(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Seventy years ago Wednesday, a fire tore through a crowded Boston nightclub, killing 492 people and changing the city forever.
In the years to come, the Cocoanut Grove fire would be indelibly associated with unsafe conditions in public places and needless loss of life, but also with advances it spurred in medical science and in public safety laws.
For months, a team of librarians and historians has worked to build a hub where all that history, the great and the terrible, will be available to anyone interested in the lessons the fire still is teaching.
The Cocoanut Grove Coalition set out to build a website — www.cocoanutgrovefire.org — that would provide a single access point to historical materials in the physical collections of many different organizations. But they couldn’t have anticipated the human connections their effort would produce.
Since announcing the project last summer, the coalition has heard from people throughout Massachusetts and across the country who have artifacts, memories, or family history related to the fire.
“Mostly we’ve heard from relatives,” said Sue Marsh, librarian for the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association and founder of the coalition. “We’ve identified three survivors, two of whom we’ve interviewed.”
As seen in videos of survivor interviews on the coalition’s website, the fire on Nov. 28, 1942, took revelers at the popular Bay Village nightclub by surprise.
Marshall Cole, then a 16-year-old dancer recently hired by the Piedmont Street club, recalled gathering his things to leave the burning nightclub, “when all of a sudden this guy come charging through the door like a madman, and he was running through the dressing room … and he goes through this plate-glass window, like this,” Cole said, crossing his forearms over his face.
“I dropped everything — my brand-new camel-hair coat, tuxedo — and I followed him … through the window,” Cole said in the video interview.
Ann Clark Gallagher, also 16 then, came to the Cocoanut Grove with her boyfriend Fred and their families after attending a big football game between Boston College and College of the Holy Cross.
“When we saw the fire, the last thing I know, Fred said to me, ‘Get down on your hands and knees and cover your face,’” Gallagher recounted. “Then next thing I knew I was in Mass. General. And he was gone. I mean, I don’t to this day really know how I got out.”
Gallagher said the experience has stuck with her these seven decades.
“It seems like yesterday at times,” she said. “And then it seems like something you never forget, and there are things that still bother me. I can’t be in a crowd and get people pushing me.”
The fire, and the loss of life it caused, affected thousands around Greater Boston, and its effects continue.
Walter Zenkin Jr. was home that night in 1942, only 12 years old, but his mother was at the Cocoanut Grove. She did not survive.
Zenkin’s daughter, Noelle Hanafin, contacted Marsh after seeing a July Boston Globe article about the coalition’s efforts. Could they track down that 70-year-old newspaper?
“I thought, sure, what are the chances of that?” Marsh said. “And then about two weeks … after that, I got a phone call from a woman who said that her mother had recently died.”
Marie Stamos was going through her mother’s belongings when she found a special edition of the Boston Evening American from Dec. 12, 1942, devoted to the Cocoanut Grove blaze. Stamos had seen the Globe article, and she contacted Marsh to offer the yellowed newspaper.
“When I opened it up, there’s the photograph of the father and son and sister,” Marsh said. “The way she described it, it had to be them.”
Marsh notified Hanafin, who was thrilled, she said, and later introduced the two women. On Monday, Marsh heard from Stamos that she and Hanafin have continued to stay in touch.
The effort to bring more information together also continues.
Marsh has reached out to Boston University and Notre Dame to ask what their archives might contain, and her colleague Nicole Costa is seeking records from a naval training facility that existed in Boston at the time and from the US Marine hospital where Marines injured in the fire were taken.
Marsh said she thought from the outset that the coalition would be successful if it could bring together materials that weren’t readily available to the public before and provide information to families touched by the fire.
“And we’ve done that, so to me it’s a success if we don’t do any more,” she said. “But I would like so much to have it touch even more people.”