BOSTON FIRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The Story of the Cocoanut Grove Fire
The Cocoanut Grove Fire
November 28, 1942
2220 Hours, Box 1521, 5 Alarms
View from the Melody Lounge up the 4-foot wide staircase, the only public means of egress.
Special Cocoanut Grove Section containing documents & historical information.
The Cocoanut Grove was a restaurant/supper club (nightclubs did not officially exist in Boston), built in 1927 and located at 17 Piedmont Street, near Park Square, in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. Piedmont Street was a narrow cobblestoned street (now paved) located near the Park Square theater district, running from Arlington Street to Broadway.
The Cocoanut Grove had been very popular in the late 1920’s, due to Prohibition, but had fallen on hard times during the 1930’s. It became very popular once again during the early years of World War II. In 1942 the owner for the three years previous years had been a lawyer named Barnet (Barney) Welansky. The Grove was the place to be in 1942. The building was a single-story structure, with a basement beneath. The basement contained a bar, called the Melody Lounge, along with the kitchen, freezers, and storage areas. The first floor contained a large dining room area and ballroom with a bandstand, along with several bar areas separate from the ballroom. The dining room also had a retractable roof for use during warm weather to allow a view of the moon and stars. The main entrance to the Cocoanut Grove was via a revolving door on the Piedmont Street side of the building.
On Saturday, November 28, 1942, the powerful Boston College (BC) football team had played Holy Cross College (HC) at Fenway Park. In a great upset of that period, HC beat BC by a score of 55-12. College bowl game scouts had attended the game in order to offer BC a bid to the 1943 Sugar Bowl game, a bowl BC had previously won on January 1, 1941. As a result of the rout a BC bowl game celebration party scheduled for the Grove that evening was canceled. BC later accepted a bid to play in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1943, subsequently losing to the University of Alabama.
A famous Hollywood cowboy movie star, Buck Jones (real name Charles Gebhart)(photo right), was traveling the country on a War Bond campaign, had attended the BC-HC football game with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin. Despite his reluctance due to illness, Buck was persuaded by movie agents to have dinner that evening at the Grove.
At about 10:15PM that evening, a busboy had been ordered by a bartender to fix a light bulb located at the top of an artificial palm tree in the corner of the basement Melody Lounge. It is believed that the bulb had been unscrewed by a patron desiring more intimacy with his date. Due to the lack of light in the area of the palm tree, the busboy lit a match in order to locate the socket for the light bulb.
A moment later, several patrons thought they saw a flicker of a flame in the palm tree of the ceiling decorations. As they watched, they saw the decorations change color and appeared to be burning, but without a noticeable flame. After several moments, the palm tree burst into flames and the bartenders tried to extinguish the fire with water and seltzer bottles. Some patrons started for the only public exit from the Melody Lounge, a four-foot wide set of stairs leading to the Foyer on the first floor. As other furnishings ignited, a fireball of flame and toxic gas raced across the room toward the stairs. A wild panic ensued and attempts to open the emergency exit door at the top of the stairs were not successful. The fireball traveled up the stairs and burst into the Foyer area, where coatrooms, restrooms and the main entrance were located. Amid cries of “Fire, Fire”, customers quickly moved to toward the exit. After a small number of people exited, the revolving door became jammed due to the crush of panicked patrons. Observers outside could only watch in horror as relatives and friends were crushed by the weight of the crowd surging against the jammed door.
The fireball then exploded into the Dining Room area, where a majority of the patrons were crowded together into small chairs and tables, awaiting the start of the 10PM show, already fifteen minutes late. It was later estimated that more than 1000 persons were inside the Grove at the time of the fire. As with the Melody Lounge, panic ensued and customers attempted to find an exit. Unfortunately, many exits were either locked shut or were not easily indentified or accessed by the crowd. The fire now had complete control of the premises, with a tremendous rise in temperature and high levels of toxic gas.
In a strange coincidence, at 10:15PM, the Boston Fire Department received and transmitted Box 1514, located at Stuart and Carver Streets, located about three blocks from the Cocoanut Grove. Upon arrival and investigation, firefighters found an automobile fire on Stuart Street. After quickly extinguishing the fire, a firefighter noticed what appeared to be smoke coming from the Cocoanut Grove. As they began to investigate, bystanders ran toward them to report the fire. Upon arrival at the Grove, firefighters found a heavy smoke condition emanating from the entire building, with both patrons and employees escaping from the building. At 10:20PM, the Boston Fire Alarm Office (FAO) received Box 1521, Church and Winchester Streets, apparently pulled by a civilian bystander. The fire chief at the scene ordered his aide to skip the Second Alarm and request a Third Alarm, via fire alarm telegraph, from Box 1521, which was transmitted at 10:23PM, followed by a Fourth Alarm at 10:24PM. A Fifth Alarm was transmitted at 11:02PM.
The Boston Fire Department Running Card for Box 1521, in effect at the time of the Cocoanut Grove Fire, is below. The response to each of five alarms is read horizontally from left to right.
The small, congested streets in the area of the Grove quickly became clogged with fire apparatus and other emergency vehicles. The fire was extinguished in a matter of minutes, but the damage had already been done. Rescue operations began immediately, but the full horror of what awaited the firefighters inside the building was not fully realized for a period of time. Many patrons who were able to exit under their own power collapsed in the street and stacks of bodies, both living and dead, were buried shoulder-high at many of the exits. Getting inside to help proved nearly as difficult as getting out.
Many patrons were aided in escaping by following employees through the dark back corridors (the lights had gone out shortly after the fire started), while others hid in the giant refrigerators and meat lockers. Others were able to open several concealed exit doors from the Dining Room. However, due to the rapid spread of the fire, the intense heat and toxic smoke, many patrons inside the Grove never had a chance. An exit door in the newly-opened, but officially unlicensed ‘New Lounge’ allowed for the escape of some patrons. However, because the door was installed as an inward-opening door, the rush and weight of those fleeing the fire caused the door to shut, cutting off an important escape route. Other employees escaped through windows in various parts of the Grove, principally because they knew their way around in the back areas.
When the magnitude of the disaster was realized, an urgent call for help was issued. Navy, Army, Coast Guard and National Guard personnel were called in to assist in the evacuation and removal of the injured. Newspaper delivery trucks, taxis, and any other means were used to transport the injured. In an interesting twist of fate, area hospitals had practiced a disaster drill the week before the fire. Despite the drill, the majority of the injured were taken to Boston City Hospital (BCH). Many others were taken to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Orther area hospitals received some victims, and could have taken more under a more coordinated victim evacuation plan. BCH received 300 victims in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds. This volume exceeds the treatment rate encountered in London during the Blitz. MGH received 114 victims in two hours. Off-duty staffs were called in at both BCH and MGH, while volunteers provided additional assistance.
A temporary morgue was established in film distribution garage nearby the Grove. A number of presumed dead victims were sent directly to either the Northern Mortuary or Southern Mortuary. Several presumed dead victims, dropped off at the morgue, were actually alive. They were moved to the hospital and survived. At the morgues, staff and volunteers worked to identify the deceased. Identifying female victims was difficult because personal identification was usually kept in purses or handbags, which became separated from the owners in the panic and confusion of the fire.
Cocoanut Grove owner Barney Welansky had suffered a heart attack twelve days prior to the fire. While injured patrons of his establishment were being treated in the lobby of MGH, Welansky was upstairs resting in a bed. Buck Jones, who did not survive after lingering for two days, was among the victims sent to MGH. Doctors and nurses worked to save the injured, while other personnel worked to identify the victims.
Treatment of burns and internal injuries on such as massive scale caused medical personnel to adopt newly developed methods of care. Some methods had been well tested, while others had not. The first recorded general (non-test patients) use of penicillin to fight infection on burn victims occurred at MGH on December 2, 1942.
A ‘soft’ technique of treating burns was tried at MGH, under the leadership of Dr. Oliver Cope, by treating the affected skin areas with a solution of boric petroleum. Purple dyes were used at BCH to coat the skin and to fight infection. Skin grafts were used to help in the healing process. In all, advances in burn treatment were made in four categories: fluid retention; prevention infection; treating respiratory trauma; skin surface and surgical management. It was discovered that many victims, both at the scene and at the hospital, succumbed to pulmonary edema. The edema was caused by breathing-in toxic smoke and gases containing ‘pyrolysis’, which was caused by the burning of the furniture and furnishings inside the Grove.
In the aftermath of the fire, investigations were conducted by several agencies. Fire Commissioner William Reilly’s probe started on Sunday, November 29. Testimony was heard from many witnesses as to the facts surrounding the disaster. Most believed that the busboy was responsible, but others believed the cause was electrical. A Grand Jury would later indict ten persons, but the only person convicted of a crime was the owner, Barney Welansky, on one count of manslaughter. He was sentence to 12-15 years in Charlestown State Prison. Due to an advanced cancer condition, he was pardoned by Governor Maurice Tobin after serving 3.5 years. He died in 1947, at age 50, several months after his release from prison.
Building codes were amended in the city and elsewhere. Revolving doors were outlawed (later reinstated when a revolving door is placed between two outward-opening exit doors). Exit doors were to be clearly marked, be unlocked from within, and free from blockage by screen, drapes, furniture or business supplies. Use of non-combustible decorations and building materials was ordered, as was the placement of emergency lighting and sprinklers. Popular lore has it that the name ‘Cocoanut Grove’ was outlawed in the city of Boston. That did not occur, however no business since the fire has proposed or been licensed to use the name ‘Cocoanut Grove’.
The final death count established by Commissioner Reilly was 490 dead and 166 injured. The number of injured was a count of those treated at a hospital and later released. Many other patrons were injured but did not seek hospitalization. As the years went by, the recognized number of fatalities became 492. This count of dead in a single fire event is exceeded only by Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre Fire of December 30, 1903 which killed 603 persons, mostly children. Also, the attacks September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York killed approximately 2,750 persons, but the event was a combination fire and collapse event.
List of the Cocoanut Grove Fatalities List of the Cocoanut Grove Injured
The lessons of the Cocoanut Grove are with us every day. Exits blocked or locked, smoking and use of matches, overcrowding, flammable materials within buildings and a lack of sprinklers and smoke detectors. Hardly a person in Boston or New England during the 1940’s could be found who did not have a friend or relative who wasn’t at the Grove that night, or had planned to go, or had left before the fire started, or wasn’t affected by this tragedy. The question then and now is: “Can this happen again”? The answer is yes, it can and will happen again. The ‘Station Nightclub Fire’ in West Warwick, RI, on February 20, 2003 claimed the lives of 100 persons and injured approximately 200 others. Many of the same causes and lessons experienced at the Cocoanut Grove caused this tragedy.
A survivor’s own story (from the Brockton Enterprise, via YouTube)
The site of the Cocoanut Grove has been dramatically changed over the years since 1942. With the erection of hise-rise hotel/theatre complex, the streets around Piedmont Street were altered. Broadway now only runs two blocks from Melrose Street to Piedmont Street. Shawmut Street now makes a ninety-degree turn and intersects with Piedmont Street, near the location of the Cocoanut Grove’s revolving door. The hotel now covers most of the land area where the Cocoanut Grove stood. A bronze memorial plaque was placed in the brick sidewalk in 1993 by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association and a marker was placed on the wall of the hotel by the Bostonian Society.
The Story of the Cocoanut Grove Fire - Boston Fire Historical Society
The Cocoanut Grove Fire November 28, 1942 2220 Hours, Box 1521, 5 Alarms Special Cocoanut Grove Section containing documents & historical information. The Cocoanut Grove was a restaurant/supper club (nightclubs […]
How many died in the Cocoanut Grove fire? ›
Eighty years ago, on 28 November 1942, the biggest nightclub fire in history took the lives of 492 people. The Cocoanut Grove, a popular Boston nightclub featuring a grand dining room, multiple bars, and live entertainment, suddenly burst into flames.What is the deadliest nightclub fire in history? ›
The Cocoanut Grove fire was a nightclub fire which took place in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 28, 1942, and resulted in the deaths of 492 people. It is the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history and the second-deadliest single-building fire (after the Iroquois Theatre fire).How many survived Cocoanut Grove fire? ›
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.
The list of casualties is drawn from the official report of the Committee On Public Safety of the City of Boston. Although the report lists 489 fatalities and 166 injured, the generally accepted total of fatalities is 492. The total of 166 injured includes only those persons who were admitted to hospitals.How long did the Cocoanut Grove fire last? ›
In the blink of an eye the Cocoanut Grove, one of Boston's swankiest nightclubs, became an unimaginable inferno — trapping hundreds of panicked victims as they jammed the club's exits.In less than 15 minutes, 492 people were dead and another 166 injured, making the blaze the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.What started the Cocoanut Grove fire? ›
A bus boy, aged sixteen, employed by the Cocoanut Grove on the night of the fire, testified to lighting a match in the process of replacing an electric light bulb in the corner of the Melody Lounge, where the fire started, and dropping the match to the floor and stepping upon it.What is the deadliest fire in US history? ›
|Rank||Event||Number of deaths|
|1||The World Trade Center New York, NY||2,666|
|2||S.S. Sultana steamship boiler explosion and fire Mississippi River||1,547|
|3||Forest fire Peshtigo, WI, and envions||1,152|
|4||General Slocum excursion steamship fire New York, NY||1,030|
Toxic smoke inhalation causes more fire-related deaths than do the fires themselves. All combustible materials produce some amount of toxic smoke when they burn. How much toxic smoke will be emitted depends on the material, the amount of oxygen available and how long it burns.What happened to Stanley Tomaszewski? ›
I only wish I had been at the fire and died with those others.” Welansky got his wish and died just nine weeks after being released from prison. Stanley Tomaszewski died in 1994 at the age of 68. He had gone to college, married, and raised three children and led a responsible life as a federal auditor.What famous night club had a fire? ›
Nearly 500 patrons perished in the 1942 inferno at Boston's Cocoanut Grove. Nearly 500 patrons perished in the 1942 inferno at Boston's Cocoanut Grove.
Who found Coconut Grove Miami? ›
In the late 1880s, Ralph Munroe discovered from a postal map at the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse of Porter's post office. When he informed his neighbors of this discovery, the post office was reopened and Coconut Grove acquired its enduring name although it continued to include an “a” in its spelling.What did we learn from the Cocoanut Grove fire? ›
On November 28, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove fire killed 492 people in Boston, MA. In one night, that fire inspired change in building code across the country, advanced medical treatment for burn victims, popularized the use of penicillin, and put the mob on display.What changed after the Cocoanut Grove fire? ›
As a result of this preventable tragedy, the fire and building codes in Massachusetts changed in 1943. Revolving doors were initially outlawed, but later allowed when flanked on both sides with outward swinging hinged doors with panic hardware and exit signs above each door.Where was the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles? ›
The Cocoanut Grove was a nightclub inside the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. It featured lavish exotic décor and was open between 1921 and 1989. The club continued as a filming location until the hotel was demolished in 2006.Who was the busboy in the Cocoanut Grove fire? ›
Amid the partying, a bartender asked a busboy to fix a lightbulb on an artificial palm tree in the basement bar. Needing light to see the lightbulb and socket, the busboy struck a match. And just after that, the Cocoanut Grove went up in flames.What is the oldest fire still burning? ›
Fueled by coal seams
A coal seam-fueled eternal flame in Australia known as "Burning Mountain" is claimed to be the world's longest burning fire, at 6,000 years old. A coal mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, has been burning beneath the borough since 1962.
It's reported that the Great Black Dragon Fire killed more than 200 people, injured more than 250 and left tens of thousands displaced. This was most likely part of the largest forest fire mega-complex, or regional outbreak, too.What is the most famous fire in history? ›
- The Great Fire of London (England, 1666)
- The Great Kanto Earthquake (Japan, 1923)
- The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake (USA, 1906)
- The Great Fire of Rome (Roman Empire, 64 AD)
- The Great Chicago Fire (USA, 1871)
Club La Vela is a nightclub owned by Patrick and Thorsten Pfeffer and is located in Panama City Beach, Florida. It is billed as the largest nightclub in the United States.
What is the biggest nightclub in USA? ›
Club La Vela, the largest nightclub in the USA and Spring Break headquarters of the world. Party with thousands. Panama City Beach. World Class Concerts.What kills you first in a fire? ›
Smoke and toxic gases kill more people than flames do. Fire produces poisonous gases that make you disoriented and drowsy. Asphyxiation is the leading cause of fire deaths, exceeding burns by a three-to-one ratio.What is the number one thing that kills firefighters? ›
Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death among firefighters.What is the number one killer of fire victims? ›
The majority of fire-related deaths are caused by smoke inhalation of the toxic gases produced by fires.What happened to Barney Welansky? ›
He was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in Charlestown State Prison. With his health in decline from end-stage cancer, he was pardoned by Governor Maurice Tobin after serving three and a half years. He died within months of his release.Where was the Coconut Grove in Boston? ›
Project Details. The Cocoanut Grove was a popular nightclub built in 1927 and located at 17 Piedmont Street near the Park Square theater district in Downtown Boston. On November 28, 1942, a fire occurred at the nightclub.What is the movie about the Cocoanut Grove fire? ›
"Six Locked Doors" examines the story behind the deadliest nightclub fire in American history. On Nov. 28, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub was the swankiest place in Boston, Massachusetts, attracting socialites, athletes, celebrities and World War II army and navy personnel.What was the most famous disco club in the late 1970s? ›
The scene. Studio 54 had been launched at the peak of the disco dancing and music trend.What was the name of the hotel that burnt? ›
|The former Winecoff Hotel, now the Ellis Hotel|
|Date||December 7, 1946|
|Location||Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.|
What is the oldest black community in Miami? ›
Overtown is one of the oldest neighborhoods located in the original boundaries of the City of Miami. Segregated by both custom and laws, it began as “Colored Town” at the turn of the 20th century, an accommodation to Miami's anticipated tourist industry.What is the oldest city in Miami? ›
Coconut Grove, also known colloquially as The Grove, is the oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood of Miami in Miami-Dade County, Florida.What is the oldest house in Coconut Grove? ›
The Ralph M. Munroe House, located in the community of Coconut Grove, is the oldest home in Dade County still in it's original location. Munroe, one of Coconut Grove's earliest settlers, was a noted yacht designer, photographer, and naturalist. Munroe constructed his home, which he called the Barnacle, in 1891.Did the Cocoanut Grove fire have sprinklers? ›
The large fire was a result of the small fire, the lack of a sprinkler system and the highly combustible decorations throughout the club. Because the Cocoanut Grove was licensed as a restaurant, and therefore not considered a public place of assembly, it was not required to have a sprinkler system.Why is the Great Boston Fire of 1872 blamed on horses? ›
The fall of 1872 also brought an epidemic of epizootic to Boston's horses. This disease affected the horses who worked pulling Boston's fire apparatus. It was under these conditions, that a fire started at 83-85 Summer Street on the evening of November 9, 1872.Does the Coconut Grove still exist? ›
With Bahamian roots dating to the 1870s, Coconut Grove is home to one of Miami's historic Black communities. In the area recently renamed “Little Bahamas,” you'll find farmers markets, art galleries and historic Black churches. Coconut Grove is famous for boating.What type of people live in Coconut Grove? ›
Living in Coconut Grove offers residents an urban suburban mix feel and most residents own their homes. In Coconut Grove there are a lot of restaurants, coffee shops, and parks. Many families and young professionals live in Coconut Grove and residents tend to lean liberal.What hotel was Robert Kennedy shot in? ›
On June 5, 1968, shortly after midnight, Robert F. Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles. He was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. PDT the following day.What was learned by the Cocoanut Grove fire? ›
Safety lessons learned from Cocoanut Grove
After a thorough investigation of the fire, officials focused on improving safety in similar venues by reclassifying restaurants and nightclubs as places of public assembly thereby mandating more stringent regulations.
*Jesse Inzitari # (11) - Kinglake West. Died when he became separated from his family as they fled the fire on foot. *Aldo Jr, known to the family as 'AJ' Inzitari # (5) - Kinglake West. The children & Mum Daniela Marulli became separated from Dad Aldo and older brother Jonathon and perished.
Who owned Cocoanut Grove? ›
Cocoanut Grove owner Barney Welansky had suffered a heart attack twelve days prior to the fire. While injured patrons of his establishment were being treated in the lobby of MGH, Welansky was upstairs resting in a bed.What was the deadliest fires in US history? ›
The 1871 Peshtigo Fire, Wisconsin
At least 1 152 people were killed, making this the worst fire that claimed more lives than any of the other wildfires in US history. It happened on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, which overshadowed the Wisconsin fire.
On November 28, 1942, fire destroyed Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub, killing 491 people and sending hundreds more to area hospitals.Where was the Cocoanut Grove fire located? › How many people died in Kinglake fires? ›
The Black Saturday bushfires killed 173 people, 120 in the Kinglake area alone. Another 414 people were injured. More than 450,000 hectares had burned and 3,500 buildings including more than 2,000 houses destroyed. The RSPCA estimated that up to one million wild and domesticated animals died in the disaster.How much of Marysville was burnt? ›
|Mean max temp||Mean min temp||Annual rainfall|
|17.5 °C 64 °F||8.0 °C 46 °F||725 mm 28.5 in|
A tragedy in the heart of the City
The Great Fire of London was arguably the greatest tragedy of its time. Remarkably just six people were officially recorded to have lost their lives, but the Great Fire rendered almost 85% of London's population homeless.