Natural Disasters The Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston Part 1

About the Cocoanut Grove fire in Bostin in 1942, history and account of the tragedy, death, and destruction.



While W.W. II raged on into its second year for the U.S., Boston's "nightclub row" offered tinseled islands of escape to weary war-workers, servicemen, and celebrities. The Cocoanut Grove, oldest and most lavish of the entertainment palaces, consistently harbored throngs beyond its designated capacity. On this November Saturday night, attendance at the Grove set an all-time record. It was the day of the Boston-Holy Cross football game, and by ten o'clock that night, the upstairs dining room and the basement Melody Lounge were crowded with an estimated 800 to 1,000 people.

The floor show was scheduled to begin at 10:15. Just before bandleader Mickey Alpert raised his baton to downbeat "The Star-Spangled Banner," a shrill cry of "Fire!" came from the smoke-filled lounge.

When: Saturday night, Nov. 28, 1942.

Where: Boston, Mass.

The Loss: 491 dead and 150 injured.

The Disaster: Liquor flowed steadily from the bar to the unusually festive guests in the dusky lounge. The guest of honor was cowboy star Buck Jones, who sat with his party of 24 movie dignitaries. He was not destined to be one of the survivors. The simulated-leather walls, gauze-draped ceiling, and ersatz palm trees were supposedly fireproof. There was no sprinkling system. On the 20th, the Grove had been inspected by a veteran of Boston's Fire Prevention Bureau, Lt. Frank J. Linney. In his report he stated: "in my opinion, condition of the premises is good."

This, as it turned out, was a brash overstatement. A few minutes after ten on that fateful evening, a guest not satisfied with the degree of darkness surrounding his table unscrewed a light bulb from its half-coconut-shell retainer. Almost immediately the darkened corner was noticed by bartender John Bradley, who sent his barboy, 16-year-old Stanley Tomaszewski, to replace the bulb. After much fumbling in the darkness trying to locate the socket, the boy finally struck a match. A fabric palm leaf burst into flame. In 15 seconds, the Melody Lounge was ablaze and patrons were trampling each other trying to get to an exit.

Men and women were pushed, torn, and trampled in a milling stampede. When firemen arrived, 15 minutes after the alarm had been turned in, bodies were stacked up for 40 ft. behind the revolving door, preventing anyone from leaving or entering. The firemen had to use axes and sledgehammers to get in. The gathering crowd outside watched in horror as those inside suffocated, and, while watching, these onlookers blocked the rescue efforts of police and firemen.

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