Inside the Cocoanut Grove disaster, America's deadliest nightclub fire that killed 492 people in 15 minutes
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- On November 28, 1942, a quick and deadly fire ripped through the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, killing 492 people, and becoming, in minutes, the worst nightclub fire in American history.
- The club was a fire trap. Doors were locked, the club was at twice its legal capacity, and it was filled with flammable objects, like plastic palm trees and satin-lined ceilings.
- But the fire was also a learning opportunity - leading to fire code changes, rules around revolving doors, what constitutes a public space, developments in treating burn patients, and understanding grief and post-traumatic stress disorder.
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It only took 15 minutes for the Boston nightclub to become a deadly inferno.On November 28, 1942, a quick and deadly fire spread through Cocoanut Groves night club. It was the worst nightclub fire in American history.
The fire killed 492 people, from burns or smoke inhalation. Another 166 people had burn and smoke injuries.Cocoanut Grove's fire led to changes in fire regulations, rules around revolving doors, what constitutes a public space, medicinal developments in treating burn patients, and an advance in understanding grief and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Here's how it happened, and what came after the Cocoanut Grove fire.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Cocoanut Grove was one of Boston's most well-known nightclubs.
Its doors first opened in 1927, but because of Prohibition era complications, the club went through several owners, including bootlegger Charles Solomon, known as "Boston Charlie" (he was gunned down in a nightclub) before it landed in the hands of Barney Welansky, Solomon's lawyer.Advertisement
To turn a profit, Welanski tried to make it more welcoming. He fitted the club with artificial palm trees, leather walls, and cloth-covered ceilings. He had singer Mickey Alpert, the former owner, come back and perform and act as the club's MC. But his changes were superficial, and corners were cut.
According to the Boston Globe, Welansky used unlicensed electricians to fit out the bar, and told a concerned contractor not to worry since he was close with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin.Advertisement
On November 28, the Boston College football team had planned a victory party at the club after a game against Holy Cross College. Until that Saturday, they were undefeated, and the odds were heavily in their favor. But they lost 55-12, in a "stunning upset," according to the Boston Globe.
The party was canceled but people still came on a chilly New England evening to drink and dance. Hewson Gray told NFPA, "It was so crowded you had to turn sideways to get through the tables in the dining room." By the time the night got going, there were about 1,000 people in the club — twice as many as the legal limit of 460.Advertisement
There was also a famous western movie star Buck Jones drinking there, after visiting a children's hospital earlier in the day. He was the fire's most famous victim.
The dance floor was filled with couples; no chair was left unclaimed.Advertisement
Marshall Cole, one of the tap dancers, usually relaxed in the Melody Lounge, the club's basement, between shows. But he told the Boston Globe, "The place was just mobbed. It was standing-room only." He decided to wait in his dressing room, and that saved his life.
Just after 10 p.m. in the Melody Lounge, patrons were singing along to a popular war song with the pianist. A sailor and his date sought some privacy in the already dimly lit bar, and unscrewed a lightbulb to plunge their corner into darkness.Advertisement
Although it's never been proven, 16-year-old bus boy Stanley Tomaszewski bore the brunt of blame for what happened next. He lit a match to find the lightbulb. When he found it, he stubbed the match out. But a fake palm tree caught alight.
The fire traveled from palm tree to the satin-covered ceiling. The official Boston Fire Department report estimated it took between 2-4 minutes to spread 40 feet, and reach the stairwell, which acted like a chimney. In another minute it had traversed all of the dining room, and engulfed the nightclub.Advertisement
John Rizzo, who was a 21-year-old waiter on the night of the fire, recalled: "It was right in the middle of the room just like a forest fire, coming right down along the aisle."
The fire moved so fast it's still described as a mystery. Casey Grant, executive director emeritus of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, said the shape of the foyer ceiling sent the fire onward, "almost like out of a shotgun." As flames and smoke filled the club, panic ensued.Advertisement
Then the club went dark. Joyce Mekelburg told the Boston Globe, "Everybody around me was screaming and crawling. Nobody knew where to go or how to go and everybody was crawling in a different direction."
People were losing consciousness due to the thick fumes. Bodies began to pile up, blocking the exits. One doctor told the Boston Globe, "They never had a chance. They never knew what happened."Advertisement
So many people died because management had locked doors to ensure people didn't leave without paying. Other doors only opened inwards, which made them unusable in the dark. The club's main entrance had a revolving door, which jammed due to the volume of people trying to get out.
Outside, fireman arrived quickly. A rare stroke of good luck meant some firefighters were in the area after responding to a car fire. Those on hand grabbed axes to break windows.Advertisement
But it was chaotic. The street was also filled with police, servicemen, and civilians. US Naval reserveman Nick Pagonis said in a police interview, which was publicly released in 2012, "It seemed to me that all those rescue workers were in the way. They held back those who wanted to help. The whole picture was very disgusting."
Some did get out. But in the panic, people were separated from loved ones. A 21-year-old man named Clifford Johnson lost sight of his date as he was pushed into the open. He went back inside four times to try and save her, before he collapsed, covered in horrific burns.Advertisement
Some escaped through side doors, or climbed to the roof. According to the Baltimore Sun, two chorus girls jumped from the roof and were caught by two male dancers.
Others survived by wetting handkerchiefs and covering their mouths. Daniel Weiss, one of the cashiers, covered his mouth with a soaked bar towel, and stayed close the ground. "The closer I was to the floor, the easier it was to breathe," he said.Advertisement
In little over an hour, the fire was out. Bodies were passed through the charred windows to waiting soldiers and sailors. It was so cold outside, below freezing, that puddles from the fire hoses froze over.
An AP correspondent wrote, "When the last body was reported out I looked around the room of the ground floor. It was a shambles. Chairs and tables were upended, crockery and glassware was strewn everywhere, it was as if a tornado had whistled through the room."Advertisement
By midnight, the Cocoanut Grove was a charred, empty building. Despite what had happened within, the structure survived. The Sun called it a "huge brick oven," with little obvious damage to its walls and roof.
A priest administered last rites.Advertisement
Those still alive were sent to two nearby hospitals, Boston City and Massachusetts General. BCH got over 300 casualties, of which 132 lived longer than two hours. MGH got 114, of which 39 survived longer than two hours.
At MGH, it was a quiet evening until ambulances arrived, one after another. Surgical register Francis Moore wrote a letter to his parents about the night. He described one young girl "with her clothes burned off, and her skin hanging like ribbons as she flailed her arms around, screaming with pain."Advertisement
The next day, cars were still parked down the road. Firemen hosed down the narrow cobbled street, washing away cups and saucers, women's clothing, and hundreds of cocktail forks.
Newspapers in the days after called it a "holocaust." Major dailies in other cities even covered it nonstop for days, making space on their front pages to tell readers about the disaster in Boston.Advertisement
Because of the scope of the burns, identifying victims was difficult. Police went through notebooks and purses to identify who had died. But it took days to sort out who had perished and who had survived. Some people were never identified.
Friends and relatives of missing people filled an amphitheater at a mortuary as they waited to try and identify victims.Advertisement
Within 24 hours, legislators had filed for bills to strengthen laws around fire protection and building inspections. Four days after the fire, regulations had already changed in St. Louis, Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago.
One of the biggest impacts the fire had was on treating burn patients. While BCH continued with the traditional treatment of dyes and tannic acid, MGH Surgeon Oliver Cope and Moore used gauze coated with petroleum jelly. They also did skin grafts. In a report a month later, it found that 30% of those at Boston died from their burn wounds, while none died at MGH.Advertisement
These techniques were used later to treat wounded soldiers.
But the recovery process for some took months or years. In May 1943, eight people were still recovering in the hospital. Clifford Johnson, who tried to save his date, had $50,000 worth of skin grafts and transfusions. This photo shows him exercising in September 1943, about 10 months after the fire.Advertisement
Johnson was discharged on November 26, 1943, nearly a year after the fire. He was the last victim to leave the hospital.
Investigations soon began to determine who was responsible for the tragedy. In "Fire in the Grove," a book on the event, John C. Esposito wrote it was like "the foxes investigating the misfortune at the hen house."Advertisement
A month later, 10 people deemed responsible for the tragedy were charged. They included the building commissioner, the club builder, the building inspector, and Welansky.
Welansky was convicted of 19 counts of involuntary manslaughter, which set a legal precedent that someone could be guilty by consciously failing to fix dangerous conditions. He was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, but was pardoned four years later, two months before he died of cancer.Advertisement
It was greed as much as negligence that caused the fire, according to Attorney General Robert Bushnell, who shouted at the sentencing hearing" "The Grove was diabolically designed to lure people into blind alleys, blocked passageways, with doors locked... just so that the click of the cash register could be heard."
Fire Marshal Steven Garrity also tried to clear bus boy Tomaszewski of blame in 1943. He said it was possible that screwing the lightbulb had caused the spark, and "suspect" and "shoddy electrical wiring" was potentially at fault. But that didn't stop Tomaszewski's name being mentioned in almost every article about the fire since.Advertisement
Two years later, the club was all boarded up. A year after that the building was razed to the ground. In the rubble, workers found a woman's blackened wristwatch and a Boston College football ticket stub.
The reason many buildings have hinged doors on either side of a revolving door is because of Cocoanut Grove. In a symbolic gesture, four days after the fire, two revolving doors were removed from Boston City Hall.Advertisement
It led to changes about what can be used as decorations in public places, and to nightclubs and restaurants being defined as public places. Emergency lighting, with a separate power source from normal lights, also became common practice after the disaster.
The fire led to developments in grief and post traumatic stress disorder, too. Psychiatrist Erich Lindemann looked into guilt that survivors experience alongside soldiers from World War II, including one man who was wracked with guilt after he fainted before he could save his wife.Advertisement
It was a senseless tragedy, and for those who survived, a life-altering experience. Cole, the tap dancer who waited in his dressing room, told the Boston Herald, "From there on out whenever I go to a place, I look for an exit."
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