Stanley Tomaszewski was a 16-year-old busboy working on the night of the Cocoanut Grove fire, Nov. 28, 1942, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
More than 1,000 patrons jammed into the Boston nightclub. They included servicemen and their dates, suburbanites out for a night on the town, college football fans, couples celebrating anniversaries and a cowboy movie star and his entourage. It was the height of World War II, and everyone went to the Cocoanut Grove.
The Cocoanut Grove Fire
In a packed basement lounge, a serviceman and his date sat next to a fake palm tree with a 7-1/2 watt light bulb sticking out from a laminated cocoanut husk. The soldier reached over and unscrewed the light bulb so he could kiss his date in the dark. The bartender noticed and told Tomaszewski to screw it back in.
Tomaszewski climbed a bar stool, but he couldn’t see much in the dark corner. He lit a match, held it in his right hand and screwed in the light bulb with his left. Then he climbed down from the bar stool, dropped the match on the floor and put it out with his foot.
It was 10:15 pm. Within eight minutes, nearly 500 people would be dead or about to die.
The Cocoanut Grove fire was the worst nightclub fire in U.S. history, killing five times as many people as The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., 60 years later.
We may never know what caused the Cocoanut Grove fire. Some believe faulty wiring caused it. Some think it spread so quickly because of a mystery gas, perhaps a substitute for Freon, scarce because of the war. Many blamed Stanley Tomaszewski, who would go to his grave with the stigma as the busboy who started the Cocoanut Grove fire.
Stanley Tomaszewski’s teacher described him as ‘one of the swellest kids.’ He was tall, good-looking, an honor student at Roxbury Memorial High School for Boys and a starting football player. He worked nine-hour shifts at the Cocoanut Grove Friday and Saturday nights for $2.47 plus tips. The money went to help his sick mother and father, a janitor, and to pay for war bonds.
The building was a former complex of garages and warehouses. It had been converted to dining rooms, bars and lounges with a kitschy South Seas theme. The decor included fake palm trees, rattan and bamboo trim, leatherette sofas and blue satin canopies suspended from the ceilings.
The flimsy, flammable decorations disguised side exits. Other exits were bolted shut to prevent patrons from beating their checks. The Boston Fire Department authorized the club’s seating capacity at 460.
But Solomon died in a gangland shooting in 1933, and his lawyer, Barney Welansky, took ownership.
Unlike Solomon, Welansky made profit from the club. He slashed the entertainment budget, hired cheap underage employees and cut corners on construction with unlicensed electricians and un-fireproofed materials.
Welansky turned the Cocoanut Grove into a respectable middle-class venue for anniversary parties and political fundraisers. On that weekend in 1942, Boston College football fans had planned on going to the club for a party. They thought they would celebrate a victory by the heavily favored Eagles over Jesuit rival Holy Cross.
But Holy Cross won in a rout, and some disappointed fans — including BC alumni Mayor Maurice Tobin — stayed away from the Cocoanut Grove that night.
Many others came. The cast of the Irving Berlin musical This Is The Army showed up for drinks. Buck Jones, a popular Western movie star, came with an entourage. He’d just appeared at a Boston Garden rally to urge kids to buy war stamps.
The fire broke out shortly after Stanley Tomaszewski replaced the light bulb in the basement lounge. A gunner’s mate later said he saw a flame about the size of a dinner plate flash between the top of the palm tree and the blue satin canopy.
Waiters first tried to douse the small flames with water, but the fire raced up the stairs and burst into a fireball on the central dance floor. Then with astonishing speed the yellow flames rolled through the air into the next bar and down a corridor. Then they ignited the main club room. Within five minutes, the entire building burst into an inferno.
The acrid, toxic smoke quickly overcame the people inside the club. Some died sitting in their seats holding their drinks. More people died from respiratory problems than from burns.
Goody Goodell, a singer in the basement lounge, survived by wetting a cloth napkin and breathing through it while she escaped. A sailor made it out after urinating in his handkerchief and holding it over his face.
Patrons raced for the main exit, a revolving door, but they couldn’t get through. A stack of bodies eight feet high clogged the door.
Thomas I. Gray, a Navy ensign on shore leave, was staying at the Statler. He later remembered how he and his shipmates had gone out on the town when they followed the sound of sirens.
They found abandoned cars outside of the Cocoanut Grove that prevented emergency vehicles from reaching the fire. Gray helped carry victims to ambulances.
…there were people trapped inside. You could hear them and you could see them. Once in a while one of them would work his way out and they were laying in the street, some of them. And the ones that did get out, their shirts were torn off their backs, their backs were bloody from where people had clawed them and just like wild animals in there.
Gray remembered the Shore Patrol and Army MPs who showed up long after the fire burned out. They moved the crowds back from the firefighters, police and Army and Navy rescue workers.
Within 12 minutes the fire killed hundreds, and 181 victims were taken to Massachusetts General and Boston City hospitals.
Buck Jones died in the hospital. Four brothers from the town of Wilmington, Mass., all died in the Cocoanut Grove fire, and the town put up a statue of them on the green.
Also dead: Bunny Leslie, a cigarette girl and half-sister to movie star Lillian Roth; 15-year-old Eleanor Chiampa, treated to a night out by her Army lieutenant brother; headwaiter Frank Balzarini; musical director Bernie Fazioli; cashier Catherine Swett, who loyally refused to abandon the cash box; and Joe Trafanglia, the classmate of Stanley Tomaszewski who had gotten him the job.
Public hearings into the cause of the Cocoanut Grove fire started late the next day. Stanley Tomaszewski walked into a police station and volunteered to talk about his role in the fire.
On Monday, he took the stand. He said he didn’t think he started the fire. Asked again, he said he thought the fire started in the palm tree.
But did his match cause the Cocoanut Grove fire, or did defective wiring in the tree cause it? And regardless of what started the fire, why did it spread so fast and why was it so toxic?
Over the years, people came up with various theories over the years. Methyl chloride, a substitute for Freon, explained some, but not all, of the fire’s mysteries. Perhaps the leatherette sofas gave off toxic fumes.
The official report didn’t reach a conclusion about the cause of the fire. Furthermore, it said, Stanley Tomaszewski did not start the fire. But Boston Herald headlines on Monday announced, ‘Bus Boy Fixing Light with Match Set Fire.’
For months, Tomaszewski stayed at the Kenmore Hotel under police guard for his own safety.
On the night of the Cocoanut Grove fire, club owner Barney Welansky was recovering from a heart attack at Massachusetts General Hospital. Described as a 45-year-old portly martinet, he had bragged he didn’t have to obey the building code because of his connections to Boston Mayor Tobin.
A jury convicted Welansky of manslaughter and sentenced him to 12-15 years in prison.
Tobin narrowly escaped indictment. Instead, he won election as governor. Tobin pardoned Welansky after he spent four years in prison. Welansky died nine weeks later of cancer, but said he wished he’d died in the fire.
Stanley Tomaszewski graduated from Boston College and worked as a federal auditor until he retired. He married and had three children. His wife, Betty, said he was a very decent man.
In 1972, Tomaszewski told a Boston Globe reporter that he prayed for the souls of the innocents who died every day. He also said he often visited their graves in Massachusetts.
I’ve suffered enough–spit on, called every name in the book and threatened. Phone calls in the middle of the night. It hasn’t been easy…I don’t have a sense of guilt, because it wasn’t my fault. If I felt guilty I wouldn’t be talking to you, my name would not be on the doorbell and in the telephone book. I never backed away.
Stanley Tomaszewski died Oct. 20, 1994, at 68.
Stephanie Schorow, in The Cocoanut Grove Fire, reached a conclusion about the major cause of death: greed. She wrote,
Whether the match or methyl chloride caused the fire, no matter whether strange gasses were released by the furnishings or by a mysterious chemical, the major causes of death in the Grove were the locked doors, inadequate exits, and crowded conditions. Whatever the initial spark, greed and thoughtlessness were the real killers.
If you enjoyed this story, you may also want to read about the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 here. To read firsthand accounts of the Cocoanut Grove fire from survivors, click here. For digitized documents from the fire click here. To see the Boston Public Library’s collection of photographs from the Cocoanut Grove fire, click here.
With thanks to Fire in the Grove by John C . Esposito. All black-and-white photos from the Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library. This story about the Cocoanut Grove fire was updated in 2019.