Cocoanut Grove fire remembered on its 75th anniversary

The deadly Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire killed nearly 500 people and led to sweeping changes to U.S. building and fire codes


By Jordan Graham
Boston Herald

BOSTON — Survivors and family members of victims joined local officials and historians yesterday as the city commemorated the 75th anniversary of the deadly Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, which killed nearly 500 people and led to sweeping changes to U.S. building and fire codes.

Marshall Cole, who was a 16-year-old tap dancer when the popular nightspot went up in flames, told those gathered that the tragic events of Nov. 28, 1942, are never far from his mind.

Although the cause of the fire is still unknown, it is thought to have been sparked by a busboy who didn’t extinguish a match he was using to change a lightbulb. (Photo/AP)
Although the cause of the fire is still unknown, it is thought to have been sparked by a busboy who didn’t extinguish a match he was using to change a lightbulb. (Photo/AP)

“From there on out, whenever I go to a place, I look for an exit,” Cole, 91, told the hundreds gathered at the Revere Hotel Boston Common, which sits in part on the same stretch of Stuart Street where the Cocoanut Grove once stood.

“You can’t understand what fear can be, when all of a sudden you realize something big is happening and you could get hurt,” he said.

Cole remembered sitting in his dressing room when he first heard a rumbling sound. After seeing smoke, Cole said he ran back for his prized camel hair coat.

“All of a sudden, the door of the dressing room opened, this guy came through like a crazy man, and he went crashing out the window,” Cole said, adding that he and some chorus dancers climbed up to the roof and down a ladder when the fire department arrived on scene.

Tuesday will be the 75th anniversary of the Bay Village fire that killed 492 people. The blaze remains the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, and the single deadliest disaster in the history of the city.

Although the cause of the fire is officially unknown, it is believed to have been sparked by a busboy who didn’t fully extinguish a match he was using to change a lightbulb. Faulty wiring, a club that was at twice its allowed capacity and side exits that were either blocked or bolted shut are thought to have made the catastrophe exponentially worse.

Yesterday’s event, which drew hundreds of relatives of victims, experts and police and fire officials, was put on by the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, which is pushing for a permanent memorial for the victims. In 1993, a commemorative plaque was installed at the site of the former club, though a neighborhood association later decided to move the plaque several blocks away.

Yesterday, Eileen Skinner, administrator for the Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston, vowed that the hospital will work with the group to create a “living memorial,” though it is still unclear what form it will take.

Kenneth Marshall, who heads the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee and was a 4-year-old when the fire occurred, called the tragedy “a profound episode that has not left our psyche.”

Marshall said his mother, a nurse, worked for four days straight — without coming home — after the fire.

The fateful blaze is credited with triggering an overhaul of building and fire codes, including requiring emergency exits, sprinklers and more. A documentary about the fire, “Six Locked Doors,” which focuses on the mistakes that led to the tragedy, premiered at the event.

“The aftermath and investigation that followed have transformed the fire conventions and building code all across the world,” Boston Fire Department Commissioner Joseph E. Finn said. “Let’s not forget the lessons learned from this horrific tragedy.”

The massive influx of burn patients at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston City Hospital also provided valuable lessons, doctors said yesterday, including how to triage and the best way to treat burn patients.

“The physiological lessons we’ve learned from these 500 people have not been forgotten, and we’ve used them every day, all over the world,” said Peter Burke, chief of the Boston Medical Center’s acute care and trauma center. “This is the way we do it now, and it’s saved countless lives.”

Copyright 2017 Boston Herald

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2018 FireRescue1.com. All rights reserved.