Monday marks the 80th anniversary of one of the most devastating fires in Boston’s history.
On Nov. 28, 1942, a fire broke out at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, killing nearly 500 people.
On Monday at 3 p.m. Mayor Michelle Wu, City Council President Ed Flynn, and Fire Commissioner Paul Burke will join the relatives of the victims and survivors of the fire at a remembrance ceremony at the former site of the club on Piedmont Street in Bay Village.
“This is the 80th anniversary of the fire, an event in Boston’s history that should be remembered and preserved with honor,” said Michael Hanlon of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, a nonprofit that was established in 2015. “Not only a tragedy, but because of the fire many innovations were instituted in Boston regarding fire and public safety, building codes, along with major advances in the treatment of burn care that were adopted worldwide. That’s what we are gathering for.”
Hanlon said there are two known survivors: Joyce Spector, who will be represented by her daughter at the ceremony, and Bob Shumway who lives in Naples, Fla., who will also be represented by his daughter.
“Both survivors are in their mid-90s,” he said. “Both appear on our website.”
All these decades later, many questions remain about the fire, and several myths persist, according to Stephanie Schorow, author of the recently published book “The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire: A Boston Tragedy.”
Schorow said one of the myths involves the college football game that was played at Fenway Park on that fateful day. Boston College lost to Holy Cross by a score of 55 to 12, and according to local lore, the Boston College team canceled their plans for a celebration at the Cocoanut Grove that night due to the loss, thereby avoiding the tragic fire.
But that story didn’t sit right with Schorow. With the help of Cocoanut Grove researcher David Blaney, Schorow found newspaper accounts reporting that a team party for Boston College was actually held at the Hotel Statler that night.
It’s possible some BC players may have planned to meet up at the Cocoanut Grove later, Schorow said, “but that is speculation.” She also noted that the previous year, in 1941, BC’s team celebration was indeed held at the Cocoanut Grove, “which may have helped fuel the myth.”
“But the story of how a terrible defeat saved BC lives has been repeated so many times it’s engrained into the history of the doomed nightclub,” she said. “I think it underscores a greater truth — that we humans are desperate to see meaning even in horrific events and we have to believe in a divine purpose for all our lives.”
Schorow said another myth about the fire is that it was caused by a mysterious gas that spread through the club. But the cause of the fire is officially “unknown,” she said.
The fire was first seen around 10:15 p.m. in the Melody Lounge, located in the basement of the club. A small flare or spark was seen burning in an artificial palm tree in one corner of the lounge, which then ignited the suspended cloth ceiling of the lounge.
Moments before that, a busboy had reached into the palm tree to screw in a light bulb, and he lit a match so he could see in the dark and locate the socket.
While evidence suggests that the lighting of the match or the act of screwing in the light bulb may have sparked the fire, the busboy was ultimately exonerated by investigators. In 1943, state Fire Marshal Stephen Garrity cleared the busboy of blame, stating, “It is clear to me that he did not ignite the palm tree in the Melody Lounge.”
“Well, truth is, we still don’t understand the dynamics of this fire,” Schorow said. “Some speculate that a gas called methyl chloride escaped from a refrigerator and caused a fire ball, but this doesn’t entirely explain the fire’s trajectory.”
What we do know is, according to Schorow, “the fire moved at a speed that baffles fire engineers and experts to this day.”
Even the total number of fatalities in the Cocoanut Grove tragedy remains a topic of debate today, as different figures have been used over the years. While many published reports (including those in the Globe) have said that 492 people perished in the fire, the real number is 490, according to Hanlon.
Hanlon said the reason for the discrepancy had to do with duplications in the early casualty lists compiled by news organizations. (One woman had taken her stepfather’s last name, but then reverted back to her given name, so she was mistakenly counted twice; the same thing happened to another man who changed his Italian last name to a more American version, Hanlon said.)
They are among the many victims who will be honored at Monday’s ceremony.
Hanlon said the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee is working with the city to erect a memorial that will be a replica of the three archways that a patron would walk through to get to the revolving door entrance to the nightclub. It would be located in Statler Park on Stuart Street and will feature the names of the 490 victims who died as a result of the fire, he said.
The Cocoanut Grove vigil will start at 3 p.m. Monday at 17 Piedmont St. in Boston, and the public is welcome to attend. After the outdoor ceremony, a coffee reception and screening of the documentary film “Six Locked Doors: The Legacy of Cocoanut Grove” will be held at the Revere Hotel. Another screening of the documentary will be held Monday at 7 p.m. at the Showcase SuperLux Chestnut Hill cinema, and tickets for that are available here.