More Details about the 1942 ‘Cocoanut Grove’ Nightclub Fire
The tragedy of the deadly fire at Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub on Nov. 28, 1942, in which 492 people died and hundreds more were injured, shocked and dismayed Americans already caught up in the grim reality of WWII. For several days after the nightclub disaster, news of the inferno and its follow-up investigation dominated the nation’s headlines. As reporters dug into the story and more details emerged, newspaper readers were horrified by tales of unimaginable suffering—and uplifted by accounts of tremendous heroism on the part of firefighters, police, and volunteers who rushed into the flames to rescue perfect strangers desperately in need of help.
The day after the fire, reporters wrote the following three stories. The first is an eyewitness account from a reporter for the Associated Press, Harry Glasheen, who was called in to report on the fire and ended up entering the nightclub to look for survivors and help remove burned bodies. The second story is about four friends who went dancing at the nightclub that night—one couple decided to leave just before the fire started and survived, their friends decided to stay for one “last dance” and perished. The third story provides details of the long lines of anxious, suffering friends and family members who waited outside the morgues to identify the bodies of their missing loved ones.
These copyrighted newspaper articles were all published by the Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts) on Nov. 30, 1942:
Firemen, Volunteers Stagger under Burden of Dead, Dying
Reporter’s Eyewitness Account of Night Club Fire Tells of Early Stretcher Shortage, Living Torches, Milling Crowds, Indescribable Horror
By Harry C. Glasheen
Boston, Nov. 29—(AP)—My hands are trembling all over this typewriter keyboard as the reaction sets in to a night of almost indescribable horror.
I “covered” the Cocoanut Grove fire which was one of the worst conflagrations in this nation’s history and certainly the worst nightclub fire.
Can Still Hear Screams
I can still hear the screams of the dying. I still can recall the stories of the living torches running wildly about trying to get away from the swift-reaching flames and suffocating smoke. I can still see those 30 or more bodies huddled on the floor of a garage transformed into a morgue, some of them so horribly burned it will be difficult ever to identify them positively.
For more than 36 hours now I have been on duty and write more by newsman’s instinct than anything else.
I was ordered to the scene within minutes, after the fire was reported as a four-alarm blaze.
Leaving a taxi not far from the fire, I fought my way down narrow Piedmont street right to the main entrance of the club.
Stream of Dead, Dying
It was impossible to get through the entrance immediately because firemen and volunteers were coming out of the building in a staggering stream with the dead and dying. At first there was a shortage of stretchers and it was necessary to use overcoats to carry out the victims.
Two firemen were lying on the floor inside a window, putting a line of water on the fire so that it could be cooled sufficiently to remove the trapped persons.
Finally, the smoke and fire subsided long enough to allow a fireman to chop down the window sill and we began the tasks of removal.
I half leaned over into the building to grasp bodies dragged to the window by firemen. These were hoisted through the window and onto waiting stretchers. One Catholic priest asked me to notify him of any of the living. Of the 20 or more which I helped take out at this point I saw signs of life only in two, one a man and one a woman.
“Don’t Smother Me”
A navy man was standing beside me with an armful of blankets to cover the bodies. We covered one, a man who looked to be dead, and as the blanket was pulled up over his face he shouted, “Don’t smother me.”
The body of a woman appeared to move slightly and then she moaned as we placed her on the stretcher. She was marked “emergency rush” and hurried away to a hospital.
Most of the people I saw at this point seemed to have been suffocated.
I took time out to call to the office and came back to the rear of the building, across the street from which had been set up an emergency morgue in a garage.
I counted 32 bodies, some frightfully burned, which were piled in rows against the wall. Some of these were nearly nude and all had suffered burns of lesser or greater degree.
Outside, the military had unofficially taken over and were battling with a milling mob containing people who thought they had friends and relatives in the gutted building.
Returning to the Piedmont street entrance I went inside to give further assistance for we were just informed that it was possible to get bodies out of the cellar.
The smoke was still very thick as we fought our way over toward the entrance to the Melody lounge. Mayor Maurice J. Tobin of Boston was at my side, and suddenly I stepped into a hole that trapped one of my feet. I wrenched free and started to the head of the stairs but tripped over a chair and narrowly escaped plunging down the flight.
As I backed away a sailor was wrenching from the wall some sort of a switch box that hampered our rescue work. As he gave a tug a table toppled over and smashed down on one of my feet. Fortunately I was wearing a pair of steel-toed safety shoes.
At this point order seemed to be more nearly restored and we went at the work of taking the bodies out of the cellar. It was still difficult to see because of the smoke which was still pretty thick.
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, the same as if a tornado had whistled through the room.
I was ordered to one of the large hospitals where many had been taken and here again the scene was heart-rending as people sought to get some word of their loved ones.
Some of the stories told by survivors were unforgettable. Richard W. Davis, of Brookline, an estimator at the Fore River shipyard, said he and his wife escaped by crawling on their hands and knees into the cellar of the club and then squeezing through a tiny window.
“The fire spread with terrific rapidity,” Davis said. “Before we went to the cellar I looked back at the dance floor. People were fighting to get out of the club. Pandemonium is the only word I can think of, and I must say, the scene did no credit to the male sex.”
Joseph Lawrence Ford, a second class petty officer in the navy stationed at Portsmouth, N.H., said he entered the burning building by breaking a window and jumping inside. He added:
“I crawled along on my hands and knees and then I bumped into live forms. All were moaning, and some were twisting around on the floor clawing at their throats.”
Ford, who reported he rescued three women and two men, said he found the body of a naval lieutenant, almost naked, buried beneath a dozen others, and believed the officer had had the clothes torn from his back while trying to quiet the hysterical crowd.
‘Last Dance’ Put Tragedy in Story of Local Couples
Mary McCarthy and J. P. Lightcap, Jr., Escaped—Companions, Who Waited, Died in Blaze
A “last dance” at the ill-fated Cocoanut Grove nightclub cost Mary O’Sullivan of Holyoke and Conrad E. Schorling of 24 Fairmount street their lives. Because Mary McCarthy of 95 East Alvord street and John P. Lightcap, Jr., of 1 Fourth street, East Longmeadow, decided to forgo a “last dance” they are alive today.
The two couples drove to Boston Saturday to see the Holy Cross-Boston College football game. Afterward they celebrated the Worcester college’s victory with a visit to the Cocoanut Grove.
Went to Coatroom
About 10 that evening, they decided it was time to start back for Springfield. Miss McCarthy and Mr. Lightcap left the dance floor for the coatroom which was next to the entrance. Miss O’Sullivan and Mr. Schorling decided to take a few more turns around as the orchestra swung into the final number before the floor show came on.
The East Longmeadow man had helped Miss McCarthy with her coat and was just turning to the hat-check girl to get his own when the girl screamed. She was facing the stairs leading down to the Melody lounge below the main floor. A woman, her hair and dress ablaze, was rushing up the top steps toward the door. Behind this human torch were a mob of men and women, faces distorted with terror and some of them black with burns, making madly for the exit.
Lightcap didn’t wait to get his coat. He grabbed Miss McCarthy and pushed her into the revolving doors. Someone coming fast behind them gave the doors a push and propelled them into the street. A moment later a husky six-footer trying to get out had been crushed against the inside of the door by the frantic mob and the door became a death trap. Miss McCarthy and Lightcap were told by firemen that they were among the last to get out of the nightclub alive.
Suffer from Shock
This was the story the couple told Mary McCarthy’s sister, Helen, when she arrived in Boston yesterday morning to bring them home. Both of them were suffering from shock and exposure on their arrival here last night and were both trying to forget their horrible experience. Miss McCarthy’s last memory was of ambulances, marines, soldiers, firemen and police rushing to the scene and of dozens of young men and women jumping from the roof onto automobiles parked just below. Mr. Lightcap said that the whole building seemed to go up in flames at once.
Long, Grim, Stunned Lines Inch Forward to Identify Fire Victims
Those Seeking Missing Relatives, Friends Peer at Distorted Forms—and Hurry Out
Boston, Nov. 29—(AP)—Long grim lines of stunned men and women inched slowly forward outside the Northern and Southern mortuaries tonight as the slow process of identifying victims of Boston’s worst fire reached a peak.
As darkness settled over the city nearly 500 persons were outside the two morgues, police officials estimated.
Most of the people were amazingly calm, apparently shocked by the suddenness of the disaster.
Gradually, two at a time, those seeking relatives and friends were admitted to the morgues.
Inside they were asked to describe those they were seeking and these descriptions were checked with lists prepared by police and doctors delineating in every available detail the features, wearing apparel and jewelry of the still unidentified.
In cases where the details seemed to check, the people were allowed to view the bodies.
The scene within the mortuaries was horrible and heartrending. Attendants had worked many hours doing what they could with the burned, distorted bodies, hoping to make identification partly bearable. But they had not been altogether successful.
Medical Examiner Timothy J. O’Leary, after examining a number of bodies, reported that “most of the deaths were due to carbon monoxide, inhalation of smoke and holocaust.”
Thus, almost every possible variation of death was visible to the searchers. Stretched out in distorted rows along the morgue floors and in adjoining garages were the bodies of men and women of all ages and sizes.
Close beside something unrecognizable was the body of a young girl, intact, seemingly untouched by flames. And so it went, down the long rows.
People took quick looks at what was there and then hurried out. Some broke down. Those who did wept quietly on comforting shoulders. Once a woman fainted and was quickly taken outside and revived.
At the Southern mortuary a veteran newspaperman reported, “It was one of the toughest things I have ever seen.”
Men and women both were weeping quietly.
Clergymen, Priests Give Aid
A number of clergymen and priests were with the people. In some instances priests went into the morgue and made identifications for families emotionally unable to do so themselves.
Outside again and many persons who had failed to identify loved ones believed dead showed few signs of relief or joy. Apparently they were still too stunned to register feelings.
One of the more horrible incidents for those waiting in line occurred at the Northern mortuary when an open truck full of pine coffins pulled up outside the structure.
Red Cross units served coffee and sandwiches at the morgues and hospitals to everyone, including tired police and newsmen.
Special details of police maintained order, and helped to lead away the few who were overcome.