The Pittsburgh Press (November 30, 1942)
CABARET DEATH TOLL 479
Grand jury action hinted by officials
Nightclub holocaust started by busboy lighting match
Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
State and county officials started an investigation today into the fire at the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub that claimed 479 lives and injured at least 170, and announced the matter would be placed before a grand jury if evidence of crime was found.
District Attorney William J. Foley concluded a conference with State Fire Marshal Stephen J. Garrity with the announcement that he had directed the marshal to investigate all aspects of the fire.
Mr. Garrity will begin his investigation immediately into all of the aspects of the fire and any evidence of crime disclosed by the investigation will be presented to the grand jury that convenes Wednesday.
Practical joker blamed
The person indirectly responsible for the disaster was an unidentified practical joker who may have paid with his life; the person immediately but innocently responsible was a 16-year-old busboy.
The practical joker, a drunk, unscrewed a lightbulb. The busboy, called to replace the bulb, lighted a match to see the socket. An artificial palm tree blazed up and the fire swept through the cabaret.
But what interested an investigating board headed by Mayor Maurice J. Tobin were the facts that the flames swept through the story-and-a-half structure by way of its tinder-dry decorations and draperies with frightening speed and that scores were trampled and smothered to death in the jam of flailing, screaming, fighting humanity that piled up and blocked the four exits.
Among worst disasters
The board’s first finding was that the club had been inspected, along with all other nightclubs, two weeks ago, following another nightclub fire in which six firemen were killed. The results of that inspection were not revealed.
It was already among the worst disasters in the nation’s history and the long list of critically burned and injured in hospitals indicated the entire death toll was not yet reckoned. Of the more than 150 in hospitals, many, including the star of Western movies, Buck Jones, were in critical condition. The Massachusetts Public Safety Commission feared that at least 30 of these would die, which would make the toll at least 500 dead.
96 bodies unidentified
Only one fire in American history took a greater toll – that which destroyed the Iroquois Theater in Chicago in 1903 and killed 575 persons.
Of the dead, 96 bodies remained unidentified. Sorrowing relatives of missing persons filed through two morgues all night, some of them fainting, others screaming in horror, upon recognizing a partly-charred corpse. Some bodies had been so reduced by flames that they will probably be identified only by the process of elimination – matching of the names of missing persons and their sex against remnants of bodies.
Many unidentified bodies were those of women and girls. They had been dressed in flimsy evening clothes and of course did not have purses of the sort that contain cards and papers which would assist in establishing their identities.
Many students perished
The difficulty of identifying the bodies and also the class and age of the victims was demonstrated in Wellesley College authorities sending its physician, Dr. Elizabeth Broyles, to the two morgues in search of four missing students – Miss Margaret Whitson, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J. Barclay Whitson of Moylan, Pennsylvania; Miss Sadie Fors, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Eric H. Fors of Worchester, Massachusetts; Miss Jacqueline Weiss, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Herman Weiss of Cincinnati; and Miss Alean Winkleman, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Winkleman, of Philadelphia.
Among the identified dead was Miss Helen Welch, 17, daughter of Vincent Welch (a vice president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, of Port Washington, Long Island), a student at Radcliffe College. Her escort, Allen L. Kluber, 18, of New York, Harvard sophomore, died with her. They were only two of the several score undergraduates of the Boston environs’ many colleges and universities who perished.
1,000 jammed in club
The Boston Saturday nightclub crowds are always predominantly collegiate and last Saturday night, they were even more so because the big football game, between Boston College and Holy Cross, had attracted an enormous crowd, and Holy Cross’ upset victory had put a large segment of it in a mood for celebrating.
Well over 1,000 were jammed into the Cocoanut Grove, which, although it was founded by the gangster “King Kong” Solomon, is Boston’s most fashionable. It is entered by two revolving doors set side by side and giving into a small foyer. To the right of the foyer is a bar, and in its far wall is the entrance to the restaurant and dance floor, where the floor shows are staged. Adjoining the restaurant in the diagonally opposite corner of the building from the foyer is a cocktail lounge, and in the basement, another bar, called the Melody Lounge.
Inebriate starts it
There is a small door from the street into the ground floor cocktail lounge. That, the two revolving doors and an exit from the part of the basement devoted to storage and service and no wider than the door of a telephone booth, were the only exits.
This space was jampacked Saturday night, mainly with college boys and girls, exuberantly shouting and singing and generally having a good time. Down in the Melody Lounge, a guest who had one too many, climbed on a chair and unscrewed an electric lightbulb from its socket, throwing the room in partial darkness.
A waiter summoned Stanley F. Tomaszewski, 16, a high school student who works as a busboy at the club Friday and Saturday nights, and told him to screw the bulb back in place.
Busboy burns hands
Young Tomaszewski, in an alleged confession, told authorities:
A man in a mixed party, you know, men and women, reached up and turned off a light.
I started to screw it back in, but it fell out of the socket when I touched it. I held it in my hand and lit a match to find the socket and started screwing the bulb back in. Somehow, the match fell out of my hand and I guess it dropped into an imitation palm that was under the bench I was standing on.
The youth said he stepped down off the bench and heard a woman yell “Fire!” That was when he first noticed the blaze.
I tried to put it out with my hands and I burned ‘em both. Then there was a big puff of flame.
Burning girl screams ‘fire’
In an instant, the flames had shot along the rows of trees and up the stairs, fed by draperies, the heavy plush carpet, enveloping every room.
The first intimation the 300 persons, jammed in the dining room where the floor show was about to begin under Master-of-Ceremonies Mickey Alpert, had of approaching disaster was a girl who staggered out on the dance floor, her hair and dress aflame screaming: “Fire.”
Instantly there was an insane dash to the foyer revolving doors. One was locked, but it was equipped with a so-called “panic catch,” intended to free it if enough pressure were applied. Scores piled against it, but the panic catch didn’t work and it remained locked and many died of suffocation there. But the jam against the other door was almost as intense. Four, five and even six persons tried to fit themselves into its revolving compartments. Others were trying to make it revolve the wrong way.
Firemen extinguish flames
Firemen arrived quickly, but there was little to do to save lives because most of the victims were already dead or horribly injured. Axes were quickly applied to the glass-brick windows set high in the walls of the dining room and firemen piled through them quickly enough to extinguish the flames enveloping the clothes of many guests. But these were already so badly burned that they died quickly, some before they could be carried out.
The fire itself was extinguished within a half hour, but for more than two hours, firemen, policemen and volunteer workers, including many soldiers and sailors, were carrying out bodies. At one time, five bodies were being brought out every three minutes.
The club is owned by James and Barnett Welansky, the latter a Boston lawyer, who was attorney for the late gangster Solomon, assassinated by a rival racketeer. James Welansky was at the club Saturday night. It was said at his home that he was ill and under a doctor’s care and could not be interviewed. Barnett Welansky is a patient in the Massachusetts General Hospital recovering from pneumonia.
Officials await reports
Fire Commissioner William A. Reilly, a member of the board of inquiry organized by Mayor Tobin, announced after its first session that it would recommend an ordinance requiring nightclubs and other places where crowds congregate to use no materials in decorations which are not fireproof or fire-resistant. Nightclubs are regularly inspected by the fire department, but, because there is no ordinance dealing with whether the furnishings are fireproof, no mention is made by the inspectors of the decorations.
District Attorney Foley conferred for three hours with investigators, then announced that he awaited reports from State Fire Marshal Stephen C. Garrity and from Commissioner Reilly.
Safety laws inadequate
The last inspection was made by Lt. H. B. Linney of the Boston Fire Department. Deputy Chief John J. Kenney said Lt. Linney had been a member of the department for 30 years and was “a very competent man.”
City Building Commissioner James H. Mooney said inadequate safety laws covering nightclubs probably helped swell the death toll.
Mr. Mooney said the club had adequate exits and conformed to building requirements under which his department operates, but added that the size of the exits, their location or accessibility were not defined in state law and his department’s only authority was to see that there were “reasonable and adequate means of egress.”
There were sufficient exits. They weren’t marked, but they don’t have to be under state law and my department can only follow the law.
Cabaret classification suggested
Mr. Mooney said there should be a revision of the building law to classify nightclubs.
This building was licensed as a restaurant and not a place of public assembly, so it doesn’t come under the safety laws with which theaters, public halls and arenas must comply.
The busboy, police said, had been employed in violation of state labor laws which prohibit the employment of any person younger than 18 around a place where liquor is sold and the employment of 16-year-olds after 10 o’clock at night. The boy said his hours the two nights he worked were from 4 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.