This Day In History for Nov. 28th: The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire (1942)

The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire (1942)

The Cocoanut Grove Fire was a nightclub fire in the United States. The Cocoanut Grove was a premier nightclub during the post-Prohibition 1930s and 1940s in Boston, Massachusetts. On November 28, 1942, it was the scene of the deadliest nightclub fire in history, killing 492 people (which was 32 more than the building’s authorized capacity) and injuring hundreds more. The scale of the tragedy shocked the nation and briefly replaced the events of World War II in newspaper headlines. It led to a reform of safety standards and codes across the US, and to major changes in the treatment and rehabilitation of burn victims internationally.

It was the second-deadliest single-building fire in American history; only the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago had a higher death toll, of 602. It was only two years after the Rhythm Club fire which had killed 209.[1]

The Club

The club had opened in 1927 as a partnership between two orchestra leaders, Mickey Alpert and Jacques Renard. (Although neither held an interest in the club by 1942, Alpert was leading the house band the night of the fire.) It was located at 17 Piedmont Street, in the Bay Village neighborhood of Boston, a few blocks south of the Boston Public Garden. Alpert and Renard’s mob-connected financiers gained control and opened a speakeasy in the complex, and it gained a reputation for being a gangland hangout. Gangland boss and bootlegger Charles “King” Solomon, also known as “Boston Charlie”, owned the club from 1931 to 1933, when he was gunned down in the men’s room of Roxbury’s Cotton Club nightclub in 1933.[2] Ownership passed to Solomon’s lawyer Barnet “Barney” Welansky, who sought a more mainstream image for the club while he privately boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin. He was known to be a tough boss who ran a tight ship: hiring teenagers to work as busboys for low wages, and street thugs who doubled as waiters and bouncers. He locked exits, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit to prevent customers from leaving without paying.[3] Coincidentally, on the night of the fire, he was still recovering from a heart attack in a private room at Massachusetts General Hospital, where some of the victims would be sent.

Originally a garage and warehouse complex, the brick and concrete buildings had been converted to a one-and-a-half-story meandering complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges. The club offered its patrons dining and dancing in a South Seas-like “tropical paradise” and a roof that could be rolled back in summer for dancing under the stars.[4]The decor consisted of leatherette, rattan and bamboo coverings on the walls, heavy draperies, and “swanky” dark blue satin canopies and covering on ceilings. Support columns in the main dining area were made to look like palm trees, with light fixtures made to look like coconuts. That theme was carried over into the basement Melody Lounge, with what little light there was provided by palm tree light fixtures.

Background

The “Grove” had become one of Boston’s most popular nightspots, featuring a restaurant and dancing in the main area, floor shows, and piano-playing entertainers in the Melody Lounge. The restaurant was visited on occasion by movie and music stars, who would have their entry announced by the maître d’. Across from the main dining area was the “Caricature Bar”, which featured renditions of the establishment’s more prominent guests. The club had recently been expanded eastward with the new Broadway Lounge, which opened onto adjacent Broadway between Piedmont Street (south side) and Shawmut Street (north side).

Wall coverings and decorative materials had been approved on the basis of tests for ordinary ignition, which showed resistance to combustion from sources such as matches and cigarettes. Decorative cloth was purportedly treated with ammonium sulfate as a fire retardant upon installation, but there was no documentation that the fire retardant treatment was maintained at the required intervals. Since the US entry into the war, air conditioning systems had been serviced and the freon refrigerant was replaced by methyl chloride, a flammable gas, due to the wartime shortage of freon.’

The Fire

On November 28, 1942, the Boston College football team played Holy Cross College at Fenway Park. In a great upset of that period, Holy Cross beat Boston College by a score of 55–12. College bowl game scouts had attended the game in order to offer Boston College a bid to the 1943 Sugar Bowl game. As a result of the rout, a Boston College celebration party scheduled for the Grove that evening was canceled.[5] Mayor Tobin, an enthusiastic Boston College fan, also canceled plans to go to the Cocoanut Grove that night.[6]

It is estimated that on that Saturday night more than 1,000 Thanksgiving weekend revelers, wartime servicemen and their sweethearts, football fans, and others were crammed into a space rated for a maximum of 460 people.

Official reports state that the fire started at about 10:15 pm in the dark, intimate Melody Lounge downstairs. Goody Goodelle, a young pianist and singer, was performing on a revolving stage, surrounded by artificial palm trees. The lounge was lit by low-powered light bulbs in coconut-styled sconces beneath the fronds. A young man, possibly a soldier, had unscrewed a light bulb in order to give himself and his date privacy while kissing.[4] Stanley Tomaszewski—a 16-year-old busboy—was instructed to put the light back on by tightening the bulb. He stepped up onto a chair to reach the light in the darkened corner. Unable to see the bulb, he lit a match to illuminate the area, tightened the bulb, and extinguished the match. Witnesses first saw flames in the fronds, which were just below the ceiling, immediately afterward. Though the lit match had been close to the same fronds where the fire was seen to have begun, the official report determined that Tomaszewski’s actions could not be found to be the source of the fire, which “will be entered into the records of this department as being of unknown origin”.[7]

Despite waiters’ efforts to douse the fire with water, it spread along the fronds of the palm tree. In a final desperate attempt to separate the burning fronds from the fabric-covered false ceiling the decoration was pulled away from the corner, taking with it a triangular plywood panel at the ceiling level and opening the enclosed space above the false ceiling. Coincidentally or not, that was the point at which the fire spread to the false ceiling which burned rapidly, showering patrons with sparks and burning shreds of fabric. Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of patrons fleeing up the stairs. A fireball burst through the front entryway and spread through the remaining club areas: through the adjacent Caricature Bar, down a corridor to the Broadway Lounge, and across the central restaurant and dance floor as the orchestra was beginning its evening show. Flames raced faster than patrons could move, followed by thick clouds of smoke. Within five minutes, flames and smoke had spread to the entire nightclub. Some patrons were instantly overcome by smoke as they sat in their seats. Others crawled through the smoky darkness trying to find exits, all but one of which were either non-functioning or hidden in non-public areas.[5]

Many patrons attempted to exit through the main entrance, the same way they had entered. The building’s main entrance was a single revolving door, which was rendered useless as the crowd stampeded in panic. Bodies piled up behind both sides of the revolving door, jamming it until it broke. But then the oxygen-hungry fire leaped through the breach, incinerating whoever was left alive in the pile. Firemen had to douse the flames to approach the door. Later, after fire laws had tightened, it would become illegal to have only one revolving door as a main entrance without being flanked by outward opening doors with panic bar openers attached, or have the revolving doors set up so that the doors could fold against themselves in emergency situations.

Other avenues of escape were similarly useless; side doors had been bolted shut to prevent people from leaving without paying. A plate glass window, which could have been smashed for escape, was boarded up and unusable as an emergency exit. Other unlocked doors, like the ones in the Broadway Lounge, opened inwards, rendering them useless against the crush of people trying to escape. Fire officials would later testify that had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared.

From nearby bars, soldiers and sailors raced to assist. On the street, firefighters lugged out bodies and were treated for burned hands. As night deepened, the temperature dropped. Water on cobblestone pavements froze. Hoses froze to the ground. Newspaper trucks were appropriated as ambulances. Smoldering bodies, living and dead, were hosed in icy water. Some victims had breathed fumes so hot that when they inhaled cold air, as one firefighter put it, they dropped like stones.

Later, during the cleanup of the building, firefighters found several dead guests sitting in their seats with drinks in their hands. They had been overcome so quickly by fire and toxic smoke that they had not had time to move.[6]

Victims and escapees

Boston newspapers were filled with lists of the dead and stories of narrow escapes and deaths. Well-known movie-cowboy actor Buck Jones was at the club that night, and his wife later explained that he had initially escaped then gone back into the burning building to find his agent, the Monogram Pictures producer Scott R. Dunlap. However, after the blaze, Jones was discovered slumped under his table severely burned, so some doubted accounts of his escape. Although rushed to hospital, Jones died of his injuries two days later.[8] Dunlap, who was hosting a party at the nightclub in honor of Jones, was seriously injured but survived.

Those in the employ of the establishment fared better in escaping than customers, owing to their familiarity with service areas, where the fire’s effects were less severe than in the public areas, and which provided access to additional window and door exits. A double door opposite the public entryway to the main dining room was unlocked by wait staff and was soon the only functional outside exit from public areas. Although several members of the band, including musical director Bernie Fazioli, lost their lives, most of them escaped backstage and through a service door that they rammed open. Bandleader Mickey Alpert escaped out of a basement window and was credited with leading several people to safety. Bassist Jack Lesberg went on to play music with Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, and many others until shortly before his death in 2005.[9] A passage in an unpublished section of the autobiography of fellow bassist Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog, stated that Lesberg “made a door” during his escape. That statement has been interpreted literally, with the additional color of Lesberg using his bass to create a new opening in a wall, and in the context of the vernacular use of the term “made”, which can mean attained or achieved. No witness statements refer to the use of Lesberg’s bass as a battering ram or its presence anywhere along the escape route.[10] The legend lives on in hip-hop performance inspired by Mingus’ unpublished writing.

Three bartenders, cashier Jeanette Lanzoni, entertainer Goody Goodelle, other help, and some patrons in the Melody Lounge escaped into the kitchen. Bartender Daniel Weiss survived by dousing a cloth napkin with a pitcher of water and breathing through it as he made his escape from the Melody Lounge. Those in the kitchen had escape routes through a window above a service bar and up a stairway to another window and a service door that was eventually rammed open. Five people survived by taking refuge in a walk-in refrigerator and a few more in an ice box. Rescuers reached the kitchen after about ten minutes.

Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson went back in no fewer than four times in search of his date who, unbeknownst to him, had safely escaped. Johnson suffered extensive third-degree burns over 55% of his body but survived the disaster, becoming the most severely burned person ever to survive his injuries at the time. After 21 months in a hospital and several hundred operations, he married his nurse and returned to his home state of Missouri. Fourteen years later he burned to death in a fiery automobile crash.[11]

Investigations

An official report revealed that the Grove had been inspected by a captain in the Boston Fire Department just 10 days before the fire and declared safe.[7] Further, it was found that the Cocoanut Grove had not obtained any licenses for operation for several years; there were no food handlers’ permits and no liquor licenses. Stanley Tomaszewski, the busboy who had been accused of starting the fire, was underage and should not have been working there. Moreover, the recent remodeling of the Broadway Lounge had been done without building permits, using unlicensed contractors.[6]

Tomaszewski, who survived the fire, later testified at the inquiry and was exonerated, as he was not responsible for the flammable decorations or the life safety code violations. He was nevertheless ostracized for much of his life because of the fire.[12] He died in 1994.[13]

The Boston Fire Department investigated possible causes of ignition, the rapid spread of the fire and the catastrophic loss of life. Its report reached no conclusion as to the initial cause of ignition, but attributed the rapid, gaseous spread of the fire to a buildup of carbon monoxide gas due to oxygen-deprived combustion in the enclosed space above the false ceiling of the Melody Lounge. The gas exuded from enclosed spaces as its temperature rose and ignited rapidly as it mixed with oxygen above the entryway, up the stairway to the main floor and along ceilings. The fire accelerated as the stairway created a thermal draft, and the high-temperature gas fire ignited pyroxylene (leatherette) wall and ceiling covering in the foyer, which in turn exuded flammable gas. The report also documented the fire safety code violations, flammable materials and door designs that contributed to the large loss of life.[7]

During the 1990s, former Boston firefighter and researcher Charles Kenney discovered that a highly flammable gas refrigerant, methyl chloride, had been used as a substitute for freon, which was in short wartime supply.[14] Kenney reported that floor plans, but not the fire investigation report, showed air-conditioning condenser units near street level on the other side of a non-structural wall from the Melody Lounge, and that these units had been serviced since the start of the war. Kenney also reported that photographic evidence indicates an origin for the fire in the wall behind the palm tree and suggested ignition of methyl chloride accelerant by an electrical failure caused by substandard wiring.[15] Methyl chloride combustion is consistent with some aspects of the fire (reported flame colors, smell and inhalation symptoms) but requires additional explanation for ceiling-level fire as the gas is 1.7 times as dense as air.[16] A review of Kenney’s work by historical investigator John J. Deady, Sr., provides a hypothesis for the accumulation of flammable concentrations of methyl chloride in enclosed spaces near the ceiling of the Melody Lounge.[17]

In 2012, the Boston Police Department released the transcripts of witness interviews following the fire, which are posted online.[10] Witnesses Stanley Tomaszewski, Morris Levy, Joyce Spector, David Frechtling and Jeanette Lanzoni (Volume 1) provided accounts of the ignition of the palm decoration and ceiling in the Melody Lounge. Frechtling and Lanzoni described the start of the fire as a “flash.” Tomaszewski described the spread of the fire across the ceiling as like a gasoline fire. The flame front across the ceiling was faint blue, followed by brighter flames. Witness Roland Sousa (Volume 2) stated that he was initially unconcerned about the fire because, as a regular customer of the Melody Lounge, he had seen the palm tree decorations ignite before and they were always quickly put out.

Law

Barney Welansky, whose connections had allowed the nightclub to operate while in violation of the loose standards of the day, was convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter (19 victims were randomly selected to represent the dead). Welansky was sentenced to 12–15 years in prison in 1943.[18] He served nearly four years before being quietly pardoned by Massachusetts Governor Maurice J. Tobin, who had been mayor of Boston at the time of the fire. In December 1946, ravaged with cancer, Welansky was released from Norfolk Prison, telling reporters, “I wish I’d died with the others in the fire.” Nine weeks later, he was dead.[4]

In the year that followed the fire, Massachusetts and other states enacted laws for public establishments banning flammable decorations, inward-swinging exit doors, and requiring exit signs to be visible at all times (meaning that the exit signs had to have independent sources of electricity, and be easily readable in even the thickest smoke). The new laws also required that revolving doors used for egress must either be flanked by at least one normal, outward-swinging door, or retrofitted to permit the individual door leaves to fold flat to permit free-flowing traffic in a panic situation, and further required that no emergency exits be chained or bolted shut in such a way as to bar escape through the doors during a panic or emergency situation.[citation needed] Municipal licensing authorities ruled that no Boston establishment could use “The Cocoanut Grove” as a name thereafter.[4]

Commissions were established by several states that would levy heavy fines or even shut down establishments for infractions of any of these laws. These later became the basis for several federal fire laws and code restrictions placed on nightclubs, theaters, banks, public buildings, and restaurants across the nation. It also led to the formation of several national organizations dedicated to fire safety.[citation needed]

Medical treatment of survivors

Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Boston City Hospital (BCH) received the majority of the victims from the fire; other Boston area hospitals received a total of about 30 patients: Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Beth Israel Hospital, Cambridge City Hospital, Kenmore Hospital, Faulkner Hospital, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Malden Hospital, Massachusetts Memorial Hospital, Carney Hospital, and St. Margaret’s Hospital.[19] MGH took 114 burn and smoke inhalation victims, and BCH received over 300.[6] It was estimated that one casualty arrived at BCH every 11 seconds,[11] the greatest influx of patients to any civilian hospital in history.[20] Both hospitals were unusually well-prepared, as medical facilities all along the eastern seaboard had drawn up emergency plans in preparation for attacks against the U.S. coast. Boston had carried out a city-wide drill only a week earlier, simulating a Luftwaffe bombing assault, with over 300 mock casualties.[19] At MGH, a special store of emergency supplies had been stockpiled. The fire caught both hospitals at change of shift, so that a double complement of nursing and support staff was available, in addition to volunteers who flocked to the hospitals as word spread of the disaster.[6]

Nonetheless, most patients died en route to the hospitals or shortly after arrival. Because no standardized system for triage yet existed in civilian mass casualty management in the US,[21][22] precious minutes were initially wasted in attempts to revive those who were dead or dying, until teams were dispatched to select the living for treatment and direct the dead to be taken to temporary mortuaries.[23] By Sunday morning, November 29, only 132 patients out of the 300 transported to BCH were still alive, whereas at MGH, 75 of the 114 victims had died, leaving 39 surviving patients in treatment.[6] Of a total of 444 burn victims hospitalized after the fire, only 130 survived.

One of the first administrative decisions made at MGH was to clear the general surgery ward on the sixth floor of the White Building, and devote it entirely to victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire.[19] All victims were housed there; strict medical isolation was maintained, and a part of the ward was set aside for dressing changes and wound care. Teams of nurses and orderlies were organized for administration of morphine, wound care, and respiratory treatments.[6]

The aftermath of the fire saw the first major use of MGH’s new blood bank, one of the area’s first, established in April 1942 and stocked with 200 units of dried plasma as part of its preparations for the war.[24] A total of 147 units of plasma were used in treating 29 patients at MGH. At BCH, 98 patients received a total of 693 units of plasma. The volume of plasma used in treating the victims of the Cocoanut Grove surpassed that used during the attack on Pearl Harbor.[25] In the days following the fire, twelve hundred people donated over 3,800 units of blood to the blood bank.[19]

Most survivors were discharged by the end of 1942, however a few patients required months of intensive care. In April, 1943, the last survivor from MGH was discharged. At BCH, the last casualty, a woman from Dorchester, MA, died in May, after five months of treatment for severe burns and internal injuries. Hospitals rendering service chose not to charge any of the patients for treatment. The American Red Cross provided financial aid to both the public and private hospitals. This was especially helpful to Boston City Hospital, given its enormous influx of patients.[19]

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