Cocoanut Grove fire, Boston, 1942
Cocoanut Grove fire, Boston, 1942

The deadly fire that swept through a nightclub in southern Brazil and killed at least 231 people was one of the worst such tragedies in that country’s history.

However, more than 70 years ago an even greater nightclub calamity occurred in the United States, killing more than twice as many people as the Brazilian inferno.

On Nov. 28, 1942, 492 people died in a massive fire that swept through The Cocoanut Grove, one of the most prominent nightclubs in Boston, Mass. It remains the second worst such incident in U.S. history, after a fire at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago which caused 602 deaths.

Almost one year into the American involvement in World War II, the catastrophe at the Boston nightclub temporarily dominated newspaper headlines and eventually led to significant changes in safety standards for public venues across the U.S.

Located in the heart of Boston, at 17 Piedmont Street, in the Bay Village neighborhood, the Cocoanut Grove was a speakeasy during Prohibition and became a popular supper club/watering hole during the 1930s and early 1940s, boasting a South Seas tropical motif.

Not surprisingly, the Grove attracted a notorious clientele, including many gangsters, including Charles "King" Solomon, the bootlegging boss. The owner of the club at the time of the fire, Barney Welansky, was connected to both organized crime and the Mayor of Boston, Maurice J. Tobin.

According to a subsequent report prepared by the Boston Fire Commissioner William Arthur Reilly, at least 1,000 people (including many wartime servicemen and civilians celebrating Thanksgiving) were on the premises, more than double the 460-person capacity. Even worse, the nightclub was decorated with many flammable items, including artificial paper tropical trees, cloth draperies and furniture.

The fire -- which media reports claimed started because a young man ignited a match in the dimly lit basement of the bar (called the Melody Lounge) -- spread rapidly in the dark, densely crowded club. (Reilly’s report disputed the match was the cause of the fire.)

The Boston Fire Historical Society then described how the fire spread: “A moment later, several patrons thought they saw a flicker of a flame in the palm tree of the ceiling decorations. As they watched, they saw the decorations change color and appeared to be burning, but without a noticeable flame. After several moments, the palm tree burst into flames and the bartenders tried to extinguish the fire with water and seltzer bottles. Some patrons started for the only public exit from the Melody Lounge, a 4-foot-wide set of stairs leading to the foyer on the first floor.”

Reilly’s report pointed to other unfortunate conditions for the quick and lethal spread of the fire: “Most of the lights on the premises became extinguished immediately upon appearance of the fire. This fact, coupled with the appearance of smoke and flame and the cries of ‘fire’, produced great confusion among the persons present. … A considerable number of deaths was caused by the fact that door opening on Piedmont St., at the top of the stairway… could not be opened by persons who ascended the stairway. … Further deaths were caused by the fact that members of the public were unfamiliar with the location of the exits.”

Many victims died not from burn wounds but rather from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Indeed, in previous years, the club owners had sealed up many exits in order to prevent patrons from leaving without paying (this fact amounted to a death sentence on that fateful day in 1942).

The Reilly report could find no definitive cause for the origin of the fire.

After the disaster, Welansky was convicted of manslaughter charges and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison (he only served about four years after Tobin, the governor of Massachusetts, pardoned him as the prisoner was ravaged by cancer).

The Cocoanut Grove tragedy triggered widespread regulations and building codes of public venues, including the banning of flammable decorations, the installation of unobstructed exit signs, the strict observance of capacity limits and the imposition of heavy fines on establishments that violated such laws.

Ironically, the treatment of the fire’s survivors led to crucial advances in the care and healing of burn patients, including the use of penicillin to fight infection and modern skin grafts.

Dr. Stanley Levenson, who had just graduated from Harvard Medical School, recalled the deadly aftermath of the fire at the Boston City Hospital in a 1992 interview with the Boston Globe.

“I got a call [that] I had to get to ER immediately, something terrible had happened,” Levenson recalled a half century later.

"By the time I got there, two house officers were already at the door, sorting the patients into living and dead, stacking the dead along one side of the hall, the living on the other. Two more house officers were evaluating the living, giving morphine, directing them to surgeries. At one point, it has been calculated, we were receiving a patient every 11 seconds."

More than 50 years after the fire a Boston firefighter named Charles Kenney determined that the fire was likely exacerbated by methyl chloride, a highly flammable gas used in refrigeration systems at the time.

The recent fire in Brazil apparently featured some of the same melancholy narratives as that Boston fire from 1942 – the flames at the club in Santa Maria were reportedly sparked when a member of a musical band lit a flare on stage. In addition, local fire officials suspect that many clubgoers died trapped inside the complex since only one emergency exit was available.