Devastating Photos Of The Deadliest Nightclub Disaster In History

Cocoanut Grove Fire Victim
Two men carry one of the fire's victims to safety.

On the evening of November 28, 1942, a massive fire broke out in a popular Boston nightclub known as the Cocoanut Grove. That night, 492 people died. Today, the Cocoanut Grove fire remains, by far, the deadliest disaster of its kind in history.

The Cocoanut Grove first opened its doors to the public in 1927. It was initially owned by two orchestra leaders, Mickey Alpert and Jacques Renard, before it passed on to the bootlegger Charles “King” Solomon. After Solomon was gunned down in 1933, the club’s ownership passed to his lawyer, Barnet “Barney” Welansky.

Welansky was a tough businessman who wasn’t going to let even one penny slip away. He hired youngsters for minimum wage and he locked and bricked up emergency exists to prevents his customers from fleeing the premises without paying. Welansky didn’t know it at the time but this latter move would ultimately lead to the deaths of hundreds of people.

Despite Welansky's tough tactics, the Cocoanut Grove was one of the most popular nightclubs in Boston. And for good reason: The club had a restaurant, a dancing area, bars, several lounge areas, a rooftop area for dancing under the stars, floor shows, and piano-playing entertainers. The club resembled a tropical paradise and was often frequented by movie stars.

Dead Bodies Inside The Club
Dead and injured victims lie on the street outside the club.

But it all came to an end on November 28, 1942. No one knows for certain how the fire started that night.

Some say it was the fault of a 16-year-old busboy named Stanley Tomaszewski. Shortly before the fire started, a young man unscrewed a light bulb in the Melody Lounge downstairs. He needed the cover of darkness to kiss his date in privacy.

Sometime later, Tomaszewski was instructed to screw the light bulb back in and he lit a matchstick to better see the lamp. After the light bulb was screwed back in, Tomaszewski extinguished the match. Immediately afterward, some people saw flames on the fake palm trees just beneath the ceiling.

However, the official investigation ruled out the possibility that the fire was started by Tomaszewski.

Cocoanut Grove Club From Above
Police, firemen, reporters, and the curious gather at the entrance to the Cocoanut Grove.

Whatever its cause, the lethal fire spread rapidly and soon killed hundreds of people. Because Welanksy had boarded up most exit doors, there were few escape routes available. To make matters worse, it is believed that more than 1,000 people were present at the club during the fire even though the club’s official capacity was 460 people.

Hundreds of people tried to exit through the main entrance, a revolving door. However, the panic-stricken crowd jammed the door until it broke and those still stuck inside the club were soon engulfed by flames.

In fact, the fire moved so rapidly that some patrons were found sitting dead right in their seats, still clutching their drinks in their hands. A few people survived by hiding in the walk-in-refrigerator and the ice box.

It has been estimated that access to emergency exits — the ones that Welansky had boarded up — could have saved the lives of hundreds killed during the Cocoanut Grove fire. Welanksy was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was pardoned after serving just four.

Burned Woman Cocoanut Grove
A civilian volunteer carries a victim to an ambulance.

Victims Of Deadly Fire
Two unidentified victims of the fire lie on the floor.

Cocoanut Grove Fire Victims
[Original caption excerpt] Dead, dying and injured lie in street outside Cocoanut Grove while civilians and doctors administer aid. A girl walks in horror through the prone victims, seeking a loved one.

Chaos Outside The Club
[Original caption excerpt] Here, in a photo taken shortly after the holocaust, firemen, priests and service men stand by the rear entrance to the night club, most of them numbed by the terrible sight of charred and broken bodies being carried through shattered windows and doors.

Victims Belongings
Police examine the pocketbooks of female victims in an effort to identify the owners. Most such efforts were unsuccessful.

Men Attending To Victims
Workers identify victims at the morgue.

Dead Bodies After The Fire
Workers identify victims at the morgue.

Hats Of Victims
[Original caption] The hats of servicemen, gaily checked Saturday night at the Cocoanut Grove Night Club, now may be the only identification of their wearers, on that tragic night. They are oiled up at the Boston Police Station awaiting further inspection.

Burned Down Club
A group of firemen, civilians, and uniformed men stand around a victim of the fire as a priest administers last rites.

A Woman Leaving The Mortuary
Relatives leave a mortuary after identifying the bodies of loved ones taken from the charred ruins of the Cocoanut Grove.

Victims Of The Fire In A Hospital
Wards and rooms of Boston Hospital were filled to capacity with victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire.

Crowd Outside A Mortuary
A crowd outside the mortuary waiting to identify their loved ones.

Crowd Outside Cocoanut Grove
The exterior of the club after the fire.

Inside The Club
The destroyed interior of the club after the fire.

Nurses At The Club
Nurses at work in the aftermath.

Two Firemen
Firefighters stand outside the club amid the chaos.

Victims Of The Fire Loaded In A Car
Workers carry a victim into an ambulance.

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