A match was lighted so that a missing light bulb could be replaced. The fire that raced across the ceiling would quickly spread to engulf the entire night club, Boston’s swanky Cocoanut Grove, on Nov. 28, 1942. Officials needed days to tally the dead, eventually reaching a shocking total of 492 victims, with many more injured. The club had been well beyond capacity, with over 1,000 patrons crowded into three main rooms. Doors for escape had been locked, and people were trapped by those and by thick brick glass windows. The tragedy led to changes nationally in fire safety codes and advanced the practice of treating burn victims. It remains the worst fire in Boston history.
In the photo above, from Dec. 3, 1942, workers at the Commission on Public Safety at 9 Park St. catalogued the dead. Commission staff and over 200 volunteers aided in operating the information service and the file for civilian identification. The dead were divided into three groups: Army, Navy, and civilian. The Army victims were taken to Fort Banks, Winthrop; the Navy victims to the Marine Hospital in Brighton and to the Chelsea Naval Hospital; and civilian victims were brought to the local morgues, the Southern Mortuary on Albany Street and the Northern Mortuary on North Grove Street. All of the 492 dead had been identified 89 hours and 40 minutes after the alarm was sounded at 10:20 p.m. on Saturday.