80 years ago, the deadliest nightclub fire in US history took place in Boston. 492 people were killed in 15 minutes by a raging inferno. The Cocoanut Grove – a supper club, located on 17 Piedmont Street, near Park Square – caught fire on November 28, 1942. This place was a fire trap. According to the Business Insider, it was filled to over twice its capacity. Doors were locked to stop patrons from bolting on their bills. The walls and decor were filled with highly flammable materials. It was the perfect storm but for a massive and deadly fire, and here’s how it happened.
According to Boston Fire Historical Society, around 10:15pm, a busboy was directed by a bartender to fix a broken light bulb located at the top of an artificial palm tree in the corner of the Melody Lounge – a bar in the basement of the supper club. To generate some light, the busboy lit a match to see what he was doing to replace the light bulb. Flames erupted in the fake palm tree. Staff tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire.
Patrons began to head to the only public exit from the Melody Lounge – a four-foot-wide set of stairs leading to the Foyer on the first floor. The furniture and decor ignited and a fireball of flame and toxic gas spread across the room toward the stairs. Panic ensued and patrons tried to exit through the emergency exit door at the top of the stairs but could not. The fireball traveled up the stairs and burst into the foyer area, where coatrooms, restrooms and the main entrance were located. Customers upstairs then quickly moved towards the exit. Only a small number of people were able to leave. The revolving door became jammed due to the crush of panicked guests. “Observers outside could only watch in horror as relatives and friends were crushed by the weight of the crowd surging against the jammed door.”
The fire then exploded into the main dining room area, where a majority of the patrons were crowded together into small chairs and tables, waiting for the start of the 10 o’clock show, which was already 15 minutes late. It was later estimated that more than 1000 persons were inside the club at the time of the fire.
Coincidently, the Boston Fire Department received a call for a fire around 10:15pm for a car fire three blocks from the Cocoanut Grove. After putting out the car fire, a firefighter noticed smoke coming from the Cocoanut Grove. When they arrived at the supper club, firefighters found a heavy smoke condition coming from the entire building, with people fleeing the building to escape the fire. At 10:20pm, the Boston Fire Alarm Office (FAO) received Box 1521, Church and Winchester Streets, apparently pulled by a civilian bystander. The fire chief at the scene skipped the 2nd Alarm and ordered a 3rd Alarm, then quickly followed by a 4th Alarm at 10:24pm and then a 5th Alarm at 11:02pm.
The small streets near the Cocoanut Grove became filled with fire apparatus and other emergency vehicles. The fire was extinguished in a matter of minutes but the damage was done. Rescue and recovery operations began immediately and getting inside to help proved to be as difficult as getting out of the building.
An urgent call for help was issued by the BFD. Navy, Army, Coast Guard and National Guard personnel were called in to assist in the evacuation and removal of the injured. Newspaper delivery trucks, taxis, and other vehicles were used to transport the injured. The majority of the injured were taken to Boston City Hospital. Others were taken to Massachusetts General Hospital. A temporary morgue was created in film distribution garage near the club.
The final death count was 492 dead and 166 injured. The number of injured was a count of those treated at a hospital and later released. The death count in a single fire event is only exceeded by Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre Fire of December 30, 1903 which killed 603 people – mostly children and the September 11, 2001 when 2,750 people died via a combination of fire and building collapse.
This devastating fire led to changes in fire regulations, rules around revolving doors, treatment of burn victims and an advance in understanding grief and post-traumatic stress disorder.
So 80 years later, we remember, and we learn from the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston.
Image via Boston Fire Historical Society