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Cocoanut Grove fire

28 Nov 1942

The Cocoanut Grove was a night club in Boston, Massachusetts, owned by Barney Welanskey, a man who boasted of his ties to the Mafia and the Boston mayor's office. On November 28, 1942, the nightclub burned in what was the deadliest nightclub fire in United States history, killing 492 people and injuring hundreds more. The fire led to a reform of fire codes and safety standards across the country.

On the evening of the 28th the club, a former speakeasy, was filled with 1,000 occupants. The official capacity was around 460. The restaurant and lounge were decorated with flammable paper palm trees, cloth drapes covering the ceiling, and other flimsy decorations which obscured exit signs.

Official reports state the fire began downstairs in the club's Melody Lounge around 10:15 p.m. An artificial palm tree caught fire when 16-year-old busboy Stanley Tomaszewski struck a match for illumination while changing a light bulb. The fire quickly spread up the paper tree, igniting the decorations on the walls and ceiling. Within fifteen minutes the entire nightclub was ablaze.

The club's main entrance was a single revolving door, immediately rendered useless as the panicked crowd scrambled for safety. Bodies piled up behind the jammed door, which firefighters had to dismantle in order to get inside. Other avenues of escape were similarly useless: side doors had been welded shut to prevent people from leaving without settling their bills. A plate glass window which could have been smashed for escape was instead boarded up. Other unlocked doors opened inwards; fire officials later testified that had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared.

The aftermath
Boston newspapers were filled with lists of the dead and stories of narrow escapes and deaths. Movie star Buck Jones had made it safely outside, but died two days later in the hospital. Stories claimed that Buck had gone back in to rescue people. Similarly, Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson had gone back in no less than four times in search of his date who, unbeknownst to him, had already safely escaped. Johnson suffered extensive third-degree burns over 50% of his body but survived the disaster, spending 10 months convalescing in Boston City Hospital. The undefeated Boston College football team had made victory party reservations at the club that evening, but canceled after an upset loss to Holy Cross dampened their spirits.

In the year that followed the tragedy, Massachusetts and other states begin to enact laws for public establishments which banned flammable decorations and inward-swinging exit doors, required exit signs to be visible at all times, and stated that revolving doors used for egress must be flanked by at least one normal, outward swinging door. Barney Welansky, whose connections had allowed the nightclub to operate even while in violation of the loose standards of the day, was convicted on nineteen counts of manslaughter (nineteen victims were randomly selected to represent the dead) and sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in prison. The young busboy Tomaszewski, who had survived the fire and testified at the inquiry, was exonerated, as he was not the one responsible for the flammable decorations or the safety code violations

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