Remembering the Fire That Led to an Overhaul of Fire Codes

On Nov. 28, 1942, a massive fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston took the lives of 492 people and injured hundreds more. It is the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history and the second deadliest single-building fire in the United States, second only to the Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago that took the lives of 602 people in 1903.

This tragic event was the catalyst for significant changes to U.S. fire codes and safety standards.

Read FireRescue Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach’s perspective on lessons learned from the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire.

Tragedy Points Out Safety Issues
The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub was located at 17 Piedmont St. It had a tropical theme, decorated with palm trees made of flammable paper, cloth draperies covering the ceiling and flammable furniture. It was reported that some decorations obscured exit signs.

The fire started at approximately 2215 HRS, immediately causing widespread panic among the 1,000 nightclub patrons (well beyond the club’s official capacity of 460). Flames quickly spread along the palm fronds, igniting other decorations and racing up the stairway to the club’s main level.

A few blocks away, firefighters were extinguishing a car fire when they saw smoke at the nightclub and headed that direction. The fire response ultimately included 187 firefighters, 26 engine companies, five ladder companies, three rescue companies and one water tower.

Many patrons tried to exit via the main entrance, a single revolving door; however, bodies quickly piled up at the door, rendering it useless. It was reported that other means of egress were similarly useless. For example, side doors had been bolted shut, and a plate glass window had been boarded up. Other doors opened inward, making it difficult to open against the influx of people trying to escape. Fire officials later testified that, had the doors swung outward, at least 300 lives could have been spared. Additionally, the building did not have an automatic fire sprinkler system.

In the years following the fire, many states enacted laws for public establishments related to public safety. Specifically,

  • Flammable decorations and inward-swinging exit doors were banned;
  • Exit signs were required to be visible at all times;
  • It was required that revolving doors used for egress be flanked by at least one normal, outward-swinging door, or retrofitted to permit the individual doors to fold flat to permit free-flowing traffic.

As to the cause of the fire, in 1997, new information and improved understanding of fire dynamics led to the determination that the flash fire was caused by extremely flammable methyl chloride leaking from a faulty refrigerator in a service area near the downstairs Melody Lounge.

The official Boston Fire Department report of the fire can be viewed here.

In 1993, the Bay Village Neighborhood Association built a memorial to the tragedy where the club formerly stood.