On the 70th anniversary of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, NFPA launches a new effort to collect and conserve the event’s stories and artifacts
Noelle Hanafin (left) and Marie Stamos with the newspaper from 1942 that brought them together. (Photo: Dave Yount/NFPA)
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2012
By Fred Durso, Jr.
Time has not dulled the pain Walter Zenkin, Jr. experiences whenever he’s reminded of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire.
At 82, Zenkin somberly, and vividly, recalls listening to the radio on November 28, 1942, when news of a raging fire at the establishment located in Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood was first broadcast. He knew that his mother, Mary, was at the popular spot that night, and Zenkin, only 12 years old at the time, couldn’t hold back his tears as additional news reports brought further details about the tragedy. His worst fear was realized: His mother was one of the 492 people who would die as a result of the fire. He agreed, then later declined, to accompany his father, Walter Sr., to the morgue to identify his mother’s body, which was burned beyond recognition save for the wedding ring on her finger.
On the day of Mary Zenkin’s funeral, a photographer with the Boston Evening American snapped a photograph of Walter, Jr., his sister, Margaret, and their father leaving Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in East Boston. The photo ran in the paper on December 12, 1942, and captured the moment when a passerby delicately placed a hand on the boy’s face to comfort him. The family kept the photo, but it was lost after they moved into a new home soon after the tragedy.
“My dad has been talking about this photo for years,” says Zenkin’s daughter, Noelle Hanafin, of Burlington, Massachusetts. “With him getting older, this is something he wants to see again, as emotional as it is. My dad still cries about losing his mother every day. He wants closure.”
This past summer, on July 15, The Boston Globe ran a story about the Cocoanut Grove Coalition, which was established by NFPA this year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the fire. The Globe story outlined the goals of the seven-member coalition — a list of participating organizations appears on this page — including its work to organize existing stories, materials, and artifacts on the fire via a new website that it plans to launch in November. Another goal is acquiring new artifacts, documents, and photos that the public may have in its possession.
When Hanafin saw the Globe story, she contacted Sue Marsh, NFPA’s librarian and organizer of the Cocoanut Grove Coalition, and asked her if NFPA could help her track down a copy of the Boston Evening American that included her father’s photograph. Marsh told her she would see what she could do.
As it happened, another Massachusetts resident, Marie Stamos, was cleaning out a closet around that time and came across a stack of old newspapers that her mother had kept. The newspapers all included headlines trumpeting large or historic events, and one of them was the December 12, 1942 edition of the Boston Evening American that was devoted to coverage of the Cocoanut Grove aftermath. Stamos, too, had read the coalition story in the Globe, and when she saw the issue of the Boston Evening American she, too, contacted Marsh about donating the newspaper to NFPA. The yellowed, deteriorating newspaper — a 20-page special edition devoted solely to coverage of the Cocoanut Grove fire — arrived in NFPA’s Charles S. Morgan Library in Quincy, Massachusetts, a week after Hanafin’s request, and it wasn’t long before Marsh connected the dots. Could this be the issue Hanafin was looking for? Marsh flipped through the fragile pages, and there as part of the issue’s center spread was the photo Hanafin had described: her father as a dark-haired boy, his eyes downcast, and a man standing at the bottom of the church steps, reaching out to touch the boy’s cheek following the funeral for Mary Zenkin.
Marsh immediately emailed Hanafin. “Good news! I have found a copy of the Boston Evening American with the photograph,” she wrote. The photo was digitized, added to the coalition’s collection, and a copy was sent to Hanafin. The original newsprint was stored in NFPA’s climate-controlled archive.
Finding the photo “is what this coalition is all about,” says Marsh, who has organized the Cocoanut Grove Coalition and serves as its project manager. “Our goal is to capture, in one place, all that we can so that more items don’t go missing or get destroyed — we need to document and preserve what’s out there. I’d like the new website to be the go-to place for the Cocoanut Grove Fire, a place for families and loved ones to tell their stories or find stories they didn’t know about.”
The decades that have passed since Cocoanut Grove have not diminished the public’s fascination with the event; Marsh says she receives more research requests for Cocoanut Grove than for any other incident.
Mysteries and theories about the fire’s origin only add to the intrigue. What’s known about the incident is that it occurred on a night when upwards of 1,000 people — 400 more than the allowable occupancy — attended the nightclub. The fire started in the building’s basement lounge shortly after 10 p.m., rapidly igniting the ceiling’s combustible decorations as it traveled to a stairway leading to the first floor foyer and main entrance. The fire then spread to the main dining room, causing many patrons to race for the main exit, a revolving door, which was soon clogged by a pile of bodies. In only five minutes, according to the Boston Fire Department’s report on the incident, the building was an inferno from end to end. A cause was never determined.
The lack of definitive answers regarding the fire’s spread has both intrigued and perplexed Paul Christian, coalition member and former commissioner with the Boston Fire Department. For the past 25 years, he’s amassed an extensive collection of departmental records — company fire reports and response records, to name a few — as well as hundreds of images related to the fire. “I have many unanswered questions about the fire,” says Christian, a lifelong South Boston resident. “Some areas of the club were totally flashed over, yet in the main dining room...you have combustibles that never ignited — menus, music scores, wooden chairs. That’s what’s so great about this project is that the coalition is able to get its arms around everything that’s out there for future research [on the fire].”
Another benefit of the project, Marsh says, is that it will create a central clearinghouse for the mountain of material that was once scattered throughout the Boston metro area. NFPA, for example, has acquired copies of blueprints of the building that housed Cocoanut Grove, a number of articles on the subject, a listing of the deceased, and a series of photos.
Contributions are coming from other coalition members, too. The Boston Public Library has contributed photographs, interviews with survivors, and other research materials. Massachusetts General Hospital has provided access to its Cocoanut Grove collection, including an extensive bibliography of scholarly articles on the advances of burn treatments since the fire, as well as related books and photographs. The City of Boston Archives has identified Cocoanut Grove-related city records and building permits in its files. Cocoanut Grove relics in the Boston Fire Museum have been photographed and digitized, and the Boston Fire Historical Society has made available a rich collection of documents from the Boston Fire Department, including personal stories and engine company fire reports. “These institutions have resources, but not enough to amount to a major website,” says Marsh. “Together, we can pull together these bits and pieces to give the public as much information on the fire as we can identify.”
While documenting the rich history of Cocoanut Grove, the site also underscores various outcomes of the fire — from advances in burn treatment to impacts on NFPA’s codes and standards. Prior to the tragedy, for instance, many jurisdictions did not classify restaurants and nightclubs as places of public assembly. The fire exemplified the possible dangers associated with these establishments and led to the increased use of the Building Exits Code, the precursor to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. The Building Exits Code was eventually strengthened to include provisions involving stairways, exits, lighting, and signage.
Another historic event that preceded the fire also affected the city’s response to the tragedy. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor a year earlier, the federal government initiated a campaign urging cities to prepare for a series of possible disasters. For example, the local chapter of the Red Cross worked in conjunction with the fire department and other city agencies to mobilize about 500 volunteers within 30 minutes of the fire, according to the chapter’s December 1942 newsletter.
Other lesser-known aspects of the fire — particularly its cause and peculiar flame spread — might benefit from the coalition’s fact-finding mission. Marsh says the group isn’t focused on solving these mysteries but would encourage other interested parties to use the new information to initiate research projects. “If we can get as much information as we can in one place, it might be a way for someone to use it and to determine possible answers to some of these questions,” she says.
In the meantime, the project has already generated new testimonials from Cocoanut Grove survivors, including nightclub attendees and dancers with harrowing stories of how they escaped the flames. Marsh has also received a wealth of new materials for the coalition’s collection, including a menu and ticket stubs from the night of the fire.
Hanafin says she’s grateful to the Coalition and was elated to show her father the photo he assumed was unattainable. She was also surprised at the emotional impact the photograph had on her. “I’d heard this story for so many years, but the photo made me realize that my dad had lost his mother — it really hit home,” she says. “I don’t think I really understood it until I saw him walking down those steps of the church from his mother’s funeral.”
As for her father, she says, the photograph did what she’d hoped it would do. “He was a little emotional after seeing it, then he said, ‘Wow, I was really handsome back then,’” says Hanafin with a laugh. “I feel it’s brought him some sense of peace.”
Fred Durso, Jr. is staff writer for NFPA Journal.
Recipe for Disaster
Too many people and combustibles, and too few exits contributed to a night of horror
It didn’t look like much from the outside — the original structure had been built as a garage and later housed a film distribution business — but in 1942 the Cocoanut Grove nightclub was the hub of Boston nightlife. Located on the edge of the city’s theater district, the two-level space included three bars and lounges, a dining/dance area, and kitchen and storage space, all spanning nearly 10,000 square feet (929 square meters). The walls were covered in imitation leather, fake palm trees ringed the dance floor, and furnishings sported zebra stripes. The house band swung, and there was a cadre of lithe Cocoanut Grove dancers. A well-mixed drink was 50 cents, and a steak was $2. The club hosted movie stars, popular singers, politicians, mob figures, enlisted men on leave, and droves of locals out for a good time. It was crowded, noisy, smoky, and hot, and Bostonians loved it.
On the evening of Saturday, November 28, 1942, an estimated 1,000 people or more jammed Cocoanut Grove, roughly double its allowed capacity. Many had attended the Holy Cross – Boston College football game earlier in the day, played at Fenway Park, and were celebrating (or trying to forget) Holy Cross’s stunning upset of top-ranked BC. The cowboy movie star Buck Jones was in the house.
Fire broke out in the crowded Melody Lounge, located in the club’s basement, at about 10:15 p.m. “Within a minute the fire had spread to the foyer upstairs. By 10:18 p.m., the main dining area was embroiled,” writes NFPA Journal contributor Stephanie Schorow in her book The Cocoanut Grove Fire. “Two minutes later, fire raced through [a] passageway into the Broadway Lounge” — meaning that the fire had covered 225 feet (69 meters), involving both floors of the building end to end, in about five minutes. The first victim reached Boston City Hospital by 10:35 p.m., and firefighters had the fire under control 10 minutes later.
A number of possible causes for the fire were examined during the official investigation, but none were conclusive. Regardless of its origin, the fire spread with tremendous force, in part the result of highly combustible furnishings and interior decorations.
Witnesses recall seeing a giant fireball, white or bright orange or bluish-yellow, rip through the dining room, filling the air with fire in an instant. People died where they sat, or made frantic dashes for the exits — or where they thought exits would be. In fact, some of the exit doors were locked; another had been concealed and locked; and other doors that led to exits opened inward, creating immediate pileups. The club’s main entrance/exit was a revolving door where many people made their escape — until it was overwhelmed by the crush of people and jammed, trapping everyone behind it. Others, the fortunate who were not trampled, incinerated, or overcome by the thick, acrid smoke, found alternate ways out, like the basement window that led to a small courtyard. The fire’s duration may have been brief, but the outcome was catastrophic: Cocoanut Grove would claim 492 lives — 200 perished within feet of the jammed revolving doors — making it the deadliest fire in New England history. It remains the nation’s deadliest nightclub fire, and in the broader category of public assembly and nightclub fires it is surpassed only by the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago in 1903, which killed 602.
Unlike some earlier landmark fires, like the Triangle Waist Co. fire in New York in 1911, Cocoanut Grove did not result in significant changes to NFPA codes; the Building Exits Code, the precursor to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, already addressed the types of hazards present at the club. Local fire and safety codes, however, in Boston and in municipalities throughout the country, underwent sweeping changes, including the reclassification of nightclubs and restaurants as places of public assembly, which is how they were already regarded in the Building Exits Code. The change introduced more stringent requirements for exits, emergency lighting, occupancy capacities, and other safety features.
The issue of code enforcement came under intense scrutiny following Cocoanut Grove, and Boston was found especially lacking. In a newspaper story two days after the fire, Robert S. Moulton, technical secretary of NFPA and author of the association’s report on the blaze, described the “chaotic condition” of the city’s building laws, which he maintained were subject to “incompetent enforcement, political influence, and careless management.” The calamity of Cocoanut Grove, he went on to say, “is clearly due to gross violation of several fundamental principles of fire safety, which have been demonstrated by years of experience in other fires, and which should be known to everybody.” Underscoring Moulton’s assessment was a fire-safety inspection of Cocoanut Grove, conducted by the city eight days before the fire, that pronounced the club’s condition “good”: There were an adequate number of exits, the inspection found, and the interior decorations were not combustible.
In 1943, club owner Barnett Welansky was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of 19 Cocoanut Grove patrons and sentenced to 12–15 years in prison; ill with cancer, he was pardoned in 1946 and died two months after his release. The trial included much discussion of the factors that could have produced such a violent fire, but a conclusive explanation was never produced. The official cause of the fire in Boston Fire Department records is listed as “unknown.”
— Scott Sutherland