Cocoanut Grove Fire

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 US 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 major changes in the treatment and rehabilitation of burn patients.

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.

About The Club

The club, a former speakeasy, was located at 17 Piedmont Street, which today is a parking lot in Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood. 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, and swanky satin canopies suspended from the ceilings, and a roof that could be rolled back in summer for dancing under the stars.

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November 28, 1942

Earlier that day, Boston College football fans had seen their Sugar Bowl-bound team, undefeated and ranked number one in the nation, lose its place to their unranked rival, Holy Cross, in a crushing defeat of 55-12. Humiliated, the college canceled its victory party reservations at the nightclub; had the celebration taken place, some of the players would likely have been among the casualties.

It is estimated that on that Saturday more than a thousand – the exact count will never be known – 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 due to blackout regulations, but the club made up for this 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.

The Fire

Official reports state that the fire started at about 10:15 p.m. in the dark, intimate Melody Lounge downstairs. A young pianist and singer, Goody Goodelle, 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, extinguished the match, and replaced the bulb. Almost immediately, patrons saw something ignite in the canopy of artificial palm fronds draped above the tables (although the official report doubts the connection between the match and the subsequent fire).

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.

As is common in panic situations, 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.

If you would like to read more details about this night, visit the Wikipedia page