Sunday, November 25, 2007

This Date in Fire History: Nov 28 - Cocoanut Grove

[See Update at end of piece... I forgot one of the most interesting pieces of trivia...]

NOTE: Due to the horrific nature of the Cocoanut Grove disaster, and the fact that survivors of this tragic fire are still alive, I want to empha­size once again that the use of quotations, excerpts, illustrations, or materials created by others in this post does not imply, and should not be construed to imply, their agree­ment with the opinions expressed elsewhere in 618 Rants.

Saturday, November 28, 1942, Boston… the day of the annual grudge football game between Boston College – going into the game undefeated – and arch-rival Holy Cross from nearby Worcester. BC was favored six-to-one as the winner, having outscored their opponents in the previous four games by a whopping 168-6, but Holy Cross – with a 4-4-1 record – pulled off a stunning 55-12 [1] upset at Fenway Park in front of 40,000 fans. The Boston College team cancelled their scheduled celebratory bash at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, and went home to lick their wounds.

Losing that game probably saved the lives of most of the Boston College team [2].

Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub was named after the famous Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, although the two clubs were not affiliated. The Boston club was owned by Barnett “Barney” Welansky, who claimed ties to the Boston Mafia as well as a close relationship with Mayor (and future Governor) Maurice Tobin. Located at 17 Piedmont Street, in what is now called the “Bay Village” neighborhood, the Grove was a mecca for Boston’s modern urbanites, as well as service members either on leave or preparing to ship out to serve in World War II. The Boston Globe, described the club this way: “Lined with palm trees, it was a tropical paradise. In summer, the roof could be rolled back electrically for dancing under stars.”

This somewhat blurry picture, from the Boston Fire Museum,
shows the interior of the main dining area.

The main part of the building dated from about 1916 and had been used as both a garage and motion picture film exchange, prior to its incarnation as a night club. By 1942, the club had expanded to cover much of the block bordered by Broadway and Piedmont, Shawmut and Church Streets. The club operated both on the ground floor and in the basement of one portion. The area shown as “new cocktail lounge” below was also known as the “Broadway Lounge” and was the latest expansion of the club, having been completed in the fall of 1942. The main entrance to the club was through a revolving door on the Piedmont Street side. A separate entrance to the new lounge opened onto Broadway.

The overall d├ęcor of the club has been described as a Casablanca style – paper palm trees, cloth panels on the ceilings, and imitation-leather wall coverings, among other items. This “tropical paradise” had a price, however: some of the decorations obscured emergency exits and exit signs. A number of the exits had been locked to prevent patrons from leaving without paying their bills, and the plate glass windows on the Piedmont Street side of the building had been boarded over.

That Saturday, the Cocoanut Grove was filled beyond capacity, with well over 1,000 people crammed into a club with a nominal seating capacity of about 600 [3]. Additional tables and chairs had been placed to accommodate customers. Among those customers were a young serviceman and his girlfriend; many reports indicate the serviceman unscrewed a 7.5 watt light bulb (the wattage of a nightlight) to give himself a little more “privacy’ with his lady. A busboy, 16-year-old Stanley Tomaszewski, working in at the club illegally, was sent to replace the bulb.

At this point, there are conflicting stories of what happened: some people say Tomaszewski dropped the bulb and lit a match to find it, while other reports say he used the match to find the socket, which was concealed in the palm fronds. Witnesses said they saw flames spread out from the vicinity of the light socket, although others claimed seeing flames near the floor. Several survivors stated that the walls also appeared unusually warm to the touch (possibly indicating a smoldering fire within the walls). As the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) put it in their fire investigation report, “… the exact source of ignition was a factor of considerably less importance than was the inadequacy of exit facilities and the extensive use of combustible decorations.” [4]

By most reports, fire had fully engulfed the Melody Lounge within five minutes, before traveling up the stairs – which acted as a chimney – and exploding into the main dining area and continuing to the Broadway Lounge. The revolving door at the main entrance quickly became jammed as panicked patrons attempted to flee; more than 200 victims were found piled up at this door. An additional one hundred or more victims were found by the Broadway Lounge exit – a door that opened into the club. More lives were probably lost as people blundered about after the lights went out.

The scene outside the Cocoanut Grove.
Russell Priestley is on the right,
holding up the stretcher

Russell Priestley, who was in the Army Air Corps and awaiting deployment, was one of many people pressed into service that gruesome night. Excerpts from his account, which appeared in the Melrose Mirror, are repinted here with his permission.

Personally, I remember the disaster because I, with two friends, had attended a stage show at the RKO Boston. As we left the performance, sirens of fire engines and ambulances filled the crisp night air. We were compelled by the intense din to walk toward the source, a few blocks away. With my companions, John Bunker, now deceased and Ralph Pierce, now residing in Rye, New Hampshire, we edged our way close to the fire scene. We were close enough to be commanded, "Hey you, grab this stretcher!" We rushed to help. A stretcher for each victim was loaded into an ambulance, others were placed on the pavement, awaiting more vehicles ... in some cases cars, trucks and cabs were used.

I don't recall how long we stayed there to offer assistance, but I do know it was beyond the time for using public transportation. We ended our night by walking home from Boston, explaining to our parents where we had been, then going to bed for some sleep.

The final tally was 492 dead and several hundred more injured. Unlike most major conflagrations, those at the cocoanut Grove were more likely to be killed than injured; about 50% of those present died, while only 20-30% were injured. Usually, it's the other way around.

As noted above, the exact cause of the fire has never been conclusively proven, and probably never will be. The causes of the deaths, however, are all too familiar:
  • Overcrowding
  • Blocked, locked, and/or obstructed fire exits
  • No fire sprinkler system (sprinklers had been protecting Massachusetts factories for about 75 years in 1942)
  • Flammable decorations
  • Delay in notifying the fire department

As is the case with other major fires, however, some good came out of the tragedy. Two local hospitals -- Massachusetts General and Boston City -- were well-prepared for a disaster of this magnitude, thanks to their war preparations. Additionally, Mass General had been experimenting with new protocols for treating severe burn victims; these new protocols, after being validated by the Grove fire, were instituted in most American hospitals. Furthermore, the Grove fire was the first wide-spread use of a new "wonder drug" -- some stuff called "penicillin."

There is an apocryphal story that the city of Boston passed a law prohibiting any business within the city limits from using the Cocoanut Grove name. Several researchers have debunked this theory, but no business-owner in his right mind would choose such a "jinxed" name.

UPDATE: This is something I should have mentioned originally. The bookkeeper at the Grove, Rose Gnecco Ponzi, was the ex-wife of Charles Ponzi, who achieved fame at the inventor of the financial scam that bears his name, the "Ponzi scheme"). As Paul Harvey might say, "now you know the rest of the story."

Additional Resources

Boston Globe archives of the fire
National Fire Protection Association NFPA Journal articles on the fire
Books on the fire on
The Cocoanut Grove Fire (New England Remembers), Stephanie Schorow
Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy, John C. Esposito
Fire in Boston's Cocoanut Grove: Holocaust, Paul Benzaquin
Cocoanut Grove: A Spellbinding Account of the Most Famous Fire in American History, Edward Keyes


[1] Much has been made of the “fact” that the final score, 55-12, “eerily” mirrors the jersey numbers of the BC co-captains. The cover for the game program is shown here:

[2] BC equipment manager Larry Kenney is the only person directly associated with the game who is known to have died in the fire.

[3] Various sources show differing seating capacities, ranging from 450 to over 600; most show 600.

[4] Moulton, Robert S, The Cocoanut Grove Night Club Fire. Boston, MA: National Fire Protection Association, 1962, p 5


  1. The response of the Boston Fire Department to the Coconut Grove fire was delayed. It was, in fact, rapid because a first alarm response to a nearby automobile fire saw the fire from their location, and responded very rapidly.

    In addition a box alarm was sounded at almost the same time as well as a telephone alarm from a resident across the street from the club.

  2. I did not mean to imply that BFD was in any way derelict in responding to the fire (preventing the fire was a different matter, as shown by the trials of Barney Welansky and the others). Yes, BFD was a block away at a car fire, and BFD did receive a phone call reporting the fire, but nobody at the Grove called the fire department. Additionally, the Grove did not have a fire alarm system or automatic sprinklers, both of which would have saved additional lives.