BOSTON -- Survivors and family members of the victims of the Cocoanut Grove blaze gathered Saturday at the site of the former nightclub to mark the 50th anniversary of the night 492 people died in the nation's second worst fire disaster.
Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn and other city officials dedicated a plaque in memory of the victims of the fire. A crowd of almost 350 people, including some survivors of the blaze, were on hand for the ceremony.
The plaque shows a floor plan of the ill-fated club and reads 'Phoenix Out of the Ashes.' It will be set into the pavement on the grounds of the former nightclub, now a parking lot.
Flynn said as a result of the fire, new fire safety codes were put into effect nationwide, and doctors were able to devise new and more effective methods for burn treatment.
'To all the family and the friends of all those 492 victims, something positive did come out of the infamous night of horror in Boston 50 years ago tonight,' Flynn said.
The Cocoanut Grove, one of the largest nightclubs in the country, was one of wartime Boston's most popular night spots. Servicemen from all across the country came to the club in the midst of World War II, to celebrate their leave time or see their sweethearts.
The blaze that broke out on Nov. 28, 1942, was the second worst fire disaster in U.S. history, after the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago that left 602 dead.
Estimates after the Cocoanut Grove fire indicate almost 1,000 people were crowded into the nightclub, which was only licensed to seat 460. A busboy originally thought to have accidentally started the blaze was cleared of any wrongdoing. Grove owner Barnett Welansky, who had locked exit doors so customers couldn't leave without paying, was imprisoned for manslaughter and violating public building laws.
Survivors of the blaze shared their memories of that harrowing night.
'I try not to talk about it too much,' said John Rizzo, 72, who was a waiter at the Cocoanut Grove when the fire broke out. He said he escaped by climbing through the back of the building, where there was a stage door leading out.
'I was at the maitre'd's desk, talking to the maitre'd, Frank,' Rizzo said. 'There was a lot of panic and the flames came quick.'
Rizzo said the maitre'd did not survive the fire. But Rizzo's brother Dan, also a waiter at the club, managed to escape. 'He got hit with a table and knocked down. He got out, but got his hands burned, his ears burned,' Rizzo said.
Tony Marra, 65, was also working at the club the night of the fire. Marra was taken to court shortly after the fire for working underage, but was released.
Marra said he and another employee escaped out of an exit window 18 inches wide. When the fire died down, he was taken back in to identify bodies. 'I couldn't identify any of the employees...not one,' Marra said.
'I was having a hard time some nights sleeping after that,' Marra said. 'I would be sleeping but I'd have nightmares. You know, popping out of bed and thinking I was back in the fire or something. It was quite a little battle within.'
Retired firefighter George Graney, 78, said he was putting out an automobile fire nearby when he saw the smoke coming from the Cocoanut Grove.
'The whole front of the building became a massive fire,' Graney said. 'There was no noise, only the screaming inside.'
When he entered the building, Graney said, all he could see were bodies piled together by the door, where everyone had tried to escape.
'There was one girl on her back, begging 'Please get me out of here, my father will be worried about me,'' he said. 'The girl got out safe. She was the only one who could talk in this whole mass of bodies.'