‘I couldn’t see the bulb and I struck a match and put it on and then I stepped away,” said Stanley Tomaszewski, a 16-year-old bus boy. “Then all of a sudden the palm tree seemed to take fire. . . . I was standing on top of the bench when I saw the fire. Some lady said, ‘look, the palm tree is on fire.’ I tried to beat it out with my hands.”
With those words, Tomaszewski provided an account of the opening moments of the Cocoanut Grove fire, one of the most devastating building blazes in American history that saw 492 people killed in Boston on Nov. 28, 1942.
The words of Tomaszewski and others who were in the club and witnessed the tragedy have been brought back to life with the release on Tuesday by Boston police, for the first time publicly, of the transcripts of interviews with survivors. The release comes one month before the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the blaze.
“It’s a nationally important story, but it’s also particularly a Boston story," said Margaret R. Sullivan, the Police Department’s records manager and archivist who spearheaded the effort to release the statements.
Sullivan said she thought the public would benefit from having access to the statements, and that she was struck by accounts of servicemen who were passing by the club as the fire raged and rushed in to provide assistance.
“These people went in and saved lives and sometimes were quite badly injured,” she said.
The fast moving fire destroyed what was then one of Boston’s most elegant nightclubs, on Piedmont Street. An investigation failed to determine the cause.
‘We made for the stairs. The flames were on my heels and crawled right along and spread out.’
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.
Among the released transcripts, which the Boston Public Library has digitized for public viewing online, is an interview with Nick Pagonis, then an ensign with the US Naval Reserve stationed at MIT who went to the club that night with two other men.
“The people went wild,” Pagonis told police in 1942. “We were just battling to keep them back when the smoke got me and someone pulled me out. ... When the firemen came we grabbed the axes and broke windows. It seemed to me that all those rescue workers were in the way. They held back those who wanted to help. The whole picture was very disgusting.”
Other witnesses quoted in the newly released transcripts told police that they were shocked by the speed and force of the blaze.
“I was just coming out of the ladies room and enveloped by smoke,” V. Alice Maulsby, then 22, of Wellesley, told police.
“I never saw anything go so fast. ... My escort was there looking for me and [we] made our way over different people and somebody reached in and said, ‘Come on, sister.’ ”
Roland Sousa, 45, of Salem, told police he was not alarmed when the palm tree caught fire.
“I was just going to sit down and there is a little palm tree in the corner and it started to get aflame, but I didn’t get too excited because I had seen that before and they put it out,” he said.
But this time, he continued, the flame reached the ceiling.
“Yes, started to crawl all around the joint,” he said. “They didn’t stop it. It got ahead of them. So we made for the stairs. The flames were on my heels and crawled right along and spread out and then started smoking.”
Tomaszewski, in his witness account, said he lit a match to help see the light bulb that a bartender had asked him to screw back into its socket.
The bartender, John Bradley, denied in an interview that he had asked Tomaszewski to screw in the bulb, though he also said he told the youth that “it had to be done” after the teenager informed him a patron had taken it out.
Tomaszewski initially denied in an interview with police Captain John F. McCarthy that he lit the match, but admitted doing so later in the interview.
Stephanie Schorow, a veteran reporter and author of “The Cocoanut Grove Fire,” said on Tuesday that the transcripts contradict the popular image of Tomaszewski.
“It was very difficult for him to come forward and talk about it,” said Schorow, a freelance restaurant critic for the Globe who is giving a lecture on the fire at the Boston Public Library on Nov. 14.
“There’s kind of a mythology that he was very forthright about it, but if you read these statements, you’ll see they had to kind of tease it out of him,” she said.Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.