Eighty years ago, on November 28, 1942, just after 10 p.m., a 16-year-old busboy had been ordered to fix a light bulb located at the top of an artificial palm tree at the Cocoanut Grove “restaurant-supper club” in Boston, Mass. (legend has it the bulb had been unscrewed by a patron desiring more intimacy with his date in the Grove’s basement lounge). He lit a match to locate the socket for the light bulb, and moments later, a flicker of a flame in the palm tree quickly spread to the highly flammable cloth-covered ceiling.
The official Boston Fire Department report states that “from the first appearance of flame until it had explosively traversed the main dining room and passed, almost 225 feet away, to the entrance of the Broadway Lounge, the commissioner estimated at total time of five minutes at most. At this point in time all exits normally open to the public, of which each had something functionally wrong, were useless for a safe escape.” A revolving door at the main Piedmont Street entrance was the worst culprit; it became jammed as patrons pushed toward the door to escape. See “Cocoanut Grove: Estimated Path of Fire and Timeline,” below.
A combination of corruption, greed, and wanton disregard of local fire regulations led to the deadliest “nightclub” fire in U.S. history (Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903 ignominiously holds the title of deadliest fire in an assembly occupancy, with 602 fatalities). So lethal was this disaster—which occurred somewhat ironically in the National Fire Protection Association’s own backyard—that it is still taught to this day in architectural and engineering schools, as well as by the NFPA itself, as a cautionary tale.
Lessons learned. As a result of the fire, building codes were amended in Boston and elsewhere. Revolving doors were outlawed (and later reinstated, provided a revolving door is placed between two outward-opening exit doors). Exit doors were to be clearly marked, unlocked from within, and free from blockage by screens, drapes, and furniture. No combustible materials were to be used for decorations in places of public assembly. Sprinklers were recommended in any room occupied as a restaurant, night club, or place of entertainment. The definition of places of “public assembly” was changed (surprisingly, “restaurant-supper clubs” had not been considered as places of public assembly in many jurisdictions).
By the Numbers
The estimated occupancy of the club at the time of the fire (more than twice its legal capacity): 1,000
The total number of egress doors on the grade-level floor (all deemed “functionally wrong … useless for a safe escape”): 8
The number of egress doors in the basement: 1
The official number of victims: 492 dead and 166 injured (the number of deaths is disputed, the Boston Fire Department fire report states “490 deaths”).
The approximate number of bodies found piled up at the Piedmont Street revolving door entry: 200
The approximate number of bodies found at the in-swinging Broadway entry: 100
The number of victims received in one hour by Boston City Hospital (the highest admission rate ever recorded by a hospital in the U.S.): 300
The years served by Cocoanut Grove owner, Barney Welansky, of a 12-to-15-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter before being pardoned for health reasons: 3.5
Cocoanut Grove: Estimated Path of Fire and Timeline
A calamitous event like Cocoanut Grove doesn’t just happen. In this case, years of unethical behavior and negligence laid the groundwork for what would become the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. The lion’s share of the blame was attributed to the following factors: a total disregard of local fire regulations and building codes; a politically-connected club owner who sought maximum profits by regularly exceeding the nightclub’s legal capacity (all while cutting corners on the quality of construction, wiring, and interior finishes); and city inspectors—corrupt at worst, inept at best—who signed off on the veracity of the building’s safety.
The following illustrations are adapted from plans in the official fire report , the Boston Fire Historical Society, NFPA “Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove” (2007), and “NFPA Case Study: Nightclub Fires (2006)”. Also, from eyewitness accounts noted in “Fire in the Grove” (2005) by John C. Esposito. The plans may be inaccurate; fire pathways and timeline of events are estimated.
Officially, the Boston Fire Department report lists the “cause or causes” of the fire as “being of unknown origin.”
Credit: Illustrations by Tim Healey