Boston, MA Cocoanut Grove Club Fire, Nov 1942
DEATH TOLL JUMPS TO 477 IN COCOANUT GROVE DISASTER.
BOSTON HOLOCAUST ONE OF NATION'S WORST FIRES -- MORE THAN 300 OF THE DEAD NOW IDENTIFIED.
Boston, Nov. 30 (AP) -- A tiny match flame in the hands of a 16-year-old busboy touched off a lightning-like fire that snuffed out the lives of 477 Cocoanut Grove night club merrymakers and injured more than 200 -- many seriously -- in one of the nation's worst holocausts.
Deputy Police Supt. JAMES R. CLAFLIN quoted the youth, STANLEY F. TOMASZEWSKI, as saying that he accidentally ignited a paper palm tree that caused the terrific blaze which threw about 1000 persons into a fighting, clawing panic in efforts to reach safety.
The boy related, CLAFLIN said, that he was trying to replace an electric light bulb which had been unscrewed by a prankster in the recently opened Melody room of the club when the match flame brushed the flimsy palm and set off the devastating blaze.
The flames swept through the highly inflammable decorations as the orchestra leader raised his baton to signal for the National Anthem as a prelude to the Saturday night floor show. Within seconds the crowded night club was a bedlam as screaming women and horror stricken men dashed for exits, tumbling over each other on the jam-packed stairways.
District Fire Chief WILLIAM J. MAHONEY said that tangled and frightfully burned bodies were found four and five deep and that tables and chairs were scattered and tipped in a shambles among the dead.
As speedily as possible, physicians and specialists in the treatment of burns, mustered by the Boston committee on public safety, were mercifully ministering to the injured, using blood plasma rushed from the Red Cross in Washington and pain and poison-allaying sulfa drugs.
Meanwhile, long lines of relatives and friends stood two abreast outside the city's morgues throughout the cold night waiting for a chance to identify bodies, many of them charred beyond recognition.
A board of inquiry, including fire officials, U. S. navy representatives -- there were servicemen among the dead -- and two representatives of the federal bureau of investigation, which began its probe yesterday, reconvened today.
The death toll ranked only behind the steamship General Slocum fire of 1904 in New York's East river in which 1024 died, Chicago Iroquois theatre fire of 1903, which claimed 602 lives and the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 in which 500 died.
Deputy Fire Chief JOHN F. McDONOUGH told investigating officials that he found a number of bodies some within 10 feet of a door equipped with a panic lock designed to open under pressure, but was out of order and had been secured by another lock.
The death of many of the victims was ascribed by Medical Examiner TIMOTHY LEARY to monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation. He said that a number were "terribly burned" after death.
The stampede for the exits began, fire officials said, when a girl, detecting a thin wisp of smoke curling along the walls, shouted "fire", and within seconds the crowd broke for the doorways.
The wrecked stucco building resembled a huge brick oven after the flames had been extinguished, with hardly a scorched spot on the outside walls and roof, but with the interior a mass of debris.
Many of the widely known persons who either perished or were injured included EDWARD ANGIN, Brookline, president of the Interstate Theatre corporation and treasurer of a Boston Textile firm, dead; ROBERT BEVERLY CHARLES, 28, Winchester, son of MR. and MRS. W. R. CHARLES of Oak Park, Ill., and eastern manager of a Chicago candy company, dead; JOSEPH A. BORATYN, star fullback of the Holy Cross football team a year ago, dead; NORIINE HELEN WELCH, daughter of VINCENT S. WELCH of Port Washington, N. Y., vice president of the Equitable Life Insurance society, dead; MARY ELLEN McCORMACK, niece of U. S. Rep. JOHN W. McCORMACK, dead; GRACE McDERMOTT, 200 West 54th street, New York, entertainer at the club -- known under the stage name of "VAUGHN", dead; KATHERINE WOODS, 22, daughter of CARL WOODS, Boston manufacturer, president of the Crosby Steam Gauge company, dead; DR. GORDON BENNETT, captain of 1937 Dartmouth eleven, dead.
Police Commissioner JOSEPH F. TIMILTY indicated, in an interview, that the youth who innocently started the fire should have been barred by law from working in the club.
"Isn't it against the law for a boy that age to work in a place where liquor is sold," newsmen asked the commissioner.
"Well," he said, "you know the rules. He isn't supposed to."
"There is no doubt that the boy started the fire." TIMILTY added, "and there is no doubt that it was accidental."
CLAFLIN quoted the boy as saying:
"A patron came into the place and unscrewed a bulb in the ceiling. This made the room too dark. One of the waiters came to me and asked me to screw the bulb back in."
"I stood on a chair to do it. I lighted a match and helf it while I screwed the bulb in with the other hand. The match set fire to the palm tree. That is how the fire started."
A number of those who escaped leaped from the roof of the low building to the tops of automobiles and thence to the street. The clothes of some were in flames.
A night club singer, BILLY PAYNE, saved 10 patrons by leading them into a huge basement ice box.
"I was getting ready to start the show," PAYNE said, "when I suddenly heard screams. I thought there was a fight. Then I saw a flame racing along the wall ... Everyone started running. If only others had followed me they would be alive."
A revolving door trapped a number of persons when it became jammed by a pileup of bodies, and one body was even found in a telephone booth on the ground floor.
Virtually every medical examiner in the state was called to the scene and even express trucks were pressed into service to assist ambulances, beach wagons and private cars in transporting the injured to hospitals.
Spectators said that smoke and flames seemed to muchroom through the main room and the Melody lounge in one big puff.
The Boston committee on public safety, which organized under real disaster conditions for the first time, and mortuary officials said that most of the unidentified were women whose flimsy clothing was either burned from their bodies or contained no identification papers.
Catholic priests were on the scene shortly after the fire got under way, administering the last rites of the church to victims. One priest said hi ministered to at least 30 persons.
WILLIAM LADD of Boston one of the survivors, said that there was "instant panic" when the fire was discovered.
"Men and women began to scream together. It seemed everybody wanted to get out first. Men and women in their panic began tearing clothes from the bodies of each other."
"They all got to the small door on Piedmont street at about the same time and one of the women went down. Then the other men and women fell on top of her and the bodies just seemed to keep piling up."
"While these people were trapped and tangled with one another the flames reached the front door. It was impossible then for anyone to get out."