EDITOR’S NOTE — The flames began, witnesses said, in or around an artificial palm tree in a downstairs lounge of a Boston nightclub full of an estimated 1,000 people. It took less than two minutes for flames and heat to roar upstairs.
Some patrons of the 1½-story Cocoanut Grove nightclub managed to make their way to the roof and jump to the street, landing on top of parked cars, according to Associated Press coverage of the fire that blazed late on Nov. 28, 1942. But many died as fleeing patrons jammed a single revolving door. Other escape doors were locked or swung inward, making them useless against a wall of people.
The result was what still stands today as the nation’s deadliest nightclub fire, a disaster that killed 492 people and led to stricter enforcement of fire codes and to innovations in the treatment of burn victims.
The AP was on the scene almost immediately. One of the reporters, Harry C. Glasheen, embedded himself in the rescue crews and helped carry some of the dead from the building.
Below is a version of his first-person account from that harrowing night 75 years ago:
BOSTON — My hands are trembling all over this typewriter keyboard as the reaction sets in to a night of almost indescribable horror.
I “covered” the Cocoanut Grove fire which was one of the worst conflagrations in this Nation’s history and certainly the worst nightclub fire.
I can still hear the screams of the dying. I still can recall the stories of the living torches running wildly about trying to get away from the swift-reaching flames and suffocating smoke. I can still see those 30 or more bodies huddled on the floor of a garage, transformed into a morgue, some of them so horribly burned it will difficult, if ever, to identify them positively.
For more than 36 hours I have been on duty.
I was ordered to the scene within minutes after the fire was reported as a four-alarm blaze.
Leaving a taxi not far from the fire, I fought my way down narrow Piedmont Street right to the main entrance of the club.
It was impossible to get through the entrance immediately because firemen and volunteers were coming out of the building in a staggering stream with the dead and dying. At first there was a shortage of stretchers and it was necessary to use overcoats to carry out the victims.
Two firemen were lying on the floor inside a window, putting a line of water on the fire so that it could be cooled sufficiently to remove the trapped persons.
Finally the smoke and fire subsided long enough to allow a fireman to chop down the window sill and we began the task of removal.
I half leaned over into the building to grasp bodies dragged to the window by firemen. These were hoisted through the window and onto waiting stretchers. One Catholic priest asked me to notify him of any of the living. Of the 20 or more which I helped take out at this point I saw signs of life only in two, one a man and one a woman.
A Navy man was standing beside me with an armful of blankets to cover the bodies. We covered one, a man who looked to be dead, and as the blanket was pulled up over his face he shouted, “Don’t smother me.”
The body of a woman appeared to move slightly and then she moaned as we placed her on the stretcher. She was marked “emergency, rush” and hurried away to a hospital.
Most of the people I saw at this point seemed to have been suffocated.
I took time out to call to the office and came back to the rear of the building, across the street from which had been set up an emergency morgue in a garage.
I counted 32 bodies, some frightfully burned, which were piled in rows against the wall. Some of these were nearly nude and all had suffered burns of lesser or greater degree.
Outside, the military had unofficially taken over and were battling with a milling mob containing people who thought they had friends and relatives in the gutted building.
Returning to the Piedmont Street entrance, I went inside to give further assistance, for we were just informed that it was possible to get bodies out of the cellar.
The smoke was still very thick as we fought our way over toward the entrance to the Melody Lounge. Mayor Maurice J. Tobin of Boston was at my side and suddenly I stepped into a hole that trapped one of my feet. I wrenched free and started to the head of the stairs but tripped over a chair and narrowly escaped plunging down the steps.
As I backed away a sailor was wrenching from the wall some sort of a switch box that hampered our rescue work. As he gave a tug a table toppled over and smashed down on one of my feet. Fortunately I was wearing a pair of steel-toed safety shoes.
At this point, order seemed to be more nearly restored and we went at the work of taking the bodies out of the cellar. It was still difficult to see because of the smoke which was still pretty thick.
When the last body was reported out, I looked around the room of the ground floor. It was a shambles. Chairs and tables were upended, crockery and glassware was strewn everywhere, the same as if a tornado had whistled through the room.
I was ordered to one of the large hospitals where many had been taken and here again the scene was heart-rending as people sought to get some word of their loved ones.
Some of the stories told by survivors were unforgettable. Richard W. Davis of Brookline, an estimator at the Fore River shipyard, said he and his wife escaped by crawling on their hands and knees into the cellar of the club and then squeezing through a tiny window.
“The fire spread with terrific rapidity,” Davis said. “Before we went to the cellar I looked back at the dance floor. People were fighting to get out of the club. Pandemonium is the only word I can think of, and I must say the scene did no credit to the male sex.”
Joseph Lawrence Ford, a second class petty officer in the Navy, stationed at Portsmouth, N.H., said he entered the burning building by breaking a window and jumping inside. He added:
“I crawled along on my hands and knees and then I bumped into five forms. All were moaning and some were twisting around on the floor, clawing at their throats.”
Ford, who reported he rescued three women and two men, said he found the body of a naval lieutenant, almost naked, buried beneath a dozen others, and believed the officer had had the clothes torn from his back while trying to quiet the hysterical crowd.”