Written By: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
On November 28, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove fire killed 492 people in Boston, MA. In one night, that fire inspired change in building code across the country, advanced medical treatment for burn victims, popularized the use of penicillin, and put the mob on display. It became the deadliest nightclub fire in history and the second deadliest building fire in U.S. history, it follows the Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago with 602 victims.
The Cocoanut Grove nightclub was the hot spot in Boston. It opened in 1927, owned by mafia Gangboss Charles "King" Solomon. Solomon was killed in 1933, and his attorney Barnet "Barney" Welansky took over the club.
Welansky ran a tight ship. He saved money wherever he could. His workers were either young teens that would work for low wages or men with mafia ties who worked as bouncers/waiters. He feared that customers would leave without paying and hid exits. They were bricked off or hidden behind drapery.
The club itself had a tropical feel. The roof rolled back to allow patrons to dance under the stars. The club was covered in faux leather, rattan, bamboo, satin, and heavy drapery. The ceilings were covered in canopies of silk. Even the support columns were wrapped in fabric and made to look like palm trees with light fixtures that hung down looking like coconuts. The nightclub consisted of a main room and several smaller bars and lounges.
A week before the fire, the Boston's Fire Prevention and Safety Department conducted an inspection. They determined that the wall coverings and other décor was not flammable. They also reported that there were enough exits and fire extinguishers.
With the fire taking place the week of Thanksgiving, it was very crowded that night. It is estimated that 1,000 Thanksgiving tourists, wartime servicemen, football fans, and others were in the club that night. The occupancy limit was set at 460 people.
At 10:15pm, the fire ignited in the Melody Lounge. A piano lounge off the main room. Eye witnesses say that a young man unscrewed a light bulb to steal a private moment with his date. A busboy was asked to screw the bulb back in. It was so dark that the teenager sparked a match to find the bulb. The match quickly ignited the faux palm trees and spread to the other décor. The fabric draped from the ceiling began burning and sending sparks and burning shards of fabric raining down on the patrons.
The fire spread through the business when a fireball burst through the front entryway and hit the caricature bar (where famous patron's pictures were displayed). It went through the caricature bar, down to the Broadway Lounge, across the restaurant and to the dance floor in a few minutes. Only one exit was usable and visible.
As patrons stampeded to the only visible exit, a revolving door, it was rendered useless as people fell and piled on top of each other. The pile grew and grew until the door broke. The sudden burst of oxygen caused a fire ball that burned all of the people trying to get out.
Following the fire, officials testified that if the doors were outward swinging, about 300 people would have been saved. This fire inspired several fire safety laws to become a national requirement. It became illegal to have only a revolving door as the main entrance. Revolving doors now need to be able to fold and open manually or be flanked by doors that open outward.
During the investigation, the busboy who lit the fire was exonerated because he was not responsible for the flammable décor or life safety violations. Barney Welansky, the bar owner, was convicted of 19 counts of manslaughter (the court picked 19 victims at random) and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison in 1943. He was pardoned 4 years later by Massachusetts Governor Maurice Tobin (who was mayor of Boston at the time of the fire) when Welansky became riddled with cancer. When he was released he said that he had wished that he died in the fire with the other victims. He died 9 weeks later.
In February 1942, 21 months before the fire, NFPA released and approved new fire codes. Boston did not adopt them and it was proven that many of these codes would have saved hundreds of lives in the fire.
• Exits available in reasonable travel distance
• At least two ways out remote from each other - additional exits according to the number of persons and relative fire danger.
• Exit path marked, unobstructed, and lit.
• Plain view of favored types of emergency exits.
• Evacuation drills that are well-planned and frequently practiced.
• Only collapsible revolving doors on required exits.
In addition, William A. Reilly made the recommendations below based on the Cocoanut Grove fire.
• Installation of automatic sprinklers in any room occupied as a restaurant, nightclub, or place of entertainment.
• Prohibition of the use of basement rooms as places of assembly, unless provision is made for at least two direct means of access to the street with installation of metal-covered automatic closing fire doors being required in any passage of existing between basement floor and first floor.
• Requirement of defined aisle space between tables in restaurants, such tables to be firmly affixed to the floor to prevent upsetting and obstruction of means of egress.
• Exit doors in places of assembly to have so-called panic locks and no others. Such exits to be marked by illuminated "EXIT" signs with the minimum candle power to be specified in the law, and supplied by an electrical system. Such system might also be permitted to serve a few recessed of box-type fixtures, for emergency use as a guide light in the event of failure of the main lighting system.
• Absolute prohibition in any place of assembly of the use of any suspended cloth false ceiling.
• Window openings of sufficient area, equipped with louvers secured by a fusible link so as to open automatically when subjected to heat, for the purpose of drawing flames or gases, should be required in basement rooms used as places of assembly.
Boston adapted this code in May of 1943. However, it was not retroactive and only applied to new construction.