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492 People Died in Boston’s Coconut Grove Fire 71 Years Ago

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It was called a tragedy for the ages. Boston’s Coconut Grove nightclub fire that led to national fire code reforms and safety standards that are still used today. There were heroes, like the sailor who ran back and forth rescuing people until he ran in to become a victim himself. And there were the revolting ghouls who rummaged through the pockets of dead bodies and looted money and rings off the dead peoples¬†fingers! Seventy-one years ago, this week, 492 people died on November 28, 1942. Close to one thousand people were celebrating one minute and suddenly found themselves breathing in hot, toxic smoke and battling flames that created no escape from the searing heat and acrid fumes. Most of the side exits were hidden behind curtains and the only revolving door in the front rendered useless as it became jammed with so many bodies pressed up against each other, like sardines in a can. When rescuers tried to pull bodies from the door, arms and legs came off in their hands! Boston was somber not only because of World War II. More than 50 military men lost their lives that night. The Fitzgerald family of Wilmington lost four sons, all servicemen home for the holiday. Some say the fire started when a bus boy lit a match to see where a light socket was placed near one of the artificial palm trees and satin draped ceiling. But the official cause was unsafe standards throughout the club. Within two years following the fire, more than 400 suits were filed, but when everything was sorted and divided, the survivors and families of the deceased all received checks for about $150. The owner of the Coconut Grove, Barney Welanski, was convicted and sentenced to 12 to 15 years. He served less than four, and in December of 1946, riddled with cancer, he was released from Norfolk Prison, telling reporters, “I wish I’d died with the others in the fire. Nine weeks later, he was dead. Up until the Boston Marathon bombings, few events had taken a greater toll on Boston’s psyche than the Coconut Grove fire, seventy-one years ago.

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