Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about historic and deadly fires that resulted in changes to U.S. fire and building codes.
The Cocoanut Grove fire of Nov. 28, 1942, took the lives of 492 people and sent another 166 to Boston-area hospitals. This is the deadliest known nightclub fire in the world.
It is also the second deadliest fire in U.S. history — the 1903 Iroquois Theater in Chicago had a death toll of more than 600.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the night of the Boston College and Holy Cross football game.
Almost a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, crowds were drawn to nightclubs and similar venues in an attempt to forget the Second World War, if even for just a few hours. Clubs and theaters were pushed to their limits.
According to the Cocoanut Grove Coalition, “Already a very popular venue, a new bar, the New Broadway Lounge, had recently opened within the nightclub. The nightclub was very crowded, with some estimates as high as a thousand people.
“The fire was first noticed around 10:15 p.m. in the Melody Lounge, which was located in the basement. According to witnesses, it immediately spread throughout the Melody Lounge between the false cloth ceiling and the plywood ceiling above it, then ascended the stairway.”
According to a 1970 report on the fire by Boston District Fire Chief John P. Vahey, he said the club reported on a 1942 license the premises contained 100 tables, 400 chairs and 30 fixed stools. The same records do not indicate the number of people allowed.
Originally a garage and warehouse complex when built in 1916, the building had been converted to a one-and-a-half-story complex of dining rooms, bars and lounges. Additions had been added to the building and a rolling roof installed over the dance floor.
Vahey’s report notes many rooms were decorated with draping fabrics along walls, ceilings or both.
Vahey’s report details the path the fire traveled and how it caught patrons off guard.
“As the fire rushed up the stairway it traveled near the ceiling and above the heads of the persons ascending to make their way out of the building. The movement of this fire and great volume of carbon monoxide gas generated by lack of oxygen was accelerated by the narrow (4 feet) width of stairway, which acted like a chimney adding a draft of suction to the room below. In the stairway, the partially unburned gas rapidly mixed with air and increased the temperature and rapidity of flow.”
The fire spread to the first floor of the club within two to four minutes. Most lights in the building went out after the fire began. Other factors contributed to the destructive nature of the fire.
“The fire in the corridor of the Foyer appeared to have been accelerated by a large ventilating fan placed over the further end of the Caricature Bar, acting to draw air from the foyer along the length of the Caricature Bar,” Vahey wrote. “Some few persons, including persons coming from the basement Melody Lounge, passed through the revolving door on Piedmont Street before the mass of flames reached it. The door then appears to have jammed.”
Vahey also noted in his report the majority of those on the street floor level of the club had no warning of the fire until the flames actually appeared in the lobby.
The burning of wall coverings as the fire entered the dining hall produced gaseous material that furthered combustion and rapid movement. The fire then spread through the dining hall and into the Broadway Lounge.
“Persons attempting to pass through the exits were overcome by the great heat of fire and of the gaseous material pouring through them at the time,” according to the 1970 report. “The fire, within five minutes after it was first seen in the basement room, entirely traversed the street floor of the main building and had passed to the entrance to the Broadway Lounge.”
According to a National Fire Protection Association synopsis of the Cocoanut Grove fire, all of the hazards at the club were addressed by the 1942 edition of the “Building Exits Code.”
“The main problems appear to have been the chaotic condition of Boston’s building regulations and lax enforcement.”
One of the biggest problems with the club were the exits that were locked, or otherwise hidden from the public by false walls, or painted and draped for intended use by staff.
The 1942 edition of the “Building Exits Code” prohibited revolving doors as exits in places of assembly, and required those that use revolving doors to have swinging doors immediately adjacent or within 20 feet.
According to the NFPA, there were few “new” lessons to be learned from the Cocoanut Grove fire. The danger of locked, blocked and concealed exits already was known.ɭ