentenced to 12–15 years in prison in 1943. He served nearly four years before being quietly pardoned by Massachusetts Governor Maurice J. Tobin, who had been mayor of Boston at the time of the fire. In December 1946, ravaged with cancer, Welansky was released from Norfolk Prison, telling reporters, "I wish I'd died with the others in the fire." Nine weeks later, he was dead.
In the year that followed the fire, Massachusetts and other states enacted laws for public establishments banning flammable decorations, inward-swinging exit doors, and requiring exit signs to be visible at all times (meaning that the exit signs had to have independent sources of electricity, and be easily readable in even the thickest smoke). The new laws also required that revolving doors used for egress must either be flanked by at least one normal, outward-swinging door, or retrofitted to permit the individual door leaves to fold flat to permit free-flowing traffic in a panic situation, and further required that no emergency exits be chained or bolted shut in such a way as to bar escape through the doors during a panic or emergency situation. Municipal licensing authorities ruled that no Boston establishment could use "The Cocoanut Grove" as a name thereafter.
Commissions were established by several states that would levy heavy fines or even shut down establishments for infractions of any of these laws. These later became the basis for several federal fire laws and code restrictions placed on nightclubs, theaters, banks, public buildings, and restaurants across the nation. It also led to the formation of several national organizations dedicated to fire safety.
Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Boston City Hospital (BCH) took dozens of burn and smoke inhalation victims, and the event led to new ways of caring for both. Surgeons Francis Daniels Moore and Oliver Cope at Massachusetts General Hospital pioneered fluid resuscitation techniques for the burn victims, whose wounds were treated with soft gauze covered with petroleum jelly instead of tannic acid. Although BCH was able to achieve a survival rate of only 30% one month after the fire, all patients treated for burns at MGH survived. The event was also the first major use of the hospital's new blood bank, one of the area's first.
The survivors of the fire were also among the first humans to be treated with the new antibiotic, penicillin. In early December Merck and Company rushed a 32 L supply of the drug, in the form of culture liquid in which the Penicillium mold had been grown, from New Jersey to Boston. The drug was crucial in combating staphylococcus bacteria, which typically infect skin grafts. As a result of the success of penicillin in preventing infections, the US government decided to support the production and the distribution of penicillin to the armed forces.
Erich Lindemann, a Boston psychiatrist, studied the families and relatives of the dead and published what has become a classic paper, "Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief", read at the Centenary Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in May 1944, and published in September of the same year. At the same time Lindemann was laying the foundation for the study of grief and dysfunctional grieving, Alexandra Adler was working with more than 500 survivors of the fire and conducting some of the earliest research on post-traumatic stress disorder.
After the club buildings were torn down in 1944, the street map of the vicinity changed due to urban renewal, with nearby streets being renamed or built over.
The nightclub address was 17 Piedmont Street, in the Bay Village neighborhood near downtown Boston. For decades after the fire, this address was used as a parking lot. Much of the club's former footprint, including what was the main entrance, now lies under the Revere Hotel; only a portion of the club extended out to Shawmut Street. The section of Piedmont Street where the main entrance was, and Broadway which also bordered the club, now lay under the Revere Hotel. The surviving section of Shawmut Street, and a newer extension cutting through what was the club's original footprint, formerly known as Shawmut Street Extension, was renamed Cocoanut Grove Lane in 2013. In 2015, several condominium residences were constructed on the site, and designated as 25 Piedmont Street.
In 1993, the Bay Village Neighborhood Association installed a bronze plaque embedded in the brick sidewalk next to the location where the club formerly stood, as a memorial to those who lost their lives. The plaque states:
The Cocoanut Grove. Erected by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, 1993. In memory of the more than 490 people who 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"
A smaller inscription in the lower left corner says, "This plaque crafted by Anthony P. Marra, youngest survivor of the Cocoanut Grove fire".
On November 30, 2013, a short street running through the former site of the Cocoanut Grove Club, and previously named "Shawmut Extension", was renamed "Cocoanut Grove Lane". The onsite renaming ceremony was attended by several survivors of the fire and around 250 guests and spectators. Speakers included Marty Walsh, who had recently been elected mayor of Boston, but not yet sworn into office.
The plaque was removed in 2014 for the construction of new condominium residences on the site, but was reinstalled in June 2016 as previously agreed to by the contractor. However a few weeks later, the plaque was relocated to the corner of Cocoanut Grove Lane nearby, at the request of some condominium owners. The relocation was objected to by the surviving daughter of Anthony P. Marra (who had designed the plaque), with support from other interested parties. It has been claimed that the new location of the plaque is closer to the original location of the infamously fatal revolving door at the entrance to the nightclub.
Within days, Boston mayor Walsh announced his support for the concept of a larger free-standing memorial, to be built with private funds at a nearby location yet to be determined.
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