Little Bits of History

Night Life & Death

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 28, 2013
Cocoanut Grove  fire

Cocoanut Grove fire

November 28, 1942: An overcrowded nightclub in Boston burns. The Cocoanut Grove had recently been remodeled and now had a new lounge opening off the main floor. The club had the capacity to entertain 460 patrons. There were about 1,000 people there on this cold November night. The restaurants, bars, and lounges in both the basement and on the main floor were decorated in the style of Casablanca, a Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman film released only two days earlier in New York City.

The Cocoanut Grove was decorated with paper palm trees and cloth draperies, some hiding the exits. There were other highly flammable objects, including furniture and other decorations. The Melody Lounge was an intimate spot in the basement. Goody Goodelle was performing on the revolving stage. It seems a young man unscrewed a light bulb in an effort to make it bit more intimate. Stanley Tomaszewski, a 16-year-old busboy, was told to fix the light. When the bulb slipped from his hand, he lit a match to find the socket and get it replaced. He blew out the match, but patrons recall seeing something ignite in the canopy over the table.

Waiters tried to extinguish the blaze that started at 10:15 PM. It quickly spread as the flames roared up the stairway and a fireball burst across the central dance floor. The fire continued to rapidly spread to an adjacent bar and into the new lounge. Within five minutes, the main clubroom was an inferno as well. Panicked patrons tried to escape. The main exit was a single revolving door which was soon jammed by bodies on both sides. Other doors opened inwards and as the crush of bodies surged toward them, they were unable to be opened.

The fire left 492 people dead. Fire officials stated that at least 300 lives could have been saved had the exits been clearly marked and if the doors had opened outward. The disaster changed the way burn victims were treated. Antibiotics, then relatively new, were employed with remarkable success. Vaseline covered gauze was used and other advances in burn care were made. While studying the fire in 1997, it was found that a faulty refrigerator was leaking methyl chloride and was responsible for the flash fire acceleration.

“Everybody panicked. 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.” – John Rizzo, fire survivor

“At the foot of the stairs, I was lucky enough to get on my feet. Everybody was scrambling, trying to break doors to the stock room. I said forget it, they don’t go outside. I saw a heavy lady, Mrs. (Katherine) Swett, the cashier. I said, ‘Take the money, let’s go,’ but she said, ‘I can’t leave the money.’ Later, I saw a big person burned to death, and it was her.” – John Rizzo, fire survivor

“At the Cocoanut Grove, people did not respond intelligently. Some watched flames cross the ceiling, and it was not until one person started upstairs that others did. Even then, a hat-check girl wanted people to pay for coats. The way to overcome this is to teach people how to react to fear.” – Dr. Anne Phillips

“I wish I’d died with the others in the fire.” – Barney Welansky, club owner

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: The Cocoanut Grove was the place to go in Boston after Prohibition was repealed. The club, during the dark times of Prohibition was a speakeasy and located at 17 Piedmont Street. The building was converted from a garage and warehouse complex into a one and a half story complex containing dining rooms, bars, and lounges. Early on, it was known as a criminal hangout lending it an air of mystique. The first owner was gunned down, gangster style and the new owner made claims of ties to the Mafia. Barnet Welansky was a tough businessman and hired teens at low wages and street thugs as waiters and bouncers. He hid exits and even bricked one exit up to keep patrons from leaving without paying. He was recovering from a heart attack at Massachusetts General Hospital on the night of a fire, the very place where many of the burn victims were brought for treatment.

Also on this day: The Pitch Experiment – In 2000, the eighth drop in the 73 year old Pitch Experiment drops.
Hot Off the Presses – In 1814, The London Times was printed using a steam operated press.
Attack – In 2002, the Mombasa attacks took place in Kenya.