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Victims of Cocoanut Grove fire remembered on 80th anniversary

A memorial service was held at the site of the Cocoanut Grove Fire at a ceremony to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the infamous fire, which killed 490 people on the night of Nov. 28, 1942.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Donald B. Hurwitz was 8 months old when his parents were killed in the raging fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in 1942.

Now 80, Hurwitz on Monday wrapped tefillin — small, leather boxes attached to leather straps worn during Jewish prayer — around his left arm as he stood at the site of the club where his parents perished.

Hurwitz’s parents, Earl and Evelyn Cohen, lived in Roxbury and went to the club that night. They never returned.

“Who adopted me was my mother’s brother and his wife,” Hurwitz said.

With a blue yarmulke on his head and Rabbi Yosef Zaklos of the Chabad of Downtown Boston at his side, Hurwitz recited the Shema prayer in Hebrew after a ceremony to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the infamous fire, which killed 490 people on the night of Nov. 28, 1942.

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A wreath of red, white, and blue flowers hung on the lamp post at the former site of the club on Piedmont Street in Bay Village.

“It’s hard to imagine a more devastating tragedy,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said. “Without the bravery, urgency, and heroism of the Boston Fire Department and police officers and military personnel who rushed to their aid, we would be mourning many more than 490.”

Wu was joined at Monday’s ceremony by City Council President Ed Flynn, former mayor Ray Flynn, and fire Commissioner Paul Burke, as well as relatives of victims and survivors.

“As a youngster in the Boston Public Schools, we were taught in second grade when we were doing fire drills that panic was a big cause of the fire at Cocoanut Grove,” said former Boston fire commissioner Paul Christian. “It was a little bit more than that, but it’s always good advice. Whether you’re going to a hotel or a restaurant, or any lounge, always check out your surroundings. See where the exits are and know what you’re going to do when the lights go out.”

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Richard Rosenthal and his sister Lesley Kaufman held a photograph of their mother, Joyce Spector, who narrowly escaped the Cocoanut Grove Fire.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

At the ceremony, Ray Flynn said the story of the terrible blaze touched people around the globe.

“Wherever I went, if I was in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, wherever, I would always look for a firefighter so I could ask them, ‘Do you know about Cocoanut Grove?’ and they’d say, ‘Are you kidding me? We know that story as well as any story that we ever heard.’ You know what? That’s because of you. That’s because of the people in Boston.”

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, which then ignited a suspended cloth ceiling.

Moments before that, a busboy had reached into the palm tree to screw in a light bulb, lighting a match so he could locate the socket in the dark.

Joyce Spector Mekelburg, one of two known remaining survivors of the fire, was inside the Melody Lounge at the time with “the man she loved,” Justin Charles Morgan, said her daughter Lesley Kaufman.

Kaufman read a statement from Mekelburg, now 98.

Flower petals rested on the memorial on Piedmont Street.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

“Justin died that night trying to help put out the fire that started over our heads,” Mekelburg wrote. “The reason I did not die with him was only because he sent me up to get the beautiful leopard coat that my father had made for me. Justin stayed to put out the fire, saying he would be along in just a minute.”

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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. In 1943, state Fire Marshal Stephen Garrity cleared the busboy of blame, saying it was clear “he did not ignite the palm tree in the Melody Lounge.”

“The official cause of this fire is unknown,” Casey Grant, executive director emeritus of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, said in a talk several years ago. “The big mystery is why did it spread so rapidly? Why did this fire burn so rapidly, so violently, in such a short amount of time?”

Michael Hanlon of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, said the nonprofit is working with the city to build a memorial that will be a replica of the three archways patrons walked through to reach the revolving door entrance to the club. It would be located in Statler Park on Stuart Street and will feature the names of the 490 victims, he said.

Kaufman, who attended the ceremony with her brother Richard Rosenthal and other family members of victims and survivors, said she is glad a memorial is being planned.

“I think it’s high time,” Kaufman said. “I’m very grateful that this committee is doing all this hard work to make it happen.”

Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

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Bailey Allen can be reached at bailey.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @baileyaallen.