Today is the 66th anniversary of the worst nightclub fire in American history. On November 28, 1942, Boston’s Cocoanut Grove — located just south of the Common — erupted in flames that killed hundreds within a mere 15 minutes. The club was stuffed that Saturday night with sailors on shore leave, young men from other branches who were preparing to head overseas for the war, as well as football fans who’d watched Holy Cross dismantle Boston College, 55-12, earlier in the day.
The fire began innocently enough, when a busboy — trying to replace a light bulb — lit a match while fumbling about in the dark, looking for the socket. Though he believed he’d extinguished it, the smoldering match accidentally set fire to a cluster of artificial palm fronds. As it turned out, the bulb he was trying to replace had been removed by a young couple who were making out at one of the tables in the Melody Lounge, one of several large rooms in the club.
The busboy survived; the fate of the couple could never be determined.
One of the most popular attractions in the city, the Grove could not have been rigged better for a catastrophe of this magnitude. To deter freeloaders, the club’s owners had sealed off most of the exits, going so far as to weld them shut. At the time of the disaster, there were only two functioning public entrances to the club. One was a pair of doors that swung inward, while the other was a single set of revolving doors. Both exits quickly choked with bodies when the fire — propelled by leaky refrigerator gas, flammable decorations, drapes and furniture that filled the club — surged from one room to another and up the stairwells to the building’s top floors.
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. The flame came down the side of the dining room like a forest fire, and within minutes, the stage was consumed with fire. Before I could get out, I got pushed through a door and fell head over heels downstairs into the kitchen and landed on other people.
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.
Amazingly, some of the club’s employees tried to make sure that fleeing patrons settled their bills and paid for their coats at the check stand. During the recovery effort, officials reported that dozens of corpses had been robbed.
The final death toll eventually reached 492 — roughly half of the night’s patrons. The owner of the Cocoanut Club, Barney Welansky, served four years in prison for negligent homicide. Released in 1946, he died several weeks later of cancer.
Shortly after the fire, the city council passed an ordinance that banned “Cocoanut Grove” from ever being used to name another building in Boston.
(Fire-related trivia: The next time you pass through a set of revolving doors, take note of the flanking set of conventional hinged doors. Those became standard after the Cocoanut Grove fire…)