Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the Cocoanut Grove Fire.
It seems fitting to repost this … (very long post, but I hope you will read it to the end)
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Originally posted December 2, 2012
So Ye Olde Kid Sister (YOKS) calls me up this morning to wish me Happy Birthday and informs me that they renamed the street in front of the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub from Shawmut Street Extension to Cocoanut Grove Lane.
In my mind I thought yeah that’s right, I am going to post a blog entry on … November 28 … oh ‘sh1+’. Well with the Mrs in hospital the week before Thanksgiving and the Thanksgiving holiday (where I did all the cooking), I suppose you can forgive me for not getting this out on time.
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The Cocoanut Grove was Boston’s premier nightclub during the post-Prohibition 1930s and 1940s. On November 28, 1942, this club was the scene of the deadliest nightclub fire in history, killing 492 people (which was 32 more than the building’s authorized capacity) and injuring hundreds more. The enormity of the tragedy shocked the nation and briefly replaced the events of World War II in newspaper headlines. It led to a reform of safety standards and codes across the country, and major changes in the treatment and rehabilitation of burn victims.
It was the second-deadliest single-building fire in American history; only the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago had a higher death toll, of 602.
Official reports state that the fire started at about 10:15 p.m. in the dark, intimate Melody Lounge downstairs. A young pianist and singer, Goody Goodelle, was performing on a revolving stage, surrounded by artificial palm trees. It was believed that a young man, possibly a soldier, had removed a light bulb in order to give himself privacy while kissing his date. Stanley Tomaszewski—a 16-year-old busboy—was instructed to put the light back on by retightening the bulb. As he attempted to tighten the light bulb in its socket, the bulb fell from his hand. In the dimly-lit lounge, Tomaszewski, unable to see the socket, lit a match to illuminate the area, found the socket, extinguished the match, and replaced the bulb. Almost immediately, patrons saw something ignite in the canopy of artificial palm fronds draped above the tables (although the official report doubts the connection between the match and the subsequent fire).
Despite waiters’ efforts to douse the fire with water, it quickly spread along the fronds of the palm tree, igniting decorations on the walls and ceiling. Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of patrons stumbling up the stairs. A fireball burst across the central dance floor as the orchestra was beginning its evening show. Flames raced through the adjacent Caricature Bar, then down a corridor to the Broadway Lounge. Within five minutes, flames had spread to the main clubroom and the entire nightclub was ablaze.
As is common in panic situations, many patrons attempted to exit through the main entrance, the same way they had entered. The building’s main entrance was a single revolving door, rendered useless as the panicked crowd scrambled for safety. Bodies piled up behind both sides of the revolving door, jamming it to the extent that firefighters had to dismantle it to enter. Later, after fire laws had tightened, it would become illegal to have only one revolving door as a main entrance without being flanked by outward opening doors with panic bar openers attached, or have the revolving doors set up so that the doors could fold against themselves in emergency situations.
Other avenues of escape were similarly useless: side doors had been bolted shut to prevent people from leaving without paying. A plate glass window, which could have been smashed for escape, was boarded up and unusable as an emergency exit. Other unlocked doors, like the ones in the Broadway Lounge, opened inwards, rendering them useless against the crush of people trying to escape. Fire officials later testified that, had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared. Many young soldiers perished in the disaster, as well as a newly married couple.
As night deepened, the temperature dropped. Water on cobblestones froze. Hoses froze to the ground. Newspaper trucks were appropriated as ambulances. From nearby bars, soldiers and sailors raced to assist. On the street, firefighters lugged out bodies and were treated for burned hands. Smoldering bodies, living and dead, were hosed in icy water. Some victims had ingested fumes so hot that when they inhaled cold air, as one firefighter put it, they dropped like stones.
Later, during the cleanup of the building, firefighters found several dead guests sitting in their seats, with drinks in their hands. They had been overcome so quickly by fire and toxic smoke that they didn’t have time to move.
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My Buddy was at Ft. Sumpter, S. Carolina Basic
training. I sure missed him. The owner
asked me to stay on. I met a Dr. Yurkanis
he was interning at City Hosp Boston. He
would come in on weekends, sit at the end of the bar
drinking Southern Comfort and Coke. His favorite
song ‘Somebody’s Thinking Of You Tonight.”
Well Sat. following Thanksgiving Nov-28-1942 Sat
I was singing around 10 P.M. As the stage revolved
I looked at my watch 10.15 P.M, heard the bartender
tell the 14 yr old busboy to put bulb back in
tree, as people wanted to be in the dark. Well
he struck a match to see what he was doing
and all hell broke loose. My fingers froze on
(I kept saying don’t panic don’t panic)
the piano keys. I was up + down on the bench
fire caught on tufted ceiling + I ran from
piano to opening in bar to get out grabbing
cashier behind me. She didn’t want to leave
register. Told her “you can come back if they
put it out” We went into kitchen which I
found 2 nights before. They were all busy
I told them the lounge was on fire they
thought I was pulling a joke. We ran
up behind stage as floor show was going
on. Bartender in front of us. I saw them
pulling blackout curtains. Tearing at them
A door was in between the windows. They
tried to open door but it was locked inside
couldn’t make it. They tried with huge 2×4
to no avail. Then after the blackout curtains
were down. I noticed iron bars going across
almost hysterical, I kept saying I’ll never
fit, I’ll never fit, thru those bars. Then
I saw these people holding on to the bars
feet first and sliding out. Janette the
cashier went out ahead of me, then I
was outside, falling on a pile of sand as
they were using it for cement for a
new lounge in front. Janette went hysterical
saying, “if it wasn’t for you I’d be in there”
Her husband was overseas, + she had a
month old baby. I had a red velvet gown
on. Running thru street looking for a phone
I had got my pay + it was in my dressing room
upstairs, before I went out that window I
wanted to go upstairs, but I thought no.
I finally found a phone and called my mother, she
didn’t have a radio on + knew something was
wrong. Thought there was a shooting. Some
friends were with her + they drove her to
Park St. Garage, near “Statler Hotel” I
was freezing, it was so cold. I was OK until
I saw my mom, then it was over. The bodies
were piled 4 feet high in revolving door. 500
lives lost. Everyone was looking for me. Riva
was doing a club date. Going to pick me up when
she + Depietro came across the commotion, fire
engines, laundry trucks, newspaper trucks all
putting bodies in. My cousin Artie saw a girl
in red gown, charcoal from fire, thought it was
me + passed out. (Back in 1939, changed my name
to “Goody Goodelle” I had to have a name to
go with Goody so I chose Goodelle) Well I got
home + people didn’t know whether to call
or not, they thought I was gone. I don’t think
I slept that night, my sister finally
called and came home. Next day was Sunday
telephone ringing off the hook. Flower came
in droves – wires, telegrams, cablegrams
Cocoanut Grove Fire Images
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When we were kids, YOKS and I would occasionally hear our parents talking about the Cocoanut Grove Fire, but hey we were kids … what did we know. It meant nothing to us. Then several years ago, well more than several, YOKS sent me some images of stuff of our Mom’s that she had scanned (after Mom and Aunt Ri died in a car crash over fourteen years ago). If you have read any of my earlier blogs, you know that my mother worried incessantly … drove me crazy. Her worrying rubbed off on me and it took me a long time to shake it off. My Dad never worried or at least never appeared to worry. Maybe that is why Mom married him.
My Mom had two sisters and a brother: Aunt Lily, Aunt Riva, and Uncle Buddy. Several times when I was a kid Mom, Dad, YOKS, Aunt Ri, and I would go to Boston on vacation. One of the people we would visit was Dr. Edward Yurkanis (‘Yurky’ as Aunt Ri would call him). He was a prominant Anesthesiologist. I vividly remember the time we were lost in the fog on his yacht one night.
Nobody new about PTSD in 1942, but one might suspect that anyone surviving the Cocoanut Grove Fire might have a severe case of PTSD, not to mention Survivor Guilt, and any other mental illness one might suffer from if you were one of a handful of people who barely escaped one of the worst tragedies to date. Knowing that your friends and coworkers died horrible deaths, seeing bodies piled four feet high trying to escape, knowing that you personally witnessed it start and could do nothing to stop it – had to leave deep emotional scars. Goody had only been working at the Cocoanut Grove a few weeks and was only 25 at the time of the fire. I now know that Goody had a complete nervous breakdown after the fire and was a recluse for months afterwards.
If you ‘google’ Goody Goodelle on the web you won’t find much beyond the few lines in Wikipedia or any of the other reports of the fire. “A young pianist and singer, Goody Goodelle, was performing on a revolving stage, surrounded by artificial palm trees.” You might even find a picture or two, or a rare vintage record album.
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To her mother she was Gorizia. Everyone else knew her as Goody. Except for my sister and I … to us she will always just be … Mom.
Goody Goodelle (1917 – 1998)
See also Wrestling With Worry
7 thoughts on “Cocoanut Grove – 1942”
My heart is broken reading this story, and the hardest part to swallow is the way the fire started. That’s the stuff that scares me, the stuff you can’t predict.
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touching, tragic, and beautiful. thanks for the re-post of this. I actually thought about it a lot since the first posting and was nice to re-read. Woof.
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There is so much I don’t know about my parents … and no way to ask them.
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What a beautiful tribute to your mother. I am an author interested in writing a book on the Cocoanut Grove Fire and some of the powerful stories of victims and survivors. I know there have been other books but I think much remains to be told. I’d love to talk to you more if possible. If you would please email me at email@example.com it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your consideration. –Saul Wisnia