Rhode Island Fire Disaster Recalls Memories Of Cocoanut Grove

MAY 2003
- The Parallels With Today’s Headlines Are Haunting - The February 20 fire at The Station, a West Warwick, Rhode Island
nightclub that claimed 99 lives, brought nationwide attention to the
danger of crowded nightspots, which lack proper fire protection.

Ironically,
it was Boston’s infamous Cocoanut Grove Fire on November 28, 1942 which
resulted in the loss of 492 lives, the largest loss ever in a nightclub
fire, that resulted in the change and enforcement of many building
codes.

Despite these changes, the
use of a pyrotechnic display by the group Great White, plus highly
flammable foam insulation and lack of sprinklers, was a recipe for
disaster at the West Warwick dance hall.

Since
many of our members are of an age where they can remember the Cocoanut
Grove, some from personal experience, we decided to revisit November
28, 1942, which newspapers proclaimed “Boston’s story of the century.”

Cocoanut
Grove, Boston’s largest nightclub, was located on Piedmont Street, one
block from Park Square. It was bordered by Broadway and Shawmut Streets.

On
the fateful Saturday night the Grove was filled to well over capacity,
when at 10:10 PM a small fire broke out in the Melody Lounge located in
the basement of the Grove’s main ballroom.

Within
twelve minutes, flames and lethal smoke enveloped the entire Grove
complex. By 10:45, firefighters had extinguished all flames and were
inside the Grove searching for survivors. But in that short period of
time, 492 victims were dead or later died in area hospitals.

The
bulk of the victims were taken to Boston City Hospital. Mass. General
received the second largest number with Beth Israel, Carney, Faulkner,
Mass. Memorial, Peter Bent Brigham, St. Elizabeth’s, St. Margaret’s,
Cambridge City and Malden City receiving lesser numbers.

Methods
never before thoroughly tested under disaster conditions were hurriedly
used for surface burns in a desperate attempt to save lives.

‘Mystery Serum’ Penicillin Used

At
the time, the government was frantically working on the development of
burn treatment serums to use in treating burn injuries suffered by
Allied armed forces personnel in World War II.

In
a December 13, 1942 special Cocoanut Grove Edition of the Boston
American, a new drug called pencillin (not spelled penicillin at that
time) was first mentioned. The following is an excerpt from the
American:

“Probably the outstanding
example of complete cooperation and unstinting help given was the
action of two chemists from the Merck Institute in Rahway, NJ racing to
Boston with a ‘mystery serum’ which was credited with saving lives of
many of the seriously burned.

“The
serum, known professionally as pencillin, was placed at the disposal of
Boston’s physicians. The drug was mixed with a broth and sprayed, or
daubed, on a victim’s burns, and scientists awaited with keen
expectation the results of the first widespread use of the experimental
serum.

“Physicians pointed out that
pencillin was especially helpful in combating the development of
pneumonia and infection, the two dread threats to persons suffering
burns.”

Members At The Scene

Almost
every Association member, with whom we have talked, can recite exactly
where he or she was on that fateful evening. Many were in the armed
forces, some were beginning their careers, while others were still in
school.

The most vivid memories of
all belong to those members who, for one reason or another, were
actually at the scene of the disaster or worked in the treatment of the
victims.

Five of those members are
Frank Arnao, Marguerite Leonard andVin Bolger. Arnao was among the
first firefighters on the scene. Leonard worked in the temporary
on-site morgue. Bolger who later became a Boston firefighter was sent
to theCocoanut Grove along with other military personnel on duty in
Bost at that time.

Frank Arnao was a
27-year old Boston firefighter living in Roxbury and stationed on
Engine 23 on Northampton Street. He was on duty the night of the Grove
fire and outside the Melody Lounge within minutes after the alarm was
struck.

“We were attempting to take
our 2-1/2 inch hose into the Melody Lounge where the fire first
started, but the door had been padlocked to keep patrons from leaving
without paying their bill.

“The men
from Ladder 12 broke down the door,” said Arnao. “What a sight. We had
to move bodies out of the way in order to move inside. All had died of
asphyxiation. There were also many bodies on the stairwell going down
to the Melody Lounge, which was on a lower level. The passageway had
become clogged when a revolving door was jammed. If the padlocked door
had been open, they could have escaped.”

“As
a firefighter, I’ve tried to put fire deaths out of my mind. But how
can I ever forget the Grove! I can see those bodies just as clear today
as I did 60 years ago,” said Mr. Arnao, who now lives in Largo, Florida.

Marguerite
Leonard had been in first-aid training as part of World War II’s
civilian preparedness program. She was sitting at home in Brookline,
listening to the radio, when the doctor, who conducted the training
program, banged on her door and proceeded to rush her into his car.
Twenty minutes later, Leonard was in the midst of a scene she will
never forget.

“Bodies were being
carried across the street to the film exchange garage. I assisted
Doctor Reeves, as he checked bodies for signs of life. We heard a woman
groan from underneath a pile of bodies in the garage. She had been
presumed dead. We managed to drag her out, put her in a taxi along with
another nurse’s aide and sent her to City Hospital. I doubt she lived,
but I will always wonder,” said Leonard, who later worked for the state
at the Group Insurance Commission.

Mr.
Bolger, who enlisted in the Navy two days after the Pearl Harbor
attack, was on naval intelligence duty in Boston on that Saturday
evening.

“Realizing that many Naval
and Marine personnel were on Saturday night liberty, my commander
immediately deployed a team of men to the Grove. It was a sight I shall
never forget,” said Bolger. Ironically, his most vivid memory took
place in the very same garage that Ms. Leonard described.

Temporary Morgue

“Many
sailors and Marines were in the garage that served as a temporary
morgue. Most had died of asphyxiation, were not burned, and therefore,
could be easily recognized by their uniforms. We were checking their
dog tags for identification, when I looked into the face of a young man
whom I recognized. He was a Marine from Charlestown named Jim Kelly. I
had met him two weeks previously over a ‘few beers.’ You can well
imagine my feelings at that time – it is a feeling that will never be
forgotten,” said Bolger, who later became a member of the Boston Fire
Department and retired as a district chief.

Undoubtedly,
other Association members were at the Cocoanut Grove on that evening,
perhaps as firefighters, police, medical workers or even patrons. It is
certain that these members have memories similar to the unforgettable
memories of Frank Arnao, Marguerite Leonard or Vin Bolger.

Epilogue

The
Cocoanut Grove was badly overcrowded the night of the fire. It is
estimated that between 900 and 1,000 patrons had been packed into a
nightclub whose license allowed for only 460. Also, several of the
Grove’s fire exit doors were found to have been locked.

Owner
Barney Welansky was indicted on a manslaughter charge, found guilty by
a jury on April 15, 1953, and sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in
state prison.

The Governor’s Council voted to set Welansky free after three years and seven months. He was dying of cancer at the time.

Others
besides Welansky, including fire and police officials, who had
certified to the Grove’s safety, were also indicted. However, all were
acquitted or had their cases dropped.

In
Rhode Island, the group Great White claims the owners of The Station
knew they would be using a pyrotechnic display during their
performance. The owners deny such knowledge. Great White had used
pyrotechnics at other venues.

Like
the Cocoanut Grove case, indictments, trials and lawsuits will take
years, if ever, to be finalized. Meanwhile, the dead have been buried
and dozens of badly burned victims continue their painful treatment and
therapy, many in Massachusetts burn centers.

Editor’s Note: Quotes by Marguerite Leonard are
from an earlier edition of the Voice. Leonard, who later lived in
Dorchester, is now deceased.

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