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You are here -> HOME - RETROVILLE - 1942 - In the News - Cocoanut Grove Fire
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Welcome to Retroville! It's 1942!
On November 28, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub in Boston, Massachussetts was jammed full of young men and women, many of the men preparing to go overseas on military duty. At some point late in the evening, an employee was using a lighted match while changing a lightbulb. Within minutes, the nightclub was engulfed in flames.
Matchbook from the Cocoanut Grove nightclub
The fire ran across the ceilings and down the walls, following the highly flammable decorations. Without a rear fire exit, the patrons and employees rushed madly toward the two revolving doors at the main entrance. Of the estimated 1,000 patrons and employees in the nightclub at the beginning of the fire, 492 died with an untold numbers of people injured. The entire event took less than 15 minutes. It was billed, by the Boston Globe, as "one of the worst events to happen to Boston's psyche."

By the time firefighters got the fire under control and extinguished, the bodies at the front entrance were piled five deep, their faced contorted from their last efforts to press through the jammed entrance. All told, Boston's fire department had 187 firefighters, 26 engine companies, five ladder companies, three rescue companies, and one water tower on the scene. News trucks, personal cars, and police cars were used to ferry the injured to hospitals when ambulances couldn't keep up with the number of dead and injured.

Globe reporter Sam Cutler captured the grisliness: "The worst disaster in Boston's history last night snuffed out the lives of 450 merrymaking men and women in the blazing inferno of the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub amid scenes of utter panic and horror. Crushed and trampled and burned as nearly 1,000 patrons, entertainers and employees fought desperately to gain the exits through sheets of flames, scores of victims were left lying on the floor, helpless. Others reached the streets enveloped in flame, only to die in agony in the street."

Firefighters estimated that of the 492 dead, 300 of those would probably not have died had the doors been outward swinging instead of revolving style.

The fire prompted fire officials throughout the nation to re-examine their methods of fire prevention and control for nightclubs and other places where people assembled. Immediate steps included emergency lighting, occupant capacity placards and enforcement, and exit lights that were backed up by batteries.

The Licensing Board ruled that no Boston establishment could call itself the Cocoanut Grove. Within two years, more than 400 lawsuits were filed, but when the assets of the club and its owner, Barney Welansky, were divided, survivors and families of the dead received checks for about $150.

Of 11 men indicted, only Barney Welansky, the nightclub's owner, was convicted. Sentenced to 12 to 15 years, he served less than four, and in December 1946, ravaged with cancer, he was released from Norfolk Prison, telling reporters, "I wish I'd died with the others in the fire."

Nine weeks later, he was dead.

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