The Cocoanut Grove Fire: November 28, 1942

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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32 thoughts on “The Cocoanut Grove Fire: November 28, 1942

  1. Barnett Welansky owned and operated the nightclub in which a fire ensued. Defendant was charged and convicted with involuntary manslaughter based on overcrowding, installation of flammable decorations, absence of fire doors and failure to maintain proper methods to exit the building.

  2. I remember reading about this many years ago but don’t remember the outcome; what eventually happened to Mr. Welansky? Did he go to prison, if so, for how long?

  3. Sadly all of the building code changes didn’t stop another tragedy. The Beverly Hills Supper club fire in Southgate, Kentucky burned May 28, 1977 with inadequate exits, no firewalls, no alarm system, and no sprinkler system. Overcrowding was one of the main issues that evening with over double capacity in its performance area, the Cabaret Room. The supper club also had ties to the mafia and blocked exits. The tragedy resulted in 164 dead and has been compared to the Cocoanut Grove fire based on the similarities of the blazes. “Cause undetermined” Personally speaking, the ash from the burning club reached over 10 miles away, covering our cars, in Cincinnati.

    1. Just happened upon this thread. In 1974 or 75 a date took me to the Beverly Hills Supper Club. We had dinner in what I remember as a glass enclosed dining room before the show. The show was great, a band we had followed before. However, the whole time, I was very nervous. It was very dark. I could see few exits. My previous husband was a firefighter and I knew to always look for a way out of anything like that. It was difficult to even find the ladies room once you got in there. so many people, so close, so dark. I was glad when it was over. So sad for those who lost their lives but it really did not surprise me after being there.

  4. In 1943 Barnet Welansjy was convicted of 19 random counts of manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment . 3 years later in Novemver 1946 he was released from Norfolk prison because of his terminal cancer and died 6 weeks later in January 1947.

  5. These tragedies continue to this day – like Lisa points out regarding the Beverly Hills Supper Club – because of the rampant corruption in local governments. Inspectors often take an envelope to look the other way for a multitude of violations, including safety violations that KILL PEOPLE. The Station fire in Rhode Island killed a HUNDRED PEOPLE – in 2003, even with all the laws that were passed.
    Trying to keep local officials from taking some fast cash to overlook violations is getting to be impossible in our world today. Morality and integrity are seen as increasingly “old fashioned” and people lacking the requisite skills to do their jobs are hired anyway. Say what you want about religion but the lessons they all taught were important ones, and we’ve thrown out the baby with the bath water. We have police chiefs in major cities deciding they won’t enforce laws they disagree with rather than working to change them, and people on both sides of the aisle CHEER that.
    What a mess we leave our children.

    1. It’s always been that way with money changing hands and there will always be greed. Good and bad and religion is not and never has and never will change that.

      1. So, you’re saying that nothing has been, or ever will be, done to rectify these horrific tragedies. Hmm…

        1. I have read this story many times, such a tragety. People out for a nice evening and look what happens. These “accidents” happen often, sometimes because of men’s greed, and Sometimes by nature it’self. We need to tighten down building rules. Hoping this will not happen again

  6. My parents were dating at the time of this fire and both were living in Salem, MA. They had made plans to double date this particular evening and go to the Cocoanut Grove for a ‘splurge’ night out. When they arrived, there was absolutely no parking available ANYWHERE(!!!!), so the four of them went to some other nightspot, the name of which neither my Mom or Dad could remember.
    Thanks be to God that there wasn’t any available parking!

    1. My mother to be was going to go, but realizing it was going to be crowded because the BC-Holy Cross game was in town that weekend. She decided not to go!

  7. That afternoon the Boston College football team played Holy Cross. a traditional rival. BC was undefeated, had outscored their opponents 249 to 19 and was planning to go to the Sugar Bowl. Holy Cross had only a 4-4-1 record and was a 14 to 1 underdog but every member of the team played two feet over his head and they humiliated BC 55 to 12 The BC team had planned a gala victory celebration – – at the Cocoanut Grove, but the players were so embarrassed they went home instead. That upset loss on the football field turned out to be their luckiest game of the year.

    1. Yes! My dad was on that Boston College Eagles football team in 1942 and the following year, 1943. The team didn’t refuse to go to the Cocoanut Grove that evening, according to my dad. Instead, the Eagles were ordered home after the embarrassing loss to Holy Cross by the college authorities having cancelled the evening’s festivities on their very first undefeated season. My grandparents witnessed the fire, firsthand, as well as the awful aftermath while body after body was carried out. My grandmother’s first person account was printed in the newspaper. Since they were living in Dorchester, at the time, perhaps it was a Boston newspaper. If not, then her first-hand account was reported in a Central Vermont newspaper. My dad’s name was J. Edward Boyce, and I still have original game cards from that era. He was listed as 5’10” and 150 lbs. He would be CRUSHED by today’s college football players!

      1. Fate has certainly intertwined your family with the Cocoanut Grove tragedy. I didn’t know that the college had ordered the BC team to skip the party. Some of those players could probably have used a stiff drink or two. A friend graduated from Holy Cross and he said that the 1942 game is still part of the school lore. You’re right about the relative size of the players between then and now. The only 150 lb member of a college team today is probably the water boy. The large schools now dominate the sport as do the large players.

        About twenty years ago Sonny Kenney, whose father Charles was one of the Boston firemen at the tragedy that night, further investigated the cause of the fire. He found that the major factor was probably the air conditioning system. The usual refrigerant, Freon, was in short supply due to war requirements. A cheaper but highly flammable refrigerant, methyl chloride, had been used instead and the A/C system was leaking due to poor maintenance. Witnesses described a very large flash at the start of the fire which could well have been due to the methyl chloride. His findings were published by the National Fire Protection Association. The recent fire at the Station nightclub shows that even with the improvements in fire safety codes such disasters still occur. Charles Kenney, whose grandfather was at the CG fire and whose father later investigated it, has written a book, “Rescue Men”. It covers 60 years of the history of firefighting in America and the generations of his Boston Irish family who have served as firemen and rescue workers. It is well worth reading.

        1. Another book well worth reading is “Holocaust” by Paul Benzaquin. I think it was from 1955, and it was the 1st time I’d ever heard the word, now associated with a different holocaust.

          1. Another excellent book is Report From Engine Co. 82. by Dennis Smith (1972). Engine 82 of the NYFD is located in the South Bronx and answers more alarms per day than any other fire company in the world. There is a long waiting list to join Engine 82 and the author served on it for several years. His book is a paean to his fellow firefighters, especially those who died in the performance of their duty;

      2. Today’s college football players would never pass the admission requirements that your dad had to pass.
        Also, your dad was a true amateur athlete, he played for the joy of the game .
        And last , your dad didn’t have the advantage of new body building knowledge and let alone steroids .

        1. You are certainly right about his father and admission requirements. I doubt that the guys on the BC (and Holy Cross) team got to take courses like Advanced Creative Basket Weaving instead of Math, Chemistry, etc. which is the norm today. They were college students first and athletes second which is how it should be.

    2. My mother, then Peggy Riley, was a senior at Emanuel College and had just turned 21. She was invited by a BC friend to join her that night for the celebration.

      As the story goes, BC lost in an upset to rival Holy Cross and the date was postponed. Otherwise, my future mother would have never met fellow teacher Bill O’Neill, Sr. at Dracut High School in 1950.

      1. Similar story..My mom, Jean Sweenie was to meet her date at the Coconut Grove. After the game, her date was delayed and they met at the Eliot Lounge instead. There is where they heard of the inferno.

  8. I sent an email directly to your Pastor. I tried twice however I get a smpt message of incorrect configuration. Pls advise
    Thank you
    In Christ

  9. The article does not mention the band playing upstairs. The band leader was Micky Alpert who was badly burned as he and his musians
    bravely fought the flames helping people escape.

  10. Sad, just like the fire at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 1980 which killed around 80 people

  11. The Coconut Grove fire directly led to the following fire code changes nationwide in places of public occupancy .Public buildings, restaurants, apartment buildings, schools Etc. are required to have exit doors that open outward and be equipped with crash bars on the inside.

  12. My Mother, Nina Jane Underwood, was being trained as a nurse when she was called into duty to help in the rescue of badly injured patrons. She earned many accolades from the Boston papers. She later became a US Navy Nurse.
    See newspaper “Daily Times Chronicle” Friday November 17, 2017.

  13. The major cause and concern is still going on today , here in 2021 , lead of course by greed !!
    OVER CROWDING !!! Should anything go wrong on such an evening ,, the proprietor should be held accountable to the full extent of the law as it, s totally in their control to say ,,, sorry , were full , wev, e reached our maximum allowable capacity as set out by LAW !!!!

    1. Yes, several versions of his death have been recorded. One was he went back in to save others. Always wondered what the real story was. For years we attended the Buck Jones Festival held in Henrietta, NY.

  14. Absolutely read “Holocaust” by Paul Benzaquin. The details of the incident are incredible. The firefighters and service men who came to help were so courageous. There are also stories of survivors and their journey. Not only did the tragedy help to change fire laws but it was also used as a way to triage patients to other hospitals not just the closest one.

  15. Theres also this one from Rhode Island in 2003: A raging fire ignited by a rock band’s pyrotechnics display ripped through a nightclub here late Thursday night, leaving at least 96 people dead and 187 injured. Same reasons for so many deaths. Flammable decor and blocked exits. Then there was the 1990 Happyland social club fire. 87 people killed when a spurned boyfriend tossed a dollars worth of gasoline into the stairway, the ONLY egress in and out of the 2nd floor dance club. Within minutes 87 people lost their lives. It was an illegal club and after the fire the mayor pounded his chest saying they would close these clubs down. It didn’t last long.

  16. My late mother, then a teenager who snuck out, was there. She barely escaped and carried the emotional scars all her life.

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