It was over in minutes.
The fire began in the nightclub’s basement Melody Lounge and swept upstairs into the main dining room, where a fireball shot through the packed space and into a cocktail lounge opened only days earlier. Hundreds banged helplessly on locked exits and piled up inside a jammed revolving door.
The fire that destroyed the Cocoanut Grove that cold night of Nov. 28, 1942, killed 492 people. It was and remains the worst fire in New England history.
An investigation failed to determine the cause. Club owner Barnett Welansky was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, setting the legal precedent that a conscious failure to address dangerous conditions was basis enough for guilt.
Still, fundamental questions remain. How did the fire start, and why did it spread so quickly? Why did it stay close to the ceiling of the dining room, leaving tablecloths and menus untouched? Who wrote threatening letters to investigators seeking the truth?
As the fire’s 70th anniversary approaches, a local group of librarians and historians hopes to find clues that will shed new insight on those long-held mysteries and make the facts available to future researchers.
The Cocoanut Grove Coalition formed early this year with two goals: creating a central online access point for materials about the fire, located in the collections of archives and museums across Greater Boston, and gathering previously unknown writings, recordings, photographs, and recollections.
“One of my concerns is that we’re getting further and further away . . . from the fire itself, and materials are being lost,” said Sue Marsh, librarian for the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association, who formed the coalition.