492 People Perish in ‘Cocoanut Grove’ Nightclub Fire
It all began innocently enough. In the Melody Lounge of Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub, someone loosened a light bulb in the ceiling to create a darker, cozier atmosphere. A waiter told 16-year-old busboy, Stanley Tomaszewski, to tighten the bulb to restore the light. Stanley lit a match so that he could see what he was doing. It was around 10:15 the night of Nov. 28, 1942.
Suddenly a ball of flame erupted that engulfed the entire nightclub and caused a frenzied stampede of 1,000 panic-stricken revelers desperately clawing one another to get outside. Nearly half of them never made it: 492 people died that night, with several hundred more injured. It was the deadliest nightclub fire in the nation’s history.
The Cocoanut Grove was extravagantly decorated to create the illusion of an island paradise, stuffed with paper palm trees and lots of bamboo and rattan. The club’s owner, Barnet Welansky, had ties to both the Mafia and Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin, and felt protected enough to ignore fire codes; his nightclub was so overstuffed with flammable material that it could erupt into an inferno with the touch of one match—and in fact did. Welansky routinely locked exit doors to prevent customers from skipping out without paying. He also had packed more than 1,000 customers into his nightclub that night, even though its official capacity was 460.
The main entrance to the club was a single revolving door with no side doors, and this became the scene of the worst panic of the entire awful tragedy. So many people fought each other to get out that revolving door that it became entirely crammed with stuck bodies; investigators later found corpses stacked five deep.
Tomaszewski was not charged with a crime for accidentally starting the fatal fire, but the owner Welansky was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 12-15 years in prison. Less than four years later he was pardoned by his friend (and now governor) Tobin, but died from cancer just nine weeks after his release.
Many building safety codes were enacted after the Cocoanut Grove disaster, including keeping exit doors unlocked and illuminated by well-lit exit signs, and making sure revolving doors are accompanied by side exit doors opening outward. For the victims of the 1942 nightclub fire, of course, all of this was much too late.
The following copyrighted newspaper article was published by the Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts) on the front page of its Nov. 30, 1942, issue:
‘Flash Fire’ Causes Panic, Killing 433 at Cocoanut Grove, Boston
Busboy Assumes Blame for Worst Club Holocaust
Employee Says He Accidentally Ignited Paper Palm Tree while Replacing Light Bulb—Fewer than 250 Bodies Identified—Long Lines of Relatives of Victims Admitted to Morgues, Two by Two
Boston, Nov. 29—(AP)—A terrific “flash fire” that caused more than 600 casualties among a thousand suddenly panic-stricken merrymakers in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove—the nation’s worst nightclub holocaust—was traced tonight to a tiny match flame in the hands of a 16-year-old busboy.
While Deputy Police Supt. James R. Claflin quoted the youngster as saying he had accidentally ignited a paper palm tree to start the lightning-like blaze, the Boston Committee on Public Safety reported the death toll alone at 433.
The horror scenes at the fire that started late last night and those that followed today never had been duplicated in Boston. Tonight fewer than 250 of the bodies had been identified. Some were so terribly burned that final identification may never be possible.
Long lines of relatives and friends stood outside the city’s two principal morgues, waiting to be taken inside two by two to see if they could identify the bodies lined up row on row.
Hospitals throughout Greater Boston were jammed with injured, some of them on the danger list. An unofficial estimate placed the injured at about 200. Blood plasma was rushed here from Washington and a supply of sulfa drugs from Newark, N.J. Specialists in treating burns were flown in from other cities.
Many Soldiers and Sailors
While the death list grew slowly, name by name, grim-visaged fire officials opened an inquest attended also by two United States Navy captains—there were many servicemen among the dead—and by two representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
A transcript of the testimony will be forwarded to Dist.-Atty. William J. Foley.
Deputy Fire Chief John F. McDonough testified that one door of the nightclub was equipped with a panic lock, which would open under pressure, but that this was out of order and the door was secured by another lock. He added, however, that although he found a number of bodies piled near this door, none was nearer than 10 feet.
District Chief William J. Mahoney said he had found bodies tangled and piled four or five deep, most of them frightfully burned, and that there was definite evidence that the crowd had been thrown into a fighting, clawing panic. Chairs and tables were tipped and scattered among the bodies.
The inquest will be resumed tomorrow, with testimony by survivors and police.
Boy Assumes Blame
The youngster who reported he started the fire in the Melody room of the club, a new addition opened within the last two weeks, was identified by Deputy Police Capt. Claflin as Stanley J. Tomaszewski of Dorchester.
Claflin quoted the busboy as saying:
“A patron came into the place and unscrewed a bulb in the ceiling. This made the room too dark. One of the waiters came to me and asked me to screw the bulb back in.
“I stood on a chair to do it. I lighted a match and held it while I screwed the bulb in with the other hand.
“The match set fire to a palm tree. That is how the fire started.”
Thus the flame of a match started a blaze that raced so swiftly and so fiercely through the nightclub that many bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Causes of Death
Many of the victims were “terribly burned” after death, asserted Medical Examiner Timothy Leary after examining bodies at the Southern mortuary.
Most of the deaths of those he examined were due to carbon monoxide poisoning, inhalation of smoke and holocaust, he said.
The orchestra leader had raised his baton to signal for the national anthem as a prelude to last night’s floor show, then—
There was a puff of smoke; a thin finger of flame raced among the decorations; a girl cried “Fire”; and within seconds the crowded nightclub was a bedlam.
The rising list of dead reached 433 today and there were uncounted scores of injured being treated in hospitals throughout Greater Boston.
By daybreak all the bodies had been taken from the 1½-story stucco building that squatted among taller structures on a narrow, Back Bay street.
Young Scavengers Busy
Soon after dawn a handful of youthful scavengers was scuttling around the debris and the sidewalk, picking up a woman’s handbag now and then, and additional police were brought to the scene from headquarters.
The structure itself had the appearance of a huge brick oven—filled inside with burned and charred wreckage, but with hardly a scorched spot on outside walls and roof.
The narrow sidewalks of Piedmont street, which the club faced, were cluttered with cups and saucers, hundreds of small wooden cocktail forks, washed out by the fire-hose lines—and women’s clothing and slippers.
In one spot, where chairs stood in a cluster, there were some musical instruments and a few sheets of music.
Nearby streets and parking lots were crowded, with parked and locked automobiles, many of which will never be called for by their owners. Massachusetts and Boston fire officials ordered an immediate inquest and pending the meeting, Boston Fire Commissioner William Arthur Reilly said his first impression was that the fire started in an imitation palm tree near the main entrance and spread “like a Christmas tree” through the club’s decorations.
There were many servicemen and some postgame football parties among the approximately 1000 persons in the club.
One Big Puff
The smoke and the burst of flame seemed to mushroom through the nightclub’s main room and basement Melody lounge in one big puff.
A fire alarm was sounded shortly after 10:15 p.m. last night. Three additional alarms followed rapidly, but long before they had been answered the dead were piling up inside the club—victims of smoke inhalation, victims of burns.
Some of those who escaped made their way to the roof of the low building and leaped to the roofs of parked automobiles, then to the street. The clothing of some was burning as they fled the club.
Billy Payne, the nightclub’s tenor, saved 10 patrons by leading them into a huge basement icebox.
Billy told the story:
“I was getting ready to start the show,” he said. “Suddenly I heard screams. I thought there was a fight. Then I saw a flame racing along the wall. Screams got louder. Everyone started rushing.
“If only more had followed me they would be alive.”
As Payne led the group of 10 to the basement there was a stampede of screaming patrons for the doors.
Nearby Places Send Aid
Bodies were found piled up at a revolving door, where those seeking a way out apparently jammed together. One body was found in a telephone booth in the ground-floor lobby.
As the proportions of the disaster grew, aid was called from surrounding communities.
Ambulances, beach wagons, private cars, even express trucks with police riding the running boards were used to carry the dead and injured to hospitals and morgues.
Every medical examiner in the state was called to duty. Soldiers, sailors, coast guardsmen [and] marines helped carry out the victims while firemen fought foot by foot through the flames.
Automobiles were shifted from their parking places to make room for blanket-covered forms. Twisted and blackened, some with shoes or other article of clothing missing.
Above the clanging fire bells, the shrieking sirens and the shouts of men and women came the oft-repeated cries of “Gangway” as volunteer servicemen carried body-laden stretchers from the still-smoking club.
The city’s hospitals were overtaxed quickly with dead and injured. Identification progressed slowly. Some were burned almost beyond recognition.
Many Women Unidentified
As the hours passed mortuary officials said that most of the dead remaining unidentified were women. Unlike the men victims, their relatively flimsy clothing contained no identifying papers or wallets. Their handbags were lost.
From one hospital a call was issued for 100 blood donors and Regional Defense Director Joseph M. Loughlin ordered all blood plasma available in the Greater Boston area rushed to accessible centers. American Red Cross headquarters at Washington sent 100 units of blood plasma by airliner and a similar amount was contributed by the Boston chapter.
The Red Cross at New York ordered 10 of its staff to the fire scene and Medical Director Albert McCowan planned to leave Washington tonight for Boston.
The Boston Committee on Public Safety organized under real disaster conditions for the first time.
Among their many services was an identification bureau which assembled lists of the identified dead that lay in a dozen or more hospitals and mortuaries.
Priests rushed to the scene to administer last rites, one saying he had given conditional absolution to perhaps 30 persons.
The fire was believed the nation’s worst in number of lives lost since the Iroquois theater fire in Chicago took 602 lives in 1903. The only comparable Boston disaster was the collapse of the Pickwick club July 4, 1925, in which 4 died.
The horror-filled stories of survivors told of tangled bodies and of men and women tearing the clothes from each other in the panic.
William Ladd of Boston told of the sudden flash of flame and rolling cloud of smoke and added:
“Instantly there was panic. Men and women began to scream together. It seemed everybody wanted to get out first.
“Men and women in their panic began tearing clothes from the bodies of each other.
“They all got to a small door on Piedmont street and one of the women went down. Then the other men and women fell on top of her and the bodies just seemed to keep piling up.
“While these people were trapped and tangled with one another the flames reached the front door. It was impossible then for anyone to get out.”
Wilbur Sheffield of Newton, General Electric company engineer, who probably was the last person to enter the club, was met by a surging crowd of men and women.
Women’s dresses were in flames, he said, and behind the pushing, scrambling crowd was a sea of fire that grew in depth.
He managed to get to the front of the club room, he said, only to find a door jammed with others who finally broke through.
Outside the Building
The experience was almost as horrible for those outside the club as those attending.
Benjamin M. Ellis had been shopping at a nearby store and was watching firemen extinguish a blaze in a nearby automobile when the fire started.
“Someone said, ‘There’s a fire in Cocoanut Grove,’” Ellis related.
“The firemen rushed over there. When I got there, 10 or 15 people were struggling in the doorway. They were men and women. Some were sailors. Their faces were quickly blackened. The smoke was pouring out around them and over their heads.
“In a matter of seconds a belch of flame came right out. The clothing of the people in the doorway was burning on them. Windows were kicked out and people were hanging out screaming. It was the most terrible thing I have ever seen.”
Two other pedestrians told of seeing burned people on the club roof, many of them screaming.
“They began jumping from the roof: they didn’t seem to care where they landed; they just jumped, anywhere”—so spoke George Carney and Jack Martin of Boston.
“Then suddenly we saw a girl run out of Piedmont street: her clothes and even her hair were afire; it would give you the horrors,” they added.