Fire at the Cocoanut Grove

The front of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub after the fire

Boston did not technically have nightclubs, but one of the hottest places to be in 1942 was the Cocoanut Grove.  It was a supper club located on near Park Square, which was built in 1927.  It kind of fell out of favor after Prohibition, but with the advent of World War II it began to pick up in popularity again.  Barnett Welansky, became owner of the Cocoanut Grove in February 1933 and he brought in a prominent Boston interior designer to make the club more family oriented.  Palm trees, blue satin ceilings and a dance floor were added.  The first floor had a dining room and a ballroom with a bandstand, with several separate bar areas.  On beautiful clear nights, the retractable roof was pulled back so patrons could dine and dance in the moonlight.

The restaurant was located off the narrow cobblestoned Piedmont Street, and a couple of bars occupied the basement.   The Caricature Bar and the Melody Lounge shared space with the newly opened Broadway Lounge.  There were two entrances- a revolving door from Piedmont and a regular door from Broadway into a vestibule.  It was an old building, originally built in 1917 and because it was not originally meant to be a restaurant was an odd shape with many separate rooms on several floors.  The building covered close to half a block.

The place was jumping on the evening of Saturday, November 28, 1942.  The Boston College football team had pulled up an upset that day to get into the Orange Bowl.  People were going crazy with celebration.  Although the club was licenced to hold 500 patrons, about 1,000 people were jammed into the club that night.  Among the notables at The Grove that night were Buck Jones, a Hollywood movie star famous for his cowboy movies, who was in town on a war bonds tour.  Around 10:15, Stanley Tomaszewski, a busboy 16 years of age, was ordered by a bartender to fix a burnt out light bulb in the Melody Lounge.  It was suspected a patron had unscrewed it to provide a more intimate environment for his date.  The light bulb was at the top of an artificial palm tree, and since it was dark he couldn’t see.  He indicated in later testimony, he lit a match to better see what he was doing.  

Moments later, patrons saw what looked like a flicker of flame in the palm tree or in the cloth ceiling decorations.  There was no visible flame, but the decorations changed color.  Quickly after, open flame burst out of the palm tree decorations, which bartenders tried to put out with water and seltzer bottles.  It didn’t work, and a fireball of flame and toxic gas ignited and rolled across the room and up the stairs to the restaurant above.  Within five minutes of the initial spark, the entire basement was engulfed in flames.

The fire traveled along the cloth decorations and the plywood ceiling and soon hit the other bars, accelerated by a ventilation fan in The Caricature Bar.  Panic hit the patrons and athey ran towards the exit screaming “Fire, Fire”.  The flames appeared in the street floor lobby within two to four minutes after they broke out in the Melody Lounge.  It was travelling quickly and described by eyewitnesses as a “ball of fire” that was blue or yellow in color.  Some people made it through the revolving doors on to Piedmont Street before the flames got there, but the doors jammed.  The lucky ones who got out had to watch their fellow patrons get crushed in the rush for the broken doors.

Smoke rises from the Cocoanut Grove

The fireball hit the main dining room, where many of the patrons were crowded together at small tables to watch the 10 pm show.  The flames went quickly up the walls leaving behind a cloud of acrid smoke.  The lights went out leaving patrons to try to find their way out in the dark, thick smoke choked air.  Most of the doors were locked or broken and patrons were trapped in the dining room.  One exit door was installed as an inward-opening door and the weight of the panicked people trying to escape forced it shut, much like in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  (Please this post for more information on this event:  http://www.historynaked.com/triangle-shirtwaist-fire/ )  Those that got out were helped by employees through the dark back corridors.  Others hid in the meat lockers and refrigerators and hoped for the best.

In a stroke of luck, the Boston Fire Department was nearby as they had been putting out a car fire on Stuart Street and saw the smoke.    By the time the fire was done, it was a five alarm fire.  Once the fire department arrived, the narrow streets were clogged with emergency vehicles, and patrons both living and dead.  Often those who escaped were wounded and exhausted and collapsed on the spot.  Stacks of bodies, both living and dead, were piled at the entrances shoulder high.  Ironically, the fire itself was put out rather quickly, but the damage was done.  The firefighters knew they needed more help with the rescue and recovery efforts.  National Guard, the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Army were mobilized the help.  Any and all vehicles were pressed into service to get the wounded to hospitals and a temporary morgue was organized at a nearby garage.  By the time it was over, 490 people had died and 166 were injured.  Among the dead was movie star Buck Jones.

In the inquest that followed, many believed 16 year old Stanley Tomaszewski was responsible for the disaster, however, he was exonerated by the courts.  He was always believed to be to blame by the public.  The official cause is still listed as unknown, but there are several theories.  Some believe it was electoral in nature as there had been renovations by a non licensed electrician two weeks earlier.  There was no permit for this work either.  A report on the fire published in 1943, placed the blame on alcohol fumes from the drinkers.  However, ethyl alcohol in 50% concentration by volume, which is about maximum of any ordinary liquor, does not produce flammable vapors except at temperatures above approximately 85 degrees F.  There were also tests that the flame proofing chemicals used for the new decorations had been lacking.  Theories also state that they had been a source of toxic gasses, such as ammonia, which worsened the fire.  In 1991, Francis L. Brannigan, a noted fire safety expert, wrote a letter to the NFPA Journal blaming the fire on the fixative used to install the new ceiling tiles in the Broadway Lounge.

Whatever the cause, the locked exits and lack of fire sprinklers added to the death toll.  The only person charged in the Cocoanut Grove fire was Barney Welansky, the owner.  He was indicted by a Grand Jury on manslaughter charges and sentenced to 12 to 15 years in Charlestown State Prison.  He died of cancer in 1947 after being pardoned by Governor Maurice Tobin.

As after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, building codes were revamped and strengthened.  Now a high rise hotel and theatre stands where so many lost their lives on a November evening.
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