Cocoanut Grove Fire: Made America Safer

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How the Cocoanut Grove Fire Made America Safer

The tragic story of the Cocoanut Grove Fire on Piedmont Street near downtown Boston is a telling reminder of how important progress is often etched from terrible beginnings. On Nov. 28, 1942, more than 492 people died from wounds sustained in the fast-moving gaseous inferno engulfing the small nightclub, marking it the second-worst fire in United States history. Frantic efforts by medical personnel to save lives, and the very public investigation which unfolded in the days following, led to unprecedented changes to building fire codes, medical treatment, legal directives, and even grief counseling.

The night began with an unexpected win over Boston College by underdog Holy Cross College. The exciting matchup attracted football fans from across Massachusetts, who streamed into downtown to celebrate and enjoy the winter evening with friends and family. Nightclubs were packed, so much so that the Cocoanut Grove was one of the few still accepting patrons after 9 p.m. By early evening, the 10,250-square-foot club was at double capacity, entertaining more than 1,000 people in its labyrinth of dining and bar space.

Cocoanut Grove back story

Downstairs in the basement Melody Lounge, an amorous couple had unscrewed a light bulb, plunging a corner of the island-themed bar into darkness. A young busboy attempted to replace the bulb and, as he did, ignited a match. Within minutes, the silk cloth layering the ceiling and fabric on artificial palm trees exploded into an inferno of roiling gas flames. With nothing to stop it, the fire drove towards a small staircase, condensed, and pushed upwards into the foyer and main dining areas. The fireball moved so quickly wooden strips underneath the ceiling cloth were essentially untouched and survivors simply dropped to the floor of the lounge.

Although the young man was later exonerated of any wrongdoing – bad electrical wiring ran throughout the building and the official cause was “of unknown origins” — this version of the tale followed him for a lifetime. No matter how the fire first started, investigators agreed, it should not have killed nearly 500 people.

Inside the Cocoanut Grove the night of the fire

Like many clubs of its era, the Grove included a dance floor, tableside dining service, and intimate bars. Entire families, including teens on dates, would crowd into a nightclub. On this particular evening, cowboy movie star Buck Jones had been coaxed into visiting.

When the fire started, lights went out immediately, and patrons stumbled in darkness toward exits. What they found were locked doors, improperly designed exits, and a single revolving door to Piedmont Street. Later, witnesses reported bodies piled on top of each other, crushed up against inside-swinging exit doors.

The luckiest patrons followed employees who were familiar with the Grove’s dark corridors or climbed up and through windows, dropping to rooftops and then climbing down via ladders.

Burns were indescribable and many victims died from pulmonary edema caused by noxious gas fumes.

Five-alarm fire rescue

The five-alarm fire required 25 fire engines and the assistance of the Navy, Army, Coast Guard, and National Guard. The injured were transported in newspaper delivery trucks, taxis and any other means of transportation available. Ironically, the first crew arrived within minutes of the fire’s inception. Yet, because the fire moved so quickly, it was the “human wreckage” that clogged operations and curtailed water to the fire. Firefighters later reported claw marks on their legs from the mass of people struggling to escape.

Despite the fire brigade’s quick work, casualties soon overwhelmed local Boston City Hospital, which received a remarkable one patient every 11 seconds before victims were diverted to Mass General Hospital. The dead were sent directly to mortuaries and then to a temporary one established next door in a film distribution garage.

How the Cocoanut Grove Fire changed our lives

The fire spurred substantial changes to building design, burn injury treatment, and grief management, and initiated new legal precedents. Within days of the fire, cities’ across the nation had enacted new building code requirements.

Building codes were changed to include:

  • Revolving doors modified to include outward-opening doors
  • Clearly marked exit doors
  • Exit doors free of any blockage
  • Use of non-combustible decorations and building materials
  • Emergency lighting with separate power sources

Burn treatments advanced in four categories:

  • Fluid retention
  • Infection prevention (MGH recorded the first use of penicillin to fight infection on burn victims)
  • Respiratory trauma
  • Surgical management of skin surfaces

Interestingly, the competing hospitals used two different methods for treating burns. MGH tested a ‘soft’ technique of gauze and petroleum while BCH used purple dyes to coat skin and fight infection. The ensuing survival rates drove future study in burn care. Additionally, the use of anesthetics and skin grafts became a staple of medical teams treating soldiers during WWII.

Legal outcomes:

  • Club owner Barney Welansky was found guilty of “consciously failing to fix dangerous conditions,” a legal precedent for the time. Welansky was charged with involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 12–15 years in Charlestown State Prison.
  • 10 people were charged, including the building commissioner, the building inspector, and the club builder.
  • 400 civil suits were filed; each family received $150.

Grief counseling:

Many individuals lost family members, and the resulting trauma created what would be the first systematic study of grief and survivors’ guilt. Although officially 492 died and 116 individuals were injured, counting fatalities is not straightforward, as reported by the fire commissioner. Sadly, some survivors would go on to commit suicide.

The Grove story does not end here.

This remarkable and sad event is carefully recorded in Boston’s fire history archives. If you’re interested in a full accounting of how this fire changed our future, check out these links:

The Hundred Club — Serving the Community

At The Hundred Club of Mass., we care for those who care for us. When these everyday people-turned-heroes lose their lives in the line of duty, we are here for their families. We have helped beneficiary families since 1959. Our assistance encompasses college scholarships, financial and legal support, counseling, and enrichment programs. Help us help those who dedicate their lives to serving and protecting our communities. When a police officer or firefighter dies, in many cases, their paycheck and insurance stop before their death benefits begin, which is where the Hundred Club steps in to help. Your generosity provides immediate support to the families of these everyday heroes — funds they can rely upon to pay rent, groceries, and other bills. Help us continue the tradition of caring for those who care for us. Donate to the Survivor Benefits Fund:

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