The Pittsburgh Press (December 1, 1942)
Governor suggests closing clubs, pending grand jury probe
Death trap in the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire at Boston which took 449 lives Saturday night was this swinging door entrance. Many of the victims were crushed and smothered to death in this tiny, 10-foot-wide vestibule.
Busboy’s match lights holocaust and 449 persons receive fatal injuries in the Boston nightclub fire of last Saturday. Stanley Tomaszewski, 16, who inadvertently started the conflagration, here tells his story to Boston Police Commissioner Joseph P. Timilty.
Boston, Massachusetts (UP) –
All Boston nightclubs, taverns, restaurants and hotels were ordered today to discontinue dancing, music and other entertainment pending a probable grand jury investigation of the Cocoanut Grove fire which took at least 449 lives.
The Boston Licensing Board was to meet later in the day to consider a suggestion by Governor Leverett Saltonstall that all such establishments be closed until they had been reinspected as regards fire hazards.
The board’s action came while dual inquests were in progress to fix possible criminal negligence in connection with the disaster.
Attorney General Robert T. Bushnell, directing state and county prosecutors, said “the investigation has already started” and indicated it would take the form of grand jury proceedings.
Fourth nightclub fire
The Licensing Board’s action followed charges by Boston City Councilman William A. Carey that during the past year, there were four costly nightclub fires, including one in East Boston last month which claimed the lives of six firemen.
Mr. Carey said:
We could well have a holiday in these so-called nightclubs and cafés while building and fire inspectors make a checkup of their conditions in the interest of public safety.
During a conference with the licensing board, Governor Saltonstall advised members to close such establishments pending a reinspection, and said that if there was any doubt as to the board’s authority, to:
…go ahead and let the question of authority come later.
Exit door order
Meanwhile, it was revealed that City Building Commissioner James H. Mooney had issued an order Jan. 8 that doors in all public places must open outward.
At that time, he ordered an immediate inspection of “churches, schools, moving picture houses, theaters, auditoriums, nightclubs, dance halls, taverns, cafés and commercial buildings with many offices.” In all these places, he ruled, exits should be equipped with doors that open “in the direction of exit” and no doors should be locked while persons were inside.
However, at Fire Commissioner William A. Reilly’s current inquest, police photographer Morgan C. Murphy today identified 20 pictures of the fire scene that he had taken, some showing a door on the Piedmont St. side with wood ripped away from a casing in such a fashion as to indicate it had been forced. Officials sought to introduce this as evidence that the door was locked at the time of the fire.
Another witness, who saw the fire actually start, gave a graphic description of the conflagration. He was Maurice Levy of Roxbury, Signal Corps Reserve man studying at Boston Trade School. His wife and two companions perished.
Mr. Levy said:
We got to the Cocoanut Grove at 9:15 Saturday night. We want downstairs to the Melody Lounge, walked completely around the bar of the lounge and came to the corner over on the left-hand side.
It seemed that a light was bothering a person sitting next to me. There was a palm tree to my right, with a light behind the palm tree. He [the other person] got up and loosened the bulb.
The waiter served our drinks, went back to the bar, then returned and said something about the bartender asking that the bulb be put back.
He [the waiter] got up, groped around and couldn’t find the bulb. It was very dark. He lit a match. Then he put the match behind the tree. That set fire to the tree and, by the time the waiter got down, there was a complete fire.
The fire didn’t spread through the tree, but hit the ceiling and went in all directions across the ceiling. Cpl. Harold Goldenberg [the other man in Mr. Levy’s party] tried to put it out with his hands. My wife and I ran up the stairs to the first floor where we came in.
Separated from wife
He said the ceiling of the lounge was completely covered by draperies about nine feet from the floor and that the fire raced through the draperies.
The fire spread ahead of me. I cut across the crowd. In the rush, my wife was pushed away.
He said he finally managed to get out of the building on the Piedmont St. side.
While the inquest was in progress, authorities disclosed that three years ago, a person of importance with the nightclub was warned that the building was a tinderbox with very bad exits.
Letter made public
The warning was in a letter made public by Assistant District Attorney Frederick T. Doyle prior to a conference of state and county prosecutors who were called together by Attorney General Robert T. Bushnell to “avoid duplication of efforts” in the investigation of Saturday’s fire disaster.
Mr. Doyle said the recipient of the letter, written Jan. 27, 1939, by Boston advertising executive Ernest J. Goulston, was “a person of some importance” at the nightclub. Part of the letter read:
There are several things you ought to give particular attention to. Your exits are very bad. You have a tinderbox construction. It should be in absolute conformity with the building rules.
Newspapers in action
Mr. Doyle said he did not now have any knowledge of what prompted the letter or whether the warning was heeded.
Meanwhile, Boston newspapers warned editorially against any effort at “whitewash” or “to cover up or protect somebody.”
A public inquiry underway before Fire Commissioner William A. Reilly had already developed testimony suggesting that Boston’s lax building and fire prevention ordinances, rather than an individual or individuals, were mainly responsible for the disaster.
Death toll now 449
Shortly before noon, the Boston Public Safety Committee announced that a thorough check had revealed 21 duplications, reducing the official death list to 449. The committee said only five victims remained unidentified. The recheck showed that 172 remained hospitalized, with 20 in critical condition.
The committee earlier had announced a higher total of deaths, but a definitive check of the list resulted in the elimination of several duplications.
Among the dead was Charles “Buck” Jones, star of Western movies, who died of his burns late yesterday afternoon.
Boston newspapers were forthright in their comment.
The Globe said:
Nothing could have made what happened at the Cocoanut Grove more bitter than a well-grounded suspicion that someone is trying to cover up or protect somebody else.
The Post said:
Whitewash of this horrifying tragedy will not be tolerated by an aroused public.
The Christian Science Monitor said:
Nothing should divert an investigation which will fix responsibility insofar as possible and carry through to the provision of adequate safeguards.
The Herald said:
Nothing happened at the Cocoanut Grove which could not have been and should not have been foreseen and prevented.
Decorations thought safe
The public hearing before Commissioner Reilly resulted mainly in a repetition of the tales of horror, confusion, and panic previously told by participants and witnesses. But it had also disclosed that an inspector of the Boston Fire Department had considered the decorations sufficiently fire-resistant to be safe and a building inspector had approved its construction, and the fact that it only had four exits.
Testimony developed that, in addition to being inadequate, the Cocoanut Grove’s exits were not marked.
Robert S. Moulton, secretary of the National Fire Protection Association, characterized Boston’s building and fire prevention ordinances as “chaotic” and charged that they were further weakened by “incompetent enforcement, political influence, and careless management.” He said the tragedy was “clearly due to gross violations of several fundamental principles of fire safety.”
Safety director at club
The hearing developed that John J. Walsh, executive director of the Public Safety Committee, in charge of counting and caring for the bodies, had been in the club when the fire broke out.
He was entertaining 12 guests and, upon seeing flames at the other side of the dining room, calmly led his party to safety.
Mr. Walsh told the board:
I got to the Cocoanut Grove at 7. I was sitting at a side table, midway on the floor. The room was crowded.
Takes exit opposite fire
We had finished dinner and were about ready to leave when I saw what appeared to be a puff of smoke and flame over the entrance on the opposite side of the building from where we were sitting.
Mr. Walsh said he quickly got his party together and led them toward the exit opposite where he saw the fire.
When I turned and looked again at that spot [where he first saw the smoke], it was a roaring mass of flames.
Step over bodies
I led the way and we had to pick our way over the bodies of people who were already lying on the floor where they had been trampled. I think it took us about a minute and a half to cross the room, and by that time, the entire room was a roaring mass of flames.
The crowd came from the rear and surged forward toward the stage. Not many realized there was a door in the direction that we were going. Everyone was screaming and yelling as we stumbled our way across the bodies.
Mr. Walsh said he and two men in the party forced the door.
As soon as I put my feet on the sidewalk, I pulled out at least 20 to 25 people.
Bartender John W. Bradley, who was on duty in the Melody Lounge where the fire started, wept continually as he testified in a tremulous voice. His face and ears were heavily bandaged.
I was behind the bar when somebody pulled out a light. I told Stanley to go over to the corner and make the customer put on the light.
Yells ‘take it easy’
I went back to my work. All of a sudden, somebody screamed “Fire!” I jumped from behind the bar. One of the palm trees was burning. Then a flash came. I tried to throw water on it. But the whole ceiling was ablaze. I hollered to everybody to take it easy.
The palm tree, Mr. Bradley said, was in a corner of the lounge near the kitchen and there was an immediate panic with everybody “hollering and screaming.”
Somehow, I managed to get across the room and into the kitchen. Some of the cooks rushed in with fire extinguishers, and I went back in to help, but the smoke hit me in the face. I stood there shouting “Come out this door!” but nobody heard me.
Bartender’s hair on fire
At this point, Mr. Bradley broke down. Tears streamed down his face and his voice choked as he told how he finally managed to clamber out a kitchen window into an alleyway. There, he said, he beat out the flames in his hair with his bare hands.
Henry W. Bimbler, a waiter in the main dining room, testified that there was a lengthy delay in getting people out through the kitchen door because a dishwasher refused to give up the keys.
Flames were coming up the stairs from the Melody Lounge. I ran to the kitchen and shouted “Fire.” There were no flames on the kitchen stairs. I went up again and everything was in flames.
Shoves girls into icebox
I went down again and shoved nine girls into an icebox. I told them to stay there until we got a door open. I asked a dishwasher to give me the keys to the door but he told me, “I can’t give you the keys until the boss says so.” Four or five of us then pried the door open.
Leo S. Givonetti, acting as captain at the main entrance, said the main dining room was packed to capacity and that he had been turning away customers for an hour and a half before the fire.
The headwaiter was at the phone and I remember hearing a scream in the lobby. I thought there was a fight and ran into the lobby to call the police. As I got there, I saw flames coming from the coat room over the Melody Lounge. The headwaiter told me to run like hell and open the exit door on the opposite side near the bandstand. Everyone was panicky.
Mr. Givonetti said the exit door was red and was not covered. He said the crowd was so panicky that he and the headwaiter were pushed out into the street.
Headwaiter returns, dies
I tried to get back in to help, but couldn’t. The headwaiter did and lost his life.
Lt. Miles V. Murphy of a rescue company said flames and black smoke were pouring from an entrance and:
…as I got into the door, the bodies were piled high at the door leading to the lounge. I had to crawl over their bodies to get in there.
The busboy, Tomaszewski, told the board substantially the same story he had related to police earlier.
I was stationed in the Melody Lounge. I was told to go over and put on a light in the corner near the kitchen. I got up on a chair to put it on. I didn’t know where it was, so I lit a match.
Shakes, steps on match
The boy said he then stepped down, shook the match and dropped it on the floor, where he stepped on it. Just then, he said, he heard someone cry fire and he looked up and saw the flames.
I tried to pull it out, but the flames came so fast I couldn’t do anything. Bradley [the bartender] came over and threw a glass of water at the flames.
The boy said the flames drove him to the kitchen, from where he led some people to safety.
After escaping from the club, the boy wandered around looking for a fellow busboy and went home at 4:30 a.m. The next day, he continued the search and, while seeking information at police headquarters, told his story to officers.