Secrets of Cocoanut Grove fire uncovered
It was one of the worst fires in American history, but its cause remained a mystery for decades
Updated March 13, 2018
By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 News Editor
At the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire of 1942 in Boston, 492 people died in a matter of minutes. Its ferocity and death count proved a defining moment in safety legislation, leading to a reform of codes and standards still in effect today.
A 2007 book by Charles Kenney charts the dogged determination of a retired firefighter in finally finding the possible cause of the blaze.
"Rescue Men" portrays a family drawn to firefighting ever since the author's grandfather, Charles "Pops" Kenney, joined the Boston Fire Department in 1932. More than 10 years later, he was among the first to respond to the nightclub fire, saving a number of people by pulling them from the blocked doors of the building.
But, it came at huge personal cost. The horrific scenes both at the site and after he was taken to hospital for treatment left him emotionally traumatized. More seriously for him, however, was the damage he suffered to his lungs, which forced his early retirement from the service at the age of 43.
A family's firefighting legacy reveals unique dedication
Despite the personal tragedy, the family had caught the firefighting bug.
Pops' son, Sonny, who served in the Navy in World War II, went on to join the department. But in a cruel twist of fate, he too was forced to retire at the age of 40 when a fireball blew him from a third-story window while attending a call, leaving him with a back injury.
"My father knew full well of course what had happened to my grandfather at Cocoanut Grove and knew how difficult his injuries were and how much they affected his life," author Kenney told FireRescue1.
"My father was a very intelligent man with a wonderful opportunity at college," he said. "But he made the affirmative decision to leave and join the fire department. He knew firsthand the types of risks involved in going into that job. But, as with so many people whose fathers or uncles are firefighters, he was drawn to it."
His grandfather and father both struggled to adjust to life away from the firehouse. Such struggles show firefighting is not merely a job, but an identity, according to Kenney, a former journalist.
"It's a huge loss when you leave the job," he said. "It's such a loss because you're so accustomed to being so close to the people you are working with. It’s cliché to say it is a brotherhood, but it’s something that is very true."
Charles Kenney's brother, Tom, pictured right, was dispatched to Ground Zero
"You do care for each other and protect each other," Kenney continued. "When you have to leave, even if you continue to have close associations, it's not the same as being in the firehouse and having to respond to an alarm."
After struggling to come to terms with his retirement, Sonny found solace in investigating the Cocoanut Grove blaze, the incident that had caused his own father's retirement. Sonny, haunted by the fact no one had ever solved the mystery behind its cause, went on to uncover critical new evidence indicating the possible cause of the fire.
On the night of the blaze, about 1,000 people were crammed into the fashionable venue, even though the legal limit was 600, the book reveals.
Despite initial Suspect, no cause determined at the time
After seeing a "flash" near the ceiling, two bartenders tried to douse the flame. But shortly afterward, a shimmering blue flame formed an arc on the ceiling fabric at the venue.
As people tried to rush up the stairs, the fire gained strength and speed, racing up the stairway before a fireball burst through a central dance floor.
The National Fire Protection Association later calculated that the fire raced 400 feet through the club in one minute.
It became the second-worst single-building fire in American history, behind the Iroquois Theater blaze in Chicago in 1903 that killed 602 people.
Just under a year later, the official fire investigator admitted he was unable to find the cause of the fire and it was listed as being of unknown origin.
The report exonerated the initial scapegoat, busboy Stanley Tomasczewski. Minutes before the fire began, he had been instructed to reinsert a lightbulb that had been removed from a decorative paper palm tree.
But to find the bulb he lit a match, which he then dropped to the floor and rubbed out with his shoe. Hours after the fire, he was incorrectly named by several police and fire chiefs as the cause of the fire.
Cocoanut Grove fire mystery sparks intrigue
From a safety and medical perspective, the fire had wide-ranging consequences. Hundreds of victims were admitted to hospital, where medical staff learned much about burn and inhalation injuries, developing strategies that would eventually be used across the nation. In addition, cities across the U.S. tightened building codes and requried lighted exit signs, doors that opened outward and revolving doors flanked by conventional doors be mandatory.
But the fact that the cause of the fire remained so mysterious was something that consumed Sonny.
"He was drawn to it as if it was the true north, the magnetic center of our firefighting family," said Kenney.
"Pops" Kenney was among the first firefighters to respond to the Cocoanut Grove fire
The deeper he got into researching it, the more his quest resembled the plot of a mystery story. He eventually uncovered critical information and may have cracked the code to finding out the real reason behind the fire.
Sonny said gas from a faulty refrigerant system may have provided the fuel for the fire, aided by a spark from poorly installed electrical wiring.
He discovered that a condenser from the nightclub's refrigerant system had not only been ridden with holes, but that highly flammable methyl chloride was being used in it at the time of the fire. The gas was commonly used during the war years, replacing the more stable Freon, which was allocated to the military.
Sonny's hypothesis formed the basis of an article in a journal of the National Fire Protection Association.
It was as close to a legitimate scientific endorsement as was possible, according to Kenney.
A Kenney family history of personal sacrifice
The firefighting lineage of the Kenney family lives on today in the author's brother, Tom, a firefighter in a search and rescue task force in Hyannis, Massachusetts. As with his grandfather's involvement with the Cocoanut Grove blaze, Tom's role in the fire service has brought him to scenes of horror; he was among those sent to rescue the victims of 9/11 from Ground Zero.
"There are some things that are common to the job for all firefighters and first responders," said Kenney.
"Everyone recognizes its dangers; it's something you go into with your eyes wide open," he said. "Because of this, there is this subtle but persistent kind of tension that you know at any time you leave the fire house to attend an incident, you have no real idea of what could confront you."
Kenney's decision to write his book stems from his passion for storytelling and the intensity with which his family has dedicated their hearts and souls to fighting fires.
"My main motivation for writing the book was that I think it's an interesting story that shows real-life firefighting for what it is — without any sugar-coating," he said. "I think it shows the great parts of firefighting — the close connections, the intensity of the work, the nobility of it, but at the same time shows the other side — the anxiety and tension; the terrible danger that can have seriously damaging results — as it did for both my dad and grandfather."
Charles Kenney, a winner of the International Association of Firefighters media award, is a former journalist at the Boston Globe. He lives in Boston. Rescue Men is available at Amazon, priced $17.16. For more details on the book and the author, go to Rescuemenbook.com