lnterview with Cocoanut Grove Fire Survivor Bob Shumway

By Sommer Senne

Journalism Major, Florida Gulf Coast University

November 18,2020

Naples resident remembers the 78th anniversary of the Boston Cocoanut Grove Fire


Seventeen-year-old Bob Shumway sits on the edge of his seat at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942. He is watching

Holy Cross College beat rival and undefeated Boston College in a huge upset in college football, 55-12. After the game, Shumway

and his friend,  Dick Moulton decided to visit the Cocoanut Grove nightclub on their way home.

They have no idea their lives are about to change forever.


November 28,2020, marks the 78th anniversary of the Cocoanut Grove disaster, the deadliest nightclub fire in history.

Shumway, now 96-years old, is one of only three people still living since the fire. Although Shumway's memory is fading, he will

never forget the horrors of that Saturday night.


"We were open to anything fun," said Shumway. "We just happened to be there." The Cocoanut Grove nightclub was the most

well-known nightclub in Boston. On the night of the fire, 950 people were at the club - well past the 460-capacity limit.

Shumway and Moulton mingled with people inside the club, walked outside and then went back into
the main floor of the nightclub near the Caricature Bar.

 

"We weren't there too long," said Shumway. "We were there, and then all of a sudden, something exploded."


The explosion was a blue and orange ball of fire that started in the basement of club where the Melody Lounge was located.

The Boston Fire Department report estimates that it took between 2-4 minutes for the fire to spread 40 feet and reach the staircase to
the main floor. The staircase acted like a chimney, and the fire raced up the staircase to the bar area and dining room.


"l kept thinking, "Gee, you gotta have a way out of here," said Shumway.

 

The nightclub had six functioning doors, but Barney Welansky, the owner of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, had locked them. He was concerned that people were sneaking out of the nightclub without paying their bill. On the night of the fire, the only way out of the nightclub for 950 patrons was through one revolving door. Shumway and Moulton along with hundreds of club patrons sprinted to their only escape: the front revolving door of the nightclub. Panic and fear rose as people were stuck inside the revolving door.


'When you get excited, you forget which way the door is supposed to go," said Shumway. Shumway and Moulton pushed and pulled several people out of the door and onto the street. Once outside the nightclub, Shumway and Moulton helped injured people into cars and taxis that took them to Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospital. ln a little over an hour, the fire was out, and 490 people had died.


Shumway and Moulton drove back home to Easthampton, Massachusetts, after the fire. Shortly after the fire, Shumway was drafted into the Army in World War ll and was in the 89th Infantry Division under General George Patton. He was deployed to France and Germany and was one of the first soldiers over the Rhine River.

 

"l've seen plenty," said Shumway. "That's just another thing. lt (the fire) was pretty bad but so was the war."


Legislators suggested bills within 24 hours after the Cocoanut Grove fire to increase laws around fire protection and building inspections. Regulations changed four days after the fire in cities like St. Louis, Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago After the Cocoanut Grove fire, building with revolving doors also added hinged doors. Emergency lighting became necessary. Physicians at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston City Hospital changed the treatment of burn care by using skin grafts to treat burn patients. lt was also the first time that Penicillin was used in a civilian population. These treatments and innovations of fire and building codes in additional to the medical treatment were adopted worldwide as a result of the Cocoanut Grove fire.

 

Barney Welansky and 10 others were charged in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire. Welansky was convicted of 19 counts of involuntary manslaughter, (first time this verdict was found in US), and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was pardoned four years later and died of cancer on January 27, 1947.

 

Theories have developed over the years, but no one knows for sure how the fire started on November 28, 1942. Shumway will always remember one detail about the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and that dreadful night.

 

"Every time I see those (revolving) doors, it reminds me of the big fire", said Shumway.

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