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80 years later, 4 things you may not know about the devastating Cocoanut Grove fire

An anniversary vigil will be held Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. at 17 Piedmont Street in Boston.

In this Nov. 29, 1942 file photo, police and firemen stand at the rear entrance to the "Melody Lounge" section of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston the morning after a fire that killed 490 people. AP Photo, File

Monday marks 80 years since a fire broke out at a Boston nightclub and killed nearly 500 people. On the night of November 28, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub went up in flames.

Mayor Michelle Wu, City Council President Ed Flynn, and Fire Commissioner Paul Burke are hosting a vigil to commemorate the anniversary Monday at 3 p.m. They will be joined by the families of victims and survivors, and the public is welcome to attend. It will take place at 17 Piedmont Street. 

Eighty years later, here are four things you may not know about the fire: 

490 people died, and more than 1,000 were hospitalized

The fire is the deadliest event in Boston’s history and the second deadliest building fire in American history.

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Four hundred and ninety people were killed: 237 male patrons, 227 female patrons, 17 employees, six entertainers, two passing rescue workers, and a non-employee sales girl for war bonds, according to the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, an organization that seeks to spread awareness and information about the event and keep the memory of its victims and survivors alike alive. At the time, it was the worst loss of life in the United States since Pearl Harbor was attacked just about a year earlier. The number of people killed used to be tallied at 492, but the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee has clarified that two people were counted twice due to changed last names.

2 known survivors are still alive 

Joyce Spector and Bob Shumway are the last two remaining known survivors still living. They were both 18 at the time of fire, born months apart in 1924. 

Spector was a student at Fay Secretarial School, with plans to apply for US Naval Reserve WAVES. She was at the club with her fiancé Justin Morgan, who was killed in the blaze. She received second-degree burns to her right hand and shoulders, burns to her legs, and blisters on her face, but was not hospitalized. 

Shumway was a student at Williston Academy in Easthampton, visiting Boston for the weekend with his classmate Richard Moulton, who also escaped the incident uninjured. They attended the football game between Boston College and Holy Cross earlier that day at Fenway Park and later visited Cocoanut Grove. Shumway and Moulton left the club before the blaze and came back to find it on fire. They spent the night covering and carrying bodies to ambulances.

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At the ceremony Monday, both Spector and Shumway will be represented by their respective daughters. 

We still don’t know exactly how it started

Decades later, the cause of the fire remains unknown. At 10:15 p.m., fire was first sighted in an artificial palm tree and on a fake cloth ceiling in the Melody Lounge, which was in the basement of the club. Witnesses said a 16-year-old busboy had just restored a lightbulb and lit a match in an attempt to see the socket, which could have sparked the fire. But the boy was ultimately exonerated by investigators.

State Fire Marshal Stephen Garrity said in 1943 that it was clear to him that the busboy “did not ignite the palm tree in the Melody Lounge.”

While it’s still unclear what caused the disaster, what’s indisputable is that the fire spread at an alarming rate. 

A memorial is on its way

The Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, with the city, is working to get a monument built in Statler Park on Stuart Street. It will be a replica of the three archways that people would have to walk through to reach the entrance to the nightclub, and it will feature the names of the victims of the fire.

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