The Cocoanut Grove was a well-known restaurant and nightclub situated in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. In the early 40s, it was the city’s most famous spot. On November 28, 1942, it also became the scene of the deadliest nightclub fire in United States history. On that evening, a considerable number of people were expected there, including militaries and football fans. Earlier in the afternoon, many had attended a traditional football match between Holy Cross and Boston College.
Boston College lost, and so, the planned celebration was canceled. Despite the cancellation, the club was still overcrowded. According to NFPA.org, the tragedy claimed 492 lives. Hundreds more were injured.
However, as sometimes occurs with tragedies, the potential for positive change resulted in the reform of national safety standards. This also promoted more rigorous enforcement of fire codes across the country. The club was a one-floor building with a basement underneath. The principal access was entering through a revolving door.
Beyond that, the patrons would see the Broadway Lounge, with a large dance floor, a bandstand and bar areas. Through a single set of stairs, patrons would be led downstairs to the Melody Lounge bar, along with the kitchen and some storage area. It was there, on the basement, where the fire started at about 10:15 p.m.
Even its exact cause is still undetermined, theories haven’t stopped growing around it. One story is that a busboy, aged sixteen, was told to replace an electric light bulb on top of a palm tree.
He climbed a seat, where he lit a match to find the socket. According to witnesses, within a minute fire broke out, traveling from the palm tree to the ceiling’s decoration, reaching the first floor and main entrance. With a fearful rise of the temperature combined with high levels of toxic gas from the burning decorations, many people raced for the main exit, which was also the revolving door. A small number of patrons managed to escape through it, once it rapidly became jammed as people pushed toward. Apart from jamming, this door could not have served as a main available exit. Other patrons raced for other exits, finding all of them locked. But that was only part of the problem. Adding to the tragedy, the club’s busy conditions, and the flammable decorations violated many of the fire safety codes. It was also rumored that possible connections between the owner, Barney Welansky and the Boston mayor, Tobin, allowed the club to function even with building code violations. Many causes were officially investigated over the years, but it has never officially been identified. The first sign of fire was seen in a fake palm tree in the basement. From there, flames were traveling in the suspended cloth ceiling. It immediately spread out. Within minutes of its first appearance in the Melody Lounge, it was already approaching to the first floor.
People who were there described it as a traveling ball of fire below the ceiling, which was also followed by a thick and black cloud of smoke. The absence of oxygen in the building avoided the fabrics to burn completely, but it was still incredibly hot and toxic. Who was unable to evacuate was exposed to the effects of the carbon monoxide gas, the superheated air, or the flames themselves. Approximately half of the dead were unburned. Some bodies were florid with a cherry-red hue, indicative of carbon-monoxide poisoning. The bodies of the hundred or more who died in the room of the fire’s origin took on a shiny yellow tint (Holbrook 2). At 10:15 pm, the firefighters received an alarm from the corner of Stuart and Broadway. When the call was attended, a small fire was happening in an automobile, being quickly extinguished. When about to leave, the firefighters noticed smoke coming out of the Cocoanut Grove. Upon their arrival at the Broadway Lounge, also on Broadway, they found a big number of people leaving the club with hysteria. Immediately, more alarms were sent. With the arrival of other firefighters, all the streets around the building became congested with emergency vehicles and equipments.
Rescue operations started right away with the help of policemen, military men, and civilians. The results were catastrophic. “Fire officials stated that over 900 people had crammed into the confines of the Cocoanut Grove on that night of the tragedy. About 600 had jammed into the main dining room, which had a legal capacity of 400 (Holbrook 2).Many deaths were caused by the fact that the public was unfamiliar with the location of the emergency exits, which signs were hidden by decorations. There were only two doors that an average customer in a hurry to escape would have known. The first was the one on Piedmont Street. The second, around the corner on Broadway. In addition to those, there were more seven other doors. In his published dissertation about the Cocoanut Grove fire, Esposito assures that Welansky had decided to keep locked or obscured all the emergency doors, discouraging people from skipping on their checks. He also adds that no inspector from the City of Boston had ever challenged him on this practice (ch. 3). If the staff was well trained and the place prepared for emergency situations, all the exits had been open, allowing more people to get out alive. Also, there would have been less detention of gases, heat, and fire.
However, the survivors reported a terrible behavior by the employees. Nobody reacted with appropriate importance. They also said that one the security guards tried to block them from leaving the club until they proved the tabs were already paid. To complete the horror, the power also came off after a couple minutes of the fire’s start. The rooms were immersed in darkness. As desperate people tried to escape, they faced all kinds of barriers. Even with Tomaszewski, the busboy in question, confirming the actions described by the witnesses, it wasn’t considered the official explanation of the cause of the fire. Possible connections between Welansky and Tobin were consistently brought up. Pieces of evidence of the fire prove that he certainly had someone who would cover his unsafety and illegal actions. The Cocoanut Groove’s taxes had suspiciously been cut in half; the club’s electrical services had been done by unlicensed electricians using inappropriate materials; an ok was given by the fire inspection eight days before the tragedy; many of the club’s employees were later revelead to be unprepared for fire emergencies, also, legally too young.
Unfortunately, maybe all these factors wouldn’t have mattered since all the other codes and regulations were also overlooked. Beyond that, it was hard to ignore the procrastination of Boston’s government when the subject was standards of fire code safety. At the time of the tragedy, the city was under a very old building fire code. Back in these old fire codes, crowded nightclubs were not considered a place of public assembly. So, being able to avoid regulations that would apply for a public assembly, the Cocoanut Grove was an invitation to a disaster. However, the solution seemed to approach in 1939, when modifications were approved in the current fire code laws. But still, not that time. Unbelievably, Boston continued under the old regulations. In his article, Dudley describes that Mr. Tobin replied to this fact saying that many of the provisions of the new code were absolutely unacceptable not only to the Building Commissioner, but to himself, and to permit it without previous alterations would go against the public interest. This was discussed 21 months before the tragedy (6). It’s was agreed that revisions were necessary, though there was no explanation for why a disaster was needed to urge the mayor’s initiative.
As in many other disasters, the Cocoanut Grove fire also brought significant changes to the country, with positive changes in regulations concerning fire safety. In the year after the Grove fire, building codes were revised all over the country, in conformity with what was learned from the fire. However, there was an overall worry from many organs, like the NFPA, about how people would take the disaster. NFPA assures that the tragedy didn’t only happen because of the lack of laws, but mainly by its non-accomplishment. The public demanded to know the cause of the fire, but they also wanted to be sure that the legislation will assure the safety in public areas. Many of the building codes around the US were incomplete. Fire prevention legislation generally leaves much to be desired, but the Cocoanut Grove motivated people to follow the laws more restrictedly. Robert S. Moulton of the NFPA said that “The Cocoanut Grove nightclub tragedy, he declared, is clearly due to gross violation of several fundamental principles of fire safety, which have been demonstrated by years of experience in other fires, and which should be known to everybody.
According to reports after the fire, the most concerning topic was the lack of proper exits. Revolving doors are no longer allowed in public buildings. In case of emergency, it works as a death trap. Deaths were determined to have been the result of overcrowding combustible interior finishes, and inadequate egress. Subsequently, more jurisdictions began considering the adoption of the Life Safety Code, still known as Building Exits Code (Kaplan 13). With this code, nightclubs are considered a place of public assembly. Cities as St Louis, Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, Des Moines, Chicago, Kansas City, Albany, and Helena Montana updated their fire preventions four days after the event. Massachusetts also adopted new measures. With the widespread and numerous changes in fire safety regulations, the most notable advancements that had gained recognition can be summarized as:
All portions of a building used for public assemblies should have two separate and remote means of egress. The necessary number of reliable exits should be available for the expected occupancy. Exits should function only with approved panic hardware and swing with the direction of flow. Revolving doors are unacceptable as exits and must be flanked by a standard exit door.
No combustible materials should be used for decorations in places of public assembly. Materials used for interior finishes should conform to nationally recognized test methods.
Surprisingly, nightclubs and restaurants had not been considered in many jurisdictions as places of public assembly. After the fire, however, this changed.
Lights for an emergency situation should be permanently installed to allow egress from the building.
These lights should be reliable and independent from the regular lighting. 5. Automatic Sprinkler. Even though automatic sprinklers were barely pronounced, it was recognized that they would have dramatically changed the outcome of this fire. Even with this tragedy being entered in the records as with unknown origin, the shock of the fire’s deaths made society see the importance of fire regulations and emergency procedures. Unfortunately, without the fire it would probably have taken years to change.Despite the development and reinforcement of new law fire codes in public establishments, tragedies like the Cocoanut Grove make us wonder if society is any safer from such incidents. Clearly, follow-up inspections are as essential as the implementations of the change. People’s awareness of how fundamental principles of fire safety are should go beyond a matter of business; placing the safety of patrons above financial gain.