It all happened in less than 15 minutes.
Just a few blocks from the Boston Common, the city witnessed the worst-ever tragedy in its long history when a rapid inferno engulfed Cocoanut Grove, a popular nightclub packed with people out on the holiday weekend, exactly 75 years ago Tuesday.
Now, even those with close ties to the 1942 disaster — the second deadliest building fire in American history — say it’s tough to locate the nightclub’s former location where rows of indistinct Bay Village apartment buildings now stand.
“The sands of time are basically covering over an event that is of huge importance historically locally, but also nationally,” said Dr. Ken Marshall, a local surgeon and chairman of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee.
Marshall, whose mother spent several days as a City Hospital nurse treating victims of the fire, said that not only was the sheer loss of life hard to fathom, but the events left an important legacy.
“This changed fire laws and safety rules and building code regulations, and monumental things in medicine,” he told Boston.com, adding that “95 percent of people” don’t even know where it happened.
The astonishingly quick blaze overtook most of its victims trapped inside the club, sent others enveloped in flames fleeing into the cold streets, and swamped Boston’s hospitals with hundreds of burn victims. In the midst of World War II, The Boston Globe described the horrific scenes as a “dress rehearsal” for first responders if the city was ever blitzed.
“If the young private and his girl friend were dead, maybe it was best,” the Globe wrote the following morning, describing the injuries of those burned in the fire. The paper described unrecognizable bodies that were “blackened [trunks] without arms or legs.”
In the end, 492 people — mostly young adults out on a Saturday night — were counted dead. More than 400 people were additionally hospitalized.
The names of those killed reportedly filled 11 pages of documents; bodies of the trapped victims were found literally piled up inside the club. The fire still stands as Boston’s deadliest disaster, as well as the worst ever non-natural disaster in New England. It’s second only to Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre blaze, which killed 602 in 1903, as the country’s worst building fire.
How it happened
Located in what is now Bay Village, Cocoanut Grove was one of the largest nightclubs in Boston. According to the Globe, the 15-year-old destination had a retractable roof over the main floor that could be rolled open during the summer. The inside was adorned with fake palm trees and other tropical decorations. The Globe described it as a “mecca for politicians” and a venue favored for celebrations by the Red Sox and Bruins.
“You’d find collegians shagging on the dance floor,” the paper wrote. “Jitterbugs performing. The town’s leading racket men frequently visited there, mingling with Back Bay society folk. The atmosphere was always gay.”
The Globe estimated that more than 1,000 people were in the club that Saturday night. Its legal capacity was 460.
According to the Boston Fire Department’s official report a year later, the blaze began around 10:15 p.m. in the Melody Lounge, the club’s basement bar. It was first seen burning in an artificial palm tree and on the fake cloth ceiling in the corner of the room.
According to the Globe, witnesses in the club said a busboy had just restored a lightbulb in the same corner after a couple unscrewed it, and had lit a match in an attempt to find the socket. It was never substantiated that anything the 16-year-old did actually caused the fire.
However it sparked, fire officials said the intense fire “immediately” spread throughout the basement lounge along the ceiling. As it traveled along the low ceiling, it scorched heads and ignited the hair of some people inside the lobby, officials said.
Within five minutes, the blaze — which was described by witnesses as a yellow or blue “ball of fire” — had reached and spread throughout the crowded first floor. Some people were burned to death before they were even able to escape their tables, according to Marshall.
“The flames poured out of the exits on Piedmont Street, Shawmut Street, and Broadway,” said the fire department’s report. “It was at these exits as well as in the low passageway leading from the Caricature Bar to the Broadway Lounge where the bodies of many of the patrons were found piled up.”
John Rizzo, who was a 21-year-old waiter at the Grove, recounted the scenes inside the club as the fire quickly spread in a 1992 Globe article.
“Everybody panicked,” he said. “I knew there was a door across the dining room, but about 150 people were headed for it, and everybody was pressed together, arms jammed to our sides. The flame came down the side of the dining room like a forest fire, and within minutes, the stage was consumed with fire.”
Those trying to escaped were trapped at many exits, most of which were locked to prevent club-goers from skipping out on their bills. The revolving doors leading to Shawmut Street became a “death trap,” according to the Globe.
The portico was a furnace, and firefighters were unable to get under the three arches of stucco, unable to penetrate nine feet to the revolving door, jammed with bodies, where they could see, through the glass, flames, smoke and men and women, succumbing and falling in a stack. Officer Elmer Brooks recalled that when rescuers tried to pull bodies from the door, arms and legs came off in their hands.
According to the Globe, club-goers were seen jumping from the Grove’s roof onto adjacent cars. Others who managed to get out were seen running down Piedmont Street with their clothes and hair in flames. The streets were reportedly lined with bodies.
Ironically, many of the people who remained in the basement as the flames spread — rather than attempting desperate escapes — were able to safely find their way out once the fireball traveled to the rest of the club.
Scores of firefighters and police officers, later aided by local military personnel, responded to the scene within minutes of the first alarm. However, the fire was over so quickly that the majority of the response centered around treating the victims. (It burned so quickly, in fact, that there is only one existing photo of the flames, Marshall said.)
Local traffic was virtually completely stopped to give way for the “steady stream” of ambulances racing back and forth between the scene and nearby hospitals, according to the Globe.
“My mother didn’t come home for four days,” Marshall said.
A legacy with a silver lining
The exact cause of what started the fire is still unclear. However, 51 years later in 1993, the Boston Fire Department concluded that methyl chloride, an extremely flammable gas from a faulty air conditioning system, was the reason the blaze spread through the club.
According to the Globe, 11 men were indicted in the aftermath of the fire for a myriad of infringements, in addition to allowing the club to be over its legal capacity:
Busboys were under legal age. A firefighter said he had inspected the club eight days before and found everything satisfactory. And yet, not only were decorations not fireproof, they were highly inflammable. The electrician who wired the Cocoanut Grove had no license, and he testified that the owner, Barney Welansky, had told him not to worry, that Welansky was “in with the mayor.” Taxes had been cut mysteriously from $18,000 to $9,000. Not only did a revolving door become jammed, but other exits were locked, trapping scores of screaming victims. A plate-glass window that would have provided egress for 200 people was boarded up. The Portland Press Herald called it a “perfectly stupid way to learn elementary public safety.”
Welansky, the owner, was the only one convicted, serving less than four years and later telling reporters that, “I wish I’d died with the others in the fire.”
Marshall, who is leading a movement to build a free-standing memorial to the Cocoanut Grove fire says that while his generation remembers the horrific events well, it’s less well known among Greater Boston’s younger population, despite its enormous historical significance.
“This is a huge loss of life, and their legacy is the improvements that happened afterward,” he said.
The fire department’s 1943 report made a number of future safety recommendations, many of which were later passed into law, such as requiring automatic sprinklers, illuminated “EXIT” signs, and banning flammable fabric and false cloth ceilings. Revolving doors were banned, unless they had two doors that opened out immediately adjacent.
Additionally, Marshall says the medical response revolutionized treatment of burn victims and pulmonary injuries. It was also the first large-scale use of penicillin to treat civilians.
For all this to happen — both the tragedy and the improvements — in the heart of Boston without any significant lasting marker, Marshall says, is “ridiculous.” Currently, there is only a plaque and a street marking the tragedy in the changing neighborhood. The plaque was even relocated down the street last year to make way for new luxury condos.
“It is absolutely incomprehensible that […] there is not a large, stand-alone memorial to an event that dramatically changed the way that buildings are constructed and how burn victims are treated,” Globe columnist Kevin Cullen wrote last year. “Laws were changed to encourage public safety. If hundreds died at the Cocoanut Grove, tens of thousands are alive today because of the advances that followed the disaster.”
More than 400 people, including former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, attended a 75th anniversary event Saturday organized by Marshall’s committee. The group is hoping to get a free-standing memorial built in nearby Statler Park, an effort which Marshall says Mayor Marty Walsh was supportive of during his first campaign. However, progress has since stalled.
“It’s frustrating,” he said.
Currently, the memorial plaque near the site reads “Phoenix out of Ashes,” which Marshall says refers to the legacy of the victims.
“This is a monumentally important event,” he said. “And certainly one of the biggest events in the history of Boston. … This cannot get lost.”