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
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