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The front of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub after the fire
|Time||Around 10:15 P.M.|
|Date||November 28, 1942|
|Location||Bay Village, Boston, Massachusetts, United States|
|Cause||Ignition of synthetic palm tree decorations|
|Charges||Manslaughter, numerous building code and safety violations|
The Cocoanut Grove was Boston's premier nightclub during the post-Prohibition 1930s and 1940s. On November 28, 1942, this club 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 enormity 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 country, and to major changes in the treatment and rehabilitation of burn victims.
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 605. It was only two years after the Rhythm Club fire which had killed 209.
The Club, a former speakeasy, 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, which until recently was a parking lot in Boston's Bay Village neighborhood. As of 2015, a condo complex is being built over the former address, although the current developers use 25 Piedmont as the address for the new building that will occupy the site. Much of the club's former footprint, including what was the main entrance, already lies under the Revere Hotel, as just a portion of the club extended out to Piedmont Street. Since the club was torn down in 1944, the street map of the site has changed due to urban renewal, with streets being renamed or built over. The section of Shawmut 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, known as Shawmut Street Extension were renamed Cocoanut Grove Lane in 2013. The newer extension cuts through what was the club's original footprint.
Originally a garage and warehouse complex, the building 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" created by artificial palm trees, rattan and bamboo, heavy draperies, "swanky" satin canopies suspended from the ceilings, and a roof that could be rolled back in summer for dancing under the stars. The building had acquired a reputation as being a criminal hangout, and this image was enhanced when gangland boss and bootlegger Charles "King" Solomon, also known as "Boston Charlie," owner of the club from 1931–33, was gunned down in the men's room of Roxbury's Cotton Club nightclub in 1933.
The owner at the time, Barnet "Barney" Welansky, 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.
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. Exterior Christmas lights were banned by blackout regulations, but the club made up for that in its interior decor. The club had recently been expanded with the new Broadway Lounge, which opened onto the adjacent Broadway. Decorated in a South Seas tropical style, the restaurant, bars, and lounges inside were outfitted with palm trees made of flammable paper, cloth draperies covering the ceiling, flammable furniture, and other flimsy decorations, some of which obscured exit signs.
Official reports state that the fire started at about 10:15 p.m. 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. It was believed that a young man, possibly a soldier, had removed 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 retightening the bulb. As he attempted to tighten the light bulb in its socket, the bulb fell from his hand. In the dimly-lit lounge, Tomaszewski, unable to see the socket, lit a match to illuminate the area, found the socket, replaced the bulb, and extinguished the match. Though occurring in the same corner 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 quickly spread along the fronds of the palm tree, igniting decorations on the walls and ceiling. Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of patrons stumbling up the stairs. A fireball burst across the central dance floor as the orchestra was beginning its evening show. Flames raced through the adjacent Caricature Bar, then down a corridor to the Broadway Lounge. Within five minutes, flames had spread to the main clubroom and the entire nightclub was ablaze.
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, rendered useless as the panicked crowd scrambled for safety. Bodies piled up behind both sides of the revolving door, jamming it to the extent that firefighters had to dismantle it to enter. 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 later testified that, had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared. Many young soldiers perished in the disaster, as well as a newly married couple.
As night deepened, the temperature dropped. Water on cobblestones froze. Hoses froze to the ground. Newspaper trucks were appropriated as ambulances. From nearby bars, soldiers and sailors raced to assist. On the street, firefighters lugged out bodies and were treated for burned hands. Smoldering bodies, living and dead, were hosed in icy water. Some victims had ingested 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. It was erroneously reported that Hollywood movie star Buck Jones had made it safely outside but died two days later in the hospital. Jones had fallen where he sat in the prime Terrace area directly across from the bandstand, which was behind a wrought-iron railing that acted as a trap. Stories claimed that Jones had gone back in to rescue people. In truth, he had been incapacitated at his seat, and lingered in the hospital for some hours before dying. Monogram Pictures producer Scott R. Dunlap was hosting a party at the nightclub in honor of Jones. Dunlap was seriously injured but survived.
Jack Lesberg, bass player for Mickey Alpert's house band, was more fortunate; he escaped from the fire and went on to play music with Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, and many others until shortly before his death in 2005. His escape was described by fellow bassist Charles Mingus in an unpublished section of Mingus' autobiography Beneath the Underdog. According to Mingus' account, Lesberg saw everyone trapped at the door, so he grabbed his double bass and ran it straight through the wall, creating a door. Although several members of the band, including musical director Bernie Fazioli, lost their lives, leader Mickey Alpert escaped out of a basement window and was credited with leading several people to safety.
Bartender Daniel Weiss and entertainer Goody Goodelle both survived in the Melody Lounge by dousing a cloth napkin with a pitcher of water and breathing through it. Weiss was able to escape by crawling through the kitchen and other subfloor areas, while Goodelle and several other employees were able to escape by crawling through a barred window in the kitchen. Five people survived by taking refuge in a walk-in refrigerator.
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.
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.
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 still ostracized for much of his life because of the fire. He died in 1994.
In the year that followed the fire, Massachusetts and other states enacted laws for public establishments banning flammable decorations and 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.
During the 1990s, former Boston Fire Fighter and researcher Charles Kenney discovered and concluded that the presence of a highly flammable gas refrigerant in the refrigeration systems – methyl chloride – greatly contributed to the flashover and quick spread of the fire (there was a shortage of Freon refrigerant in 1942 due to the war effort).
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.
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".
The plaque has currently been removed for the construction of the condominiums on the site.
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" in a ceremony attended by several survivors of the fire and around 250 guests and spectators.