More than eight decades after the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire shook Boston and overturned national fire safety protocols, community members broke ground Sunday on a memorial honoring the nearly 500 killed.
More than 100 people — including the families of victims and survivors — filled the pathways in Statler Park, marking the 81st anniversary of the club fire, which broke out the evening of Nov. 28, 1942, and killed at least 490 attendees.
Paul Miller, president of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, welcomed the crowd just after 1 p.m., noting that he recognized many descendants of the fire victims. Also in attendance were Mayor Michelle Wu, City Council President Ed Flynn, and Councilor Erin Murphy.
“If you’re here today, you’re part of the Cocoanut Grove community,” Miller said. “The legacy of that night will always be in our hearts.”
Lesley Kaufman spoke on behalf of her mother, 99-year-old Joyce Mekelburg, who narrowly escaped the basement lounge. Kaufman said her mother, who was 18 and lost her fiancé to the inferno, long resisted returning to the site of the club or its planned memorial.
“She was in the area regularly, but the pain was just too great,” Kaufman said. “She never talked about it. I didn’t know about it until I was a teenager.”
Kaufman said the memorial will serve as a place for affected families to remember and reflect, and it will help educate younger generations on the tragedy and the “great many advances that came from it.”
The blaze broke out during the first Thanksgiving weekend since the United States entered World War II.
The fire was spotted around 10:15 p.m., as flames engulfed an artificial palm tree in the club’s Melody Lounge, located in its basement. The cause of the blaze remains unknown, but witnesses reported seeing a busboy who was screwing a lightbulb into the palm tree, lighting a match to see the socket.
Florence Zimmerman, a 22-year-old from Dorchester, was on a date in the Melody Lounge that night, according to her cousin, 73-year-old Leonard Golder. Golder said “the cousin I never got to know” was sitting just a few feet from the palm tree when the fire broke out.
“They were at ground zero,” Golder said.
In an interview after the program, Golder said he hopes the memorial will give onlookers a sense of the era and an appreciation for how far fire codes have progressed. He said the city has done well at preventing repeated tragedies, but officials need to remain vigilant to prevent new ones.
Many of those killed were crushed in a panicked stampede to escape through the nightclub’s revolving doors. Some of the club’s emergency exits had also been locked to prevent entrance without a ticket; others only opened inward and were jammed shut by thick crowds attempting to push them open.
Of hundreds of survivors, only two remain alive today, according to Miller.
Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, Kaufman said she plans to bring her children and grandchildren to the park once the memorial is complete. She said memory of the blaze seems to be fading, especially among those without a direct connection.
“It’s long overdue,” Kaufman said. “It’s something that should always be remembered.”
As the program began, attendees passed around printed renderings of the planned memorial: a brushed steel and high-strength glass replica of the three archways patrons would pass through on their way to the club’s revolving door — itself a crucial chokepoint as crowds attempted to flee.
On its surface, 490 stone nameplates will be mounted, each about an inch tall and some more than a foot wide, Miller said in an interview before the event. The memorial is expected to be installed next September.
The fire triggered a wave of new building safety codes, which spread across the country. Those changes included requiring illuminated exit signs, bright enough to be seen through thick smoke; exterior doors open outward; and traditional doors be installed on either side of revolving doors to prevent crowds from becoming jammed.
In an interview, Miller said that along with remembering those lost, it is important to “celebrate the amazing things that came out of this tragedy,” like some of the earliest use of penicillin to treat burn victims — opening the door to its use within the US military.
Miller said changes to local and national fire codes, also prompted by the fire, continue to save lives, “whether you know it or not.”
In her remarks, Wu noted a six-alarm fire that broke out in Dorchester on Saturday, which displaced nearly 30 residents and sent one person to the hospital. Wu said much of the firefighters’ work to combat that blaze can be traced directly back to lessons from the Cocoanut Grove fire.
“On a weekend when so many are just relaxing, enjoying those leftover turkey sandwiches,” Wu said, “It was once again our first responders who were called.”