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Clues sought for cause of 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Corinne Anderson (left), Casey Grant, and Sue Marsh are gathering Cocoanut Grove artifacts at the National Fire Protection Association.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Corinne Anderson (left), Casey Grant, and Sue Marsh are gathering Cocoanut Grove artifacts at the National Fire Protection Association.

It was over in minutes.

The fire began in the nightclub’s basement Melody Lounge and swept upstairs into the main dining room, where a fireball shot through the packed space and into a cocktail lounge opened only days earlier. Hundreds banged helplessly on locked exits and piled up inside a jammed revolving door.

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The fire that destroyed the Cocoanut Grove that cold night of Nov. 28, 1942, killed 492 people. It was and remains the worst fire in New England history.

An investigation failed to determine the cause. Club owner Barnett Welansky was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, setting the legal precedent that a conscious failure to address dangerous conditions was basis enough for guilt.

Still, fundamental questions remain. How did the fire start, and why did it spread so quickly? Why did it stay close to the ceiling of the dining room, leaving tablecloths and menus untouched? Who wrote threatening letters to investigators seeking the truth?

As the fire’s 70th anniversary approaches, a local group of librarians and historians hopes to find clues that will shed new insight on those long-held mysteries and make the facts available to future researchers.

The Cocoanut Grove Coalition formed early this year with two goals: creating a central online access point for materials about the fire, located in the collections of archives and museums across Greater Boston, and gathering previously unknown writings, recordings, photographs, and recollections.

“One of my concerns is that we’re getting further and further away . . . from the fire itself, and materials are being lost,” said Sue Marsh, librarian for the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association, who formed the coalition.

“It’s possible that by bringing together artifacts that we don’t know actually still exist that we’ll have a better chance of . . . determining what the cause of the fire was,” she said.

Casey Grant, program director for the Fire Protection Research Foundation, an affiliate of the National Fire Protection Association, has written several articles on the Cocoanut Grove fire.

This photo is part of the collection from which researchers hope to find clues. The coalition wants to launch its website in time for the November anniversary of the blaze.

NATIONAL FIRE PROTECTION ASSOCIATION

This photo is part of the collection from which researchers hope to find clues. The coalition wants to launch its website in time for the November anniversary of the blaze.

Each time one is published, Grant said, someone comes forward to tell him of material in an attic or storage space related to the fire, but in the past there has not always been a process to get those items into an appropriate collection.

Sometimes it is not even clear what materials each institution already has, Grant said, and that is another issue the coalition is working to resolve.

“We want to figure out who’s got what and pool our resources, and then from that we feel confident that we’ll be able to start identifying more, and the inertia will be there to find out about the stuff in people’s attics,’’ Grant said.

Coalition members also say a central online portal is badly needed by the many scholars interested in researching the fire, who range from professionals to graduate students to undergrads and even high school students.

Marsh said the Cocoanut Grove fire is the number-one topic that people request information on from the Fire Protection Association. Stephanie Schorow, a former Boston Herald reporter who wrote a 2005 book about the fire, said she hears regularly from students seeking help.

Though 70 years have passed and most who survived the fire have since died, Schorow said she still hears occasionally from someone with a personal story.

Just last year, she interviewed a survivor who was 16 on that November night in 1942. The woman escaped with non-life threatening injuries, but her parents, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s father died.

Schorow, who is vice president of the Boston Fire Historical Society, is hopeful that others may still come forward. “There may be some deathbed confessions,” she said. “We don’t know.”

The coalition hopes to launch the new website in time for the November anniversary of the fire and to continue adding materials in preparation for a larger commemoration upon the 75th anniversary in 2017.

The fire, members say, is important for many reasons. It was a horror that touched the lives of thousands in Greater Boston and across the country, but it also led to better fire safety regulations, improved emergency preparedness, and advances in burn treatment.

But not everyone took the lessons to heart. Cocoanut Grove scholars were horrified by the February 2003 fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I.

“Reading it, it was almost the same type thing — slow reaction to the start of a fire, a combustible interior finish, the lack of adequate egresses,” said Paul Christian, a former Boston fire commissioner and a member of the historical society.

“Just the same Cocoanut Grove fire rewritten all these years later.”

Christian hopes the coalition can collect materials to help answer the questions that nag at him, such as why the fire burned in a selective pattern, obliterating some areas of the club while leaving others intact.

These mysteries, Schorow said, are the key to the fire’s lasting public fascination.

“It’s a horrible tragedy, but it’s compelling because there are so many stories about it, and there’s so much mystery still about it,” Schorow said. “When I do the research, I just feel the weight of these victims demanding to be heard. Justice still hasn’t been rendered on that case.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox
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