28 Nov What Happened on This Day: Deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history takes the lives of almost 500 people 80 years ago
The intended tropical paradise that was the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub was anything but on November 28, 1942. It was Thanksgiving weekend when the Boston, MA nightclub turned from an idyllic island setting to a ferocious firetrap when 492 clubgoers and diners lost their lives and another 166 were injured.
Encompassing half-a-city block, the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub was one-and-a-half stories tall and featured a complex layout of bars, lounges, and dining rooms. On the Saturday night after Thanksgiving, it was filled beyond compacity with approximately 1,000 people in the club which was well above the 460-person occupancy limit. It was packed with revelers who had attended the Boston College-Holy Cross football game earlier that day and were celebrating the Crusaders’ 55-12 upset victory. Cocoanut Grove was also a hotspot for celebrities and entertainers to congregate and perform. In fact, Buck Jones, a popular movie star of the era, perished in the fire that night.
Around 10:15 p.m. a small fire started in the club’s basement-level piano bar, the Melody Lounge, which led to the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. The blaze ignited quickly because artificial palm fronds made of highly combustible materials on the interior décor’s faux palm trees acted as an accelerant. Quickly leaping to the heavy drapery and upward to a fabric-covered false ceiling, the fire spread rapidly across the ceiling to the staircase leading to the only entrance and exit of the Melody Lounge. The fire raced from the top of the Lounge’s stairs to the main floor where an estimated 700-800 diners were supping on dinner and drinks.
Panicked customers ran for the exits, but many of the doors were either non-functioning, boarded up, locked, or concealed. The building’s main entrance was the one that patrons were most familiar with, but it was a single revolving door that quickly became useless as it became jammed with frightened clubgoers anxious to escape the inferno nipping at their heels.
The fire moved very swiftly, taking only eight to 12 minutes to leave behind a pile of embers and ash. It moved so rapidly that some patrons were later found in their seats still holding their cocktails. It took firefighters a little over an hour to put the fire out. According to the Boston Fire Department’s official report, the cause of the fire was never determined.
Although the origin of the fire is unknown, there are several theories including one that a busboy who discarded a match was responsible. The most plausible theory, however, is that an electrical short from substandard wiring sparked methyl chloride, a highly flammable gas refrigerant being used in the air conditioning unit, to catch fire. Methyl chloride was being used rather than freon because it was in scarce supply due to World War II rationing.
Because it was the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history significant life and fire safety code regulations were made. Changes included limiting the flammability of interior finishes, furnishings, and fabrics that could be accelerants much like the club’s artificial palm trees. Restrictions were also placed on the combustibility of construction materials.
Additionally, building exit code regulations detailed in the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) 101 — Life Safety Code were changed. TERPconsulting’s Mark Hopkins, PE, a former member of NFPA 101’s Life Safety Code, Fundamentals, Correlating Committee, Fire Protection Systems technical committees, looks back at the code revisions the fire necessitated. “In the swell of terrified patrons evacuating the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub, its revolving doors became blocked leading to a significant loss of life. This resulted in the building and fire codes for egress at that time being updated to include a requirement that revolving doors can’t be the only available exit. At least one adjacent normal outswing door must also be provided,” explains Mark. “Other revisions to NFPA 101 included emergency exits being required to have panic locks, and the requirement of emergency lighting signage in designated stairs, aisles, corridors, and passageways leading to an exit in occupancies.”
In addition to major changes being made to building and fire codes, the tragedy led to new ways of caring for victims of burns and smoke inhalation. Boston City Hospital (BCH) received more than 300 (or 83 percent) of the fire victims that night which is cited as the greatest influx of patients to any civilian hospital in history, according to the NFPA. BCH’s Dr. Charles Lund and Dr. Newton Browder later drew on their experiences treating the fire’s hundreds of burn victims publishing “Estimation of the Areas of Burns” in 1944. This widely cited paper outlining modern burn care included a diagram called the Lund and Browder chart, which remains in use today.
Although it has been 80 years, the devastation at Cocoanut Grove continues to generate fascination. A 2019 award-winning documentary called “Six Locked Doors: The Legacy of Cocoanut Grove” recounts the unimaginable tragedy. According to the documentary’s publicity materials, the film features interviews with survivors who have never spoken on camera and showcases an extensive archive collection of photos, and unreleased vintage footage.
The Cocoanut Grove fire was instrumental in setting the standards for modern-day fire codes as well as instituting major changes in medicine related to treatments for burns and smoke inhalation.