Boston, MA Cocoanut Grove Club Fire, Nov 1942
The Cocoanut Grove was Boston's premier nightclub during the post-Prohibition 1930s and 1940s. On November 28, 1942, this club was the scene of the deadliest nightclub fire in history, killing 492 people (which was 32 more than the building's authorized capacity) and injuring hundreds more. The enormity of the tragedy shocked the nation and briefly replaced the events of World War II in newspaper headlines. It led to a reform of safety standards and codes across the country, and major changes in the treatment and rehabilitation of burn victims.
It was the second-deadliest single-building fire in American history; only the 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago had a higher death toll, of 605. It was only two years after the Rhythm Club Fire which had killed 209.
[The fire] quickly spread along the fronds of the palm tree, igniting decorations on the walls and ceiling. Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of patrons stumbling up the stairs. A fireball burst across the central dance floor as the orchestra was beginning its evening show. Flames raced through the adjacent Caricature Bar, then down a corridor to the Broadway Lounge. Within five minutes, flames had spread to the main clubroom and the entire nightclub was ablaze.
As is common in panic situations, many patrons attempted to exit through the main entrance, the same way they had entered. The building's main entrance was a single revolving door, rendered useless as the panicked crowd scrambled for safety. Bodies piled up behind both sides of the revolving door, jamming it to the extent that firefighters had to dismantle it to enter. Later, after fire laws had tightened, it would become illegal to have only one revolving door as a main entrance without being flanked by outward opening doors with panic bar openers attached, or have the revolving doors set up so that the doors could fold against themselves in emergency situations.
Other avenues of escape were similarly useless: side doors had been bolted shut to prevent people from leaving without paying. A plate glass window, which could have been smashed for escape, was boarded up and unusable as an emergency exit. Other unlocked doors, like the ones in the Broadway Lounge, opened inwards, rendering them useless against the crush of people trying to escape. Fire officials later testified that, had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared. Many young soldiers perished in the disaster, as well as a newly married couple.
As night deepened, the temperature dropped. Water on cobblestones froze. Hoses froze to the ground. Newspaper trucks were appropriated as ambulances. From nearby bars, soldiers and sailors raced to assist. On the street, firefighters lugged out bodies and were treated for burned hands. Smoldering bodies, living and dead, were hosed in icy water. Some victims had ingested fumes so hot that when they inhaled cold air, as one firefighter put it, they dropped like stones.
Later, during the cleanup of the building, firefighters found several dead guests sitting in their seats, with drinks in their hands. They had been overcome so quickly by fire and toxic smoke that they hadn't had time to move.