|August 10, 2003
Fires In Public Assembly Occupancies
As we look back upon the history of the fire service we can clearly see how the deadliest of fires originated and the corrective actions that resulted from these incidents to prevent any further loss of life in the future in any of these types of occupancy structure. But fires that have caused many deaths within assembly occupancies always seem to have similar, if not the exact circumstances occur that leads to a massive lost of life and eventually considered a catastrophe.
The similarities between these fires seem to be either flammable materials on interior walls, overcrowding, complex building design or flaws, illegal occupancy use, open flame, no suppression system, locked, blocked or unseen exits, not enough exits, placement of the exits, and not realizing early on that there is a true emergency occurring. Even though many of these fires have brought about reform and enhancements in the building and fire codes, we also see that the many mistakes of the past reach into the future to cause even further death and suffering. And in the case of the Coconut Grove, this fire effects many of the decisions that code enforcers, architects, engineers, lawyers and defendants face regularly to this day.
It is in Boston, Mass. on Nov. 28, 1942.
And it is almost 10pm and the most deadly nightclub and public occupancy
fire in the United States is about to occur. The fire would take only 15
minutes from ignition to extinguishment, but the ramifications whether
they are considered good or bad are present in our world today.
The nightclub was a survivor of the days of “prohibition” when it was used as a “speakeasy.” The building originally had been built as a garage that had been transformed over time into a nightspot. The buildings evolution had expanded greatly from its original size and was now a cavernous structure that was divided by plywood covered concrete walls, which added to the design complexity of the building. The building was made of brick and stucco and was considered during this era to be “fireproof.” A gangster had formerly owned the Coconut Grove during the prohibition era. After the gangster was found to have been murdered, Welansky purchased the club in 1933. The Coconut Grove, Inc. was born and Barnett Welansky worked to turn the Grove into Boston’s biggest nightclub attraction.
The Coconut Grove was a shining star in Boston’s nightlife. Many of the big Hollywood movie stars of the day would frequent the club to show support for the sale(s) of war bonds and to entertain the troops returning or preparing for deployment overseas. Some of these stars that entertained at the Coconut Grove included the likes of Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, Bob Hope, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
On the night of the fire, singing cowboy movie star legend Buck Jones would lose his life in support of the sale of war bonds. Buck Jones and Roy Rogers were the original singing cowboys. He came to the night’s events after having attended the Holy Cross-Boston College football game even though he was beginning to suffer with cold or flu like symptoms. At the time the owners made it worth his wild to attend the festivities that would be occurring on this night.
Many who patronized the club were soldiers and sailors either on leave or those who were ready to ship out on deployment in support of the war effort. It had been eleven months since the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the war against Japan was in full swing, and especially in the Boston area were enlistment was high. The owner of the Coconut grove Barnett Welansky and employees of the club always made it their top priority to welcome those military men from such nearby military installations as Fort Devin’s, Edwards, Banks, and others within the area who decide to visit the club.
The Coconut Grove was one of the most elegant
clubs around. Decorated to resemble a tropical paradise, the club was bedecked
with artificial palm trees, other artificial tropical plants, and a cloth
ceiling that gave the ambiance of a tropical paradise at night.
People were drawn into this club seeking escapism from the 28-degree cold of the northeast and from news of the war that we were engaged in. One of the special features about the club was the electric rollback roof that was opened at night during the summer. This allowed couples to dance under the starlight hopefully making for an unforgettable evening in paradise.
During the day the Holy Cross football team had routed the heavily favored and unbeaten Boston College Eagles at home in Fenway Park. The final score of the routing was 55 to 12. Jubilant Holy Cross fans gathered at the Coconut Grove to celebrate an unexpected victory. Seeing the size of the attendance on this night the owner directed his waiters to set up additional tables in the main dining room dance floor for those who would not be turned away. By doing so packed the club with approximately 1,000 patrons and put the club 400 (25%) over its maximum capacity.
On any given night you could see Barnett Welansky at the club, but not on this night. Welansky had been absent from the club for twelve days. On November 16 Welansky had become ill and was taken to the hospital were he remained until discharged on December 11, 1942.
The Melody Lounge
The Melody lounge is the location were the point of fire origin occurred. This lounge area was located in the basement and had opened just 8 days prior to the fire. A member of the Boston fire Department, Lieutenant Linney, performed an inspection the Melody lounge just eight days prior to the fire. The club and the Melody lounge area were found to be satisfactory and in “Good” condition. This meant that the club met with all the fire regulations at the time according to the inspection records. While conducting the inspection Lieutenant Linney had touched a lit match to the same decorations that would eventually cause mass death. When Linney performed a flame test on the decorations they did not burn. The inspection report also noted that there were “a sufficient number of exits and fire extinguishers.” No matter what the end result of the fire inspection was, the facts remain that the Coconut grove had low ceilings, was full of combustible and flammable materials and these materials could be found everywhere within the structure.
The decision was made after the visitation
by the Boston fire department inspector that the Melody lounge area would
open for business. Even though a fire inspection had been conducted the
opening of the melody lounge area was still illegal. This was due to the
club not having a certificate of operation issued by the city of Boston’s
building inspection division for the area known as the Melody lounge. This
could only be issued by the city of Boston’s Building inspection division.
In the melody lounge the house piano player was playing “Bell Bottom Trousers” on the ivories. The house was packed and life was good. It is now just a little past 10pm and in the dining room area upstairs the Mickey Alpert band was waiting to go on. This would be the second show of the night for the band. They took the stage and started the set with a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” In the melody lounge, reportedly a young couple wanting their privacy had removed a 7.5-watt light bulb from its socket amidst the palm tree fronds being used as decorations. By doing so, this darkened the area lending itself to more privacy and intimacy for the couple. This simple act of unscrewing a light bulb would now cost 492 people their lives and affect others physically and psychologically forever.
The events of this disaster have never been proven, but through witness testimony that was gathered in the post investigation and subsequent trial (Commonwealth of Mass v. Welansky), the tragic events of that night can be told. A 16-year-old busboy named Stanley Tomaszewski who was illegally working at the club was dispatched to the palm tree frond area by a bartender to replace the missing light bulb. Tomaszewski climbed onto a chair to reach the socket, but he had trouble finding the socket in the darkness. Tomaszewski then lit a match to see the light socket and replace a light bulb.
Two stories now conflict the events that
caused the fire. The first eyewitness account states that the busboy used
a match and he then blew it out after screwing in the bulb, and that the
match had never come into contact with the palm tree. This is the version
that is documented in the Commonwealth of Mass v. Welansky. A second account
states that the match had burned the busboys fingers, and Tomaszewski then
The events accuracy is questionable, but
what is known is that moments later flames were seen flickering through
the palm tree fronds. Another employee was sent to the palm tree with a
bar rag to smother the flickering flames. Other employees tried to assist
by using liquid filled glasses and pitchers. Someone even attempted to
use a seltzer bottle to no avail. Another employee brought over an extinguisher
to put the flames out but they continued to grow rapidly. People at first
seemed to be rather amused by the antics by the busboys trying to extinguish
The crowd that just moments ago stood watching the events was now a mass of humanity that was rushing towards the stairs leading up to the first floor. Those who delayed leaving the lounge were trapped in the panic stricken crowd. Within seconds the Melody lounges light went out and was now in total darkness. This now complicated any escape for all those that were still in the lounge. The lounge was now a smoke filled pit of chocking death. Most of the people attempted to escape through the stairway that they had entered, while others found a kitchen door and escaped. Some in the Melody lounge survived by seeking shelter inside a walk-in refrigerator. Some attempted to escape by attempting to get through windows that were decorative and were nothing more than a brick wall. Many were overcome quickly from carbon monoxide poisoning and other gases that were being released by the flammable materials that decorated the lounge. The toxic gases affected some patrons so quickly that they were unable to move towards the egress points. Some of these patrons were found standing at the bar or still seated at their tables.
The first of the crowd had reached the stairway when the lights went out and panic set in. Many of the men and women were already seriously and painfully burned as they reached the top of the thirteen riser steps. After entering a long corridor they found the door to the outside locked. Shoving, kicking and hitting would not open the door. The rush of bodies into this area was so enormous that they jammed into this space with no chance of being able to turn around and escaping. More than 100 were burned to death while even more were crushed.
The reasoning behind the door being locked was that the management of the Coconut Grove had a policy that stated: “No one was to enter or leave Boston’s finest night spot without paying.”
The crowd then headed towards the foyer to escape the flames, but the flames were already racing well ahead of them. One survivor stated that the “air itself appeared to be on fire.” The people rushed towards the main exit were the revolving door was located.
Others made an attempt to get out through
the main entrance. One eyewitness account states that the revolving door
had a cable that was attached to it. Seeing the rush of people, an employee
attempted to free the cable with no success. Another account states that
an employee blocked the exit in an attempt to stop the patrons from leaving
before they had paid their tabs. The crowd while trying to escape the raging
inferno quickly rushed upon the revolving door, thus jamming it shut. There
was a swing door next to the revolving door but it was also locked. There
were also two other doors leading to the street but both opened inward.
These doors were of little use since those attempting to escape formed
a human wall against them, effectively sealing them shut. Investigators
later found about two hundred bodies stacked at this location.
The Main Floor
The main floor of the Coconut Grove consisted of the Broadway Cocktail Lounge and the Caricature Bar. At this time everyone on the main floor was unaware of the disaster unfolding below as the fire mushroomed downstairs and exploded towards the main floor. Suddenly a commotion was heard, people at first thought it was a fight. The first sign that all was not well was when a young girl ran screaming across the main floor with her hair on fire. One patron noted that she ran with the speed of a 20 mph wind. As the girl ran across the main floor she also started to ignite linen tablecloths. Seeing this people started making their way towards exits, but the reality of the situation was that everyone panicked. People were now screaming and shoving. Witnesses described how a male employee of the club dressed in a gray suit demanded that no one was to leave without paying their checks first. Another of the unusual occurrences noted by witnesses during the panic was that a hatcheck girl also wanted people to pay for their coats before leaving.
Smoke began to flow rapidly into the main floor area. The smoke immediately overcame many and sent others into a frantic search for the exits. Witnesses described the flames as a “great wave” which rolled into the main floor area. Thick black smoke followed the flames. The main floor also darkened and soon became a chamber of horrors as people frantically attempted to escape the increasing inferno. People found themselves dancing and enjoying the festivities just seconds ago were now crawling along the floor, feeling along walls as tables fell and dishes crashed around them. Couples who attempted to stay together were torn apart by others in their own panic. Some were fortunate enough to escape through an exit leading onto Shawmut Street.
But many of the patrons attempted to exit the way that they entered, through the revolving main door. Those escaping the Melody Lounge and those from the main floor combined into a pile off human mass effectively sealing off the main entrance totally. Many of the victims in this area died of inhalation of poisonous gases and were never touched by the fire, while others were charred beyond recognition.
Marshall Cook, a chorus boy from South Boston led three co-workers, which included eight girls of the chorus and others to an adjoining roof that led out of the second floor dressing room. A ladder was used to lower them but they still had to make a six-foot drop to the ground. In the end 35 people escaped using this exit.
Dense smoke continued to fill the Coconut Grove and was now entering the new lounge located at the rear of the club along Broadway Street. Many from the main dining room entered here to evade the smoke and fire. When the exit door was found it was locked as well. Other attempted to escape through the main entrance door to the new lounge but this door opened inwardly. The mass of humanity pressed against this door as well, but before it was jammed shut a few people managed to escape through this exit.
At the time of the alarm the Boston Fire Department was on location of a fire just a short distance away. The fire department was investigating a fire on a seat cushion in a car when they heard the screams and commotion coming from the direction of the Coconut Grove and soon witnessed the smoke begin to billow from the structure. The fire department repositioned their apparatus towards the club. Boston fire communications was first alerted to the disaster when they received a street box located just 150’ away from the club. Upon receiving the alarm at 10:21pm the dispatch center placed an additional to the first alarm of 2 engines, 1 deputy, and another district chief. Upon arrival at the scene and seeing the destruction that was occurring before him, the Fire Chief struck a third (alarm) and skipped ordering the second alarm at 10:24pm. The fourth was sent at 10:25 and brought 14 engines, 3 ladders and 3 district chiefs. The fifth sounded at 11:03pm and brought 5 engines but the incident commander ordered an additional 2 rescue squads to the fire scene.
The first arriving units consisted of 4 engines, 2 ladder companies, 1 rescue squad, 1 water tower, 1 salvage company, division one deputy chief and the district 5 chief. The fire department had a difficult task ahead of them as they had to perform suppression and rescue operations simultaneously. As difficult as it was for the patrons to leave the club, firefighters immediately found out how hard it was to enter. But firefighters soon realized that the fire had to be put out first. Firefighters broke the revolving door down and were immediately met with a six-foot high pile of human bodies. Firefighters found a man trying to get out a side window but his legs were held by the mass of human bodies behind him. Soon after discovering him he was freed from the window.
Officer Brooks of the BPD remembers firefighters trying to get into the building through the revolving door. As firefighters tried to pull bodies from this area, some of the victim’s arms and legs came off. At the same time officer Brooks scanned the faces of those who were inside trying to see if any was that of his daughter. At 10:35pm firefighters had extinguished most of the fire, but they still had pockets in remote locations that were giving them trouble.
Firefighter Winn Robbins of Engine Company 21 noted that he had found a girl inside of a phone booth wearing a fur coat and it appeared that she was trying to make a phone call as the smoke overcame her and she died on her feet. Robbins also noted that the nickel used to make the call was lying on the floor of the booth.
Firefighters then attempted to enter through the new lounge area. Here investigators found approximately 100 dead bodies that had been blocking the door. The glass brick windows of the new lounge were difficult and time consuming to take out. All the while firefighters were removing both the living and the dead from the building. The air outside had gone down to 20 degrees. The sidewalk and the street soon turned to ice. One firefighter said that those who were still alive and had breathed in superheated air, upon inhaling the 20-degree air outside that the victims dropped like stones.
The Rev. Joseph A. Marcus of the Cranwell School was on the incident scene early on and immediately started administering last rites to at least 50 of the victims. Ambulances from surrounding jurisdictions, such as Newton and Brookline, Charlestown Navy yard and Chelsea Navy Hospital arrived at the scene and were immediately put into service. But the need for transport vehicles was overwhelming. Soon Railway express trucks were pressed into service and were utilized to transport victims.
A state of Marshall Law was proclaimed for the entire fire area at 1:35AM. At approximately 2:00am the Boston Fire Commissioner William Arthur Bailey announced that an estimated 300 people had perished in this fire. But as time passed the number of victims and the injured would increase.
In the end a total of five alarms were summoned to the scene. The fire only lasted 12 minutes and in the end 491 were dead. Additional resources were needed to assist and approximately 4000 officers and enlisted men from the nearby U.S. Coast Guard were recruited to assist the Boston firefighters in conducting rescue operations.
Those found to be still alive were rushed to Boston City Hospital. Records indicate that there was a victim arriving at the hospital every eleven seconds. This occurred in a time span of 75 minutes. There were so many bodies that they were lined up in the corridors of the hospital that identification of the victims would have to wait until daybreak. Of the 200 victims to arrive, 150 of them were already dead. The rate of victims arriving at the Boston City hospital was greater than those who arrived at British medical facilities during the blitz over England by the German Luffwaffe. As victims arrived they were immediately administered morphine. If it was determined that a patient was alive an “M” was placed on their foreheads with lipstick. Once there, the victims were given the best medical treatment available at the time. But many of the victims that were placed onto the hospitals beds eventually would die from their injuries. And most would die extremely horrible and painful deaths. Even the famous singing movie star cowboy Buck Jones would die in a bed at the Massachusetts General Hospital of his injuries.
At the scene there was limited space to place the dead who were taken from the club. Officials ordered that the bodies be taken to one of the nearby temporary morgues. One was located in the Film Exchange Transfer Company on Shawmut Street, and the other at the Park Square garage. Bays that had recently been filled with cars were now filled row upon row with the bodies of the dead. Some bodies were hardly touched by the fire and were still attired in their formal wear, while others that were unrecognizable were covered with blankets. Soon long lines would fill the garage as families came to search or identify the bodies of their loved ones. Long lines made their way through the rows of bodies. A request would be made and the blanket would be removed from the corpse for identification. Most of the times a negative silent nod of the head would occur, but in some instances the silence would be shattered by wailing or uncontrolled crying as a loved one was identified and the realization would become terrible sorrow.
The treatment of the victims would be extensive. Blood plasma that would be administered to the victims on the first day of the incident would exceed the plasma used after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This was due to the severity of the victim’s burns and the shock that would ensue. The Red Cross mobilized 500 workers in a 30-minute time period. 500 aides from the nurses aid corps would be utilized, as would 100 registered nurses. Four priests were required to administer last rites to those who arrived. The total amount of dried blood plasma that would be used was 225 units. The blood plasma had previously been gathered from volunteers prior to the fire and was released to the hospital by the Boston chapter of the Blood Donor Center. Immediately the supply needed to be restored and a call for volunteer donations went out to the public. The call for blood resulted in the collection of 3,789 units.
The week prior to the fire, the city of Boston had performed a mock blitz drill, planning for an attack by the German Luffwaffe. This drill provided for an abundance of bandages, plasma, saline solution, oxygen tents and intravenous units on hand. The City of Boston had also developed a disaster tagging system in preparation of an attack from by an unseen enemy. This tagging system was utilized after the fire and proved its worth as the bodies of victims and those taken to the hospital could be kept track of.
From all over the nation inquiries over the telephone lines came pouring in. The telephone operators in Boston were said to have answered over 1,000 calls in an eight-hour period.
Only three of the patients who were admitted to Mass General hospital had no respiratory burns due to fast thinking on their part. Two of the patients had covered their faces with a sweater and a dry cloth, while the other had urinated into a napkin and had covered his face.
Cause and effect
The investigation that followed was large and the true actual cause of the fire has never been determined. Through witness accounts it may have started as a result of the match lit by Stanley Tomaszewski or by an errant cigarette. Sabotage was another angle that was investigated since America was at war. There is another theory that surfaced, but this was based more on people’s imagination than that of fact. This theory stated that due to the great amount of alcohol that was being served on this night that the alcohol vapors collected and ignited adding to the rapid spread of the fire. Another theory that was proposed was that a motion picture film exchange had once occupied the building and that the ignition of the film produced this mysterious death gas. Investigators subsequently found no film in the club thus eliminating the theory.
One interesting fact that the investigators did discover was that an unlicensed electrician had installed the clubs electrical wiring. This lead to investigating whether faulty wiring was the cause of the fire, but nothing could be confirmed. One thing that investigators were sure of was that the improperly installed wiring caused the lights to fail adding to the catastrophe. In the final report on the fire, investigators listed the cause as being of an “undetermined” nature.
The fire at the Coconut Grove would become a major national story that for a short time would eclipse news from the warfront. The investigation into the fire would bring criminal indictments against many involved. Those who would face investigation included the owner (Barnett Welansky), Building Commissioner of the City of Boston, Fire/Police members, the buildings designer, renovation contractor, an electrician, and the foreman in charge of construction on the new lounge and the Melody Room.
A grand jury was convened and out of this 10 indictments were made. But out of the ten indictments only two were ever charged. The unlicensed electrician who had done work at the club turned witness against Barnett Welansky. Testimony stated that Welansky told the electrician not to worry that he “was in with the mayor.” Another fact that had surfaced during the investigation was that the taxes on the club had dropped to $9,000.00 from $18,000.00. Barnett Welansky the owner of the club was found guilty on numerous counts of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to a term of 12 to 15 years. Welansky eventually served less than four years of his term. In December of 1946 Welansky was released from Norfolk Prison after being diagnosed with cancer. He stated to reporters upon his release “I wish I’d died with the others in the fire.” Nine weeks after being released from prison Barnett Welansky succumbed to the effects of cancer.
On a charge of conspiracy to purposely violate building laws, the contractor who had built the new cocktail lounge was sentenced to a term of two years. After the fire many changes resulted in the Building and Life Safety Codes, these included:
The legal proceedings against Barnett Welansky can be found by researching the case of Commonwealth v. Welansky (316 Mass. 383,55 N.E.2nd902 (1944). 463. The trial against Barnett Welansky would produce a conclusion that would be used against many defendants in the future. The conclusion from Comm. v. Welansky was also used against the two defendants responsible for the death of six firefighters at the Worchester Cold Storage facility on December 3, 1999.
The charges brought against Welansky by the state were on the basis of negligence and reckless homicide. Even though Welansky was hospitalized at the time of the fire he was found to have been ultimately responsible as the corporate owner. The main reason for this is that he had approved the design and construction of the building that had exits that were inaccessible or hidden.
The issue pursued in this case by the state was that the deaths occurred as a result of negligence, or was caused due to a lack of attention. The issue was inadequate and improperly located exits. What was established in this case was that common law does not become a criminal case until an act crosses a boundary from negligence or gross-negligence into wanton and reckless behavior or conduct. This is required to establish grounds for the charge of manslaughter. The behavior of Welansky was found to be wanton and reckless due to not providing for the safety of his patrons. The city had approved plans for the club that called for automatic fire doors, but these were never installed during renovations made to the club by Welansky. Welansky had also failed to address defective wiring, installation of flammable decorations, lack of egress points, improperly maintained and insufficient number of exits, and overcrowding. This was the last thing that Welansky failed to address as the owner, and it was seen as an issue of profit over safety. Welansky gave no regard to a substantial and unjustifiable risk. Welansky’s actions or lack thereof resulted in the death of others.
Many years later another case in the State of Massachusetts would revive the case of Commonwealth v. Welansky. The Worcester cold storage facility fire resulted in the death of six firefighters who originally entered the structure to search for the homeless who were suspected of occupying the vacant cold storage structure. The fire was originally started after Julie S. Barnes and Thomas S. Levedque knocked over a candle during an altercation. Their actions resulted in starting a fire. Both fled the building but failed to report the fire. Once firefighters arrived the defendants did nothing to inform firefighters that no one was in the building. Both were charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter.
The states case was based upon the assumption that the defendants had a “duty to report” the fire, and in failing to do so caused firefighters to be placed in “harm's way.” The state charged that the defendant’s reckless and wanton conduct resulted in six deaths worthy of the charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Attorneys for the defendants argued that the grand jury was presented insufficient evidence by the state. The evidence presented had been misleading and unfair against the defendants. Judge Timothy S. Hillman ruled that the defendant’s failure to report the fire did not satisfy the standard for wanton and reckless conduct set forth in Commonwealth vs. Welansky. Hillman’s ruling stated that “The essence of wanton and reckless conduct is intentional conduct, by way either of commission or of omission where there is a duty to act, which conduct involves a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another.”
Judge Hillman’s ruling also stated that “Massachusetts courts have not found a duty to report or extinguish a fire where defendants' failure to do so was merely negligent.”
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