On November 28, 1942, a crowd of about a thousand people crammed into the Cocoanut Grove supper club in Boston, Massachusetts. The swanky club, known as “The Grove,” was a popular attraction in the city. It contained elaborate decorations, including artificial palm trees, bamboo and rattan accents, and fabric draped ceilings. The club filled up to twice its legal capacity that night, and some of the emergency exits were blocked. About 10:15 p.m., a fire broke out in the basement. It spread quickly, fueled by the flammable decorations. Patrons became trapped inside and nearly 500 died. The fire ranks as the deadliest nightclub fire in American history. It also spurred new fire safety laws to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring again.
The Cocoanut Grove supper club was a single-story building with a basement that contained a bar known as the Melody Lounge. It was owned by Barnet Welansky, a lawyer with ties to the mafia. The club had become a popular place and often entertained celebrities.
On the evening of the fire, 16-year-old busboy Stanley F. Tomaszewski was working in the basement bar when the bartender asked him to replace a missing light bulb. The lightbulb was in the corner of the room and was purportedly unscrewed by a young man seeking more privacy while kissing his date.
Tomaszewski lit a match until he spotted the empty socket. He screwed in the missing light bulb and blew out the match. Moments later, patrons noticed a small fire near the ceiling over the palm tree. Initially, Tomaszewski attempted to extinguish the fire, burning his hands and face in the process. Other employees joined the effort to douse the flames but were unsuccessful. Tomaszewski noticed crowds pressing towards a staircase already blocked by panic-stricken patrons. He flung open a camouflaged door that led to the kitchen and guided several patrons to safety in a walk-in refrigerator. By now, the fabric-draped ceiling caught fire as well, creating a toxic gas that filled the room.
Upstairs, patrons ran for the revolving door as flames and smoke quickly filled the room. The revolving door was the only source of egress in the room and became jammed with a pile of bodies as smoke overcame patrons. Some guests dropped to their knees and crawled through the darkness, looking for a way out.
The fire raged and ultimately claimed the lives of 491 victims. In the days following the fire, Tomaszewski was held for questioning. Friends and teachers rallied to his defense, defending his character as a bright, capable young man who excelled in school and was captain of his high school military battalion. Eventually, authorities cleared Tomaszewski of any charges, and owner Barnet Welansky was charged with manslaughter because three exits were locked and impassable. The tragedy led to improved building codes. Revolving doors would now be required to be flanked by stationary doors. The new laws also banned flammable materials for decorations and required well-marked exits in public buildings. The cause of the fire remains a mystery to this day.
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