BOSTON -- Customers in the basement bar of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub laughed on the night of Nov. 28, 1942 when bartenders used seltzer bottles trying to put out a fire in an artificial palm tree.
Then a lick of flame ignited an overhead drapery.
Fire feeding on highly combustible materials rushed up the stairway into the main lounge of the labyrinthine structure.
Within minutes, hundreds were overcome by smoke, burned or trampled to death rushing for 12 exits -- a revolving door that jammed with bodies, a door that opened in, and nine that were locked or bricked up.
There were 1,000 persons packing the 600-seat lounge in one of the city's most popular night spots, including cowboy actor Buck Jones. The final death count was 492, and the Cocoanut Grove is still the worst restaurant fire in the country's history.
No official cause has ever been determined.
A busboy who lit a match for light to change a bulb in the palm tree is often blamed, but fire officials said some witnesses reported feeling the walls getting hot before that.
It took only minutes for most to die and turn the 40's night spot into a chamber of horrors and screams in the dark when the lights went out.
Some who got out later died from breathing superheated air and fumes. Some who stayed inside survived by locking themselves in a large refrigerator.
The victims were mostly overcome by smoke, and panic when fire roared along fabric ceilings and cut off escape.
Now, 39 years later, 'the only thing we could come up with,' said Boston Fire Lt. John Vahey, 'is an official finding of undetermined.'
Seven years ago, Vahey wrote the last report. He said one witness gave a story most agreed with. 'He saw the flames come up the corridor and run right across the ceiling and the flames dipped down into the only exit he could see.'
That was the jammed main door. There were other code violations and structural problems that made the Cocoanut Grove an inferno -- false walls and amateurish wiring, and a boarded over plate glass window in front.
The first firefighters smashed that window and let about 200 people escape, but later found 100 bodies piled up behind a door that was hinged to swing inward instead of outward.
Ed Hagerty was working on an engine company at an auto fire near the Cocoanut Grove shortly before 10 p.m. that night when a man without a hat came running over to say the night spot was on fire.
'When I got there they were dragging this girl across the street. She had jumped from the second floor. She was one of the performers. She was one of the lucky ones,' said Hagerty, 71, and now retired.
'I'll never forget as long as I live. There were bodies criss-crossed against the door, it was completely blocked,' he recalled Friday.
In 1962, Robert Moulton of the Boston based National Fire Protection Association wrote a definitive report in which he blamed the lack of exits, and revolving door where 200 bodies were found, as the reasons for the high death count.
'So rapid was the travel of fire and noxious gases that many apparently collapsed at their tables without even making a move toward the exits,' he wrote.
Boston College plays its traditional rival Holy Cross on Saturday to end the college football season for the two teams. On the Saturday of Nov. 28, 1942, Holy Cross ended B.C.'s hopes of an undefeated season with a 55-12 win.
The 1942 upset also ended plans for a victory celebration -- at the Cocoanut Grove.