The Cocoanut Grove Night Club was a favorite entertainment spot among the citizens of Boston...until the fire on November 28, 1942 when it became an inferno of agony and death.
Nine exits were available on the main floor of the Cocoanut Grove, but most customers only knew of the way that they had entered the club--through the revolving door. Also many of the other exits had doors that may have been locked. All doorways in the club opened inward, meaning that panicked patrons would press against a door holding it shut, ultimately causing a deadly and gruesome pile up of bodies.
The Melody Lounge was on the lower level of the club. It had two exits, but one of them was in the kitchen and most customers were unaware of it. A few customers did see it, and escaped the building that way. Others were able to break windows (except for the glass block windows and those with security bars on them). The main floor of the club was divided into several lounges with a maze of corridors between them. No fire doors were installed between the various lounges because the owner felt they would be an encumbrance and would cost too much.
Most of the lounges were decorated in a "Tahitian" style with paper palm trees and other very flammable materials. These included leather coverings on the walls which emitted particularly noxious fumes.
The club had a capacity of 500 people but 800-1000 people were in the club on November 28th, 1942. Smoking was allowed in the club, but the commonly accepted cause of the fire was that a waiter who had been sent to replace or repair a burnt out bulb lit a match to see the bulb. Evidently the match struck a paper palm tree and set it ablaze. At first the tree burned slowly while employees struggled to pull it away from the wall but they were ultimately unable to do so, and the faux ceiling made of paper and designed to look like a night sky caught fire. In search of a source of oxygen, the flames headed straight to the only exit patrons were aware of. It was a winding staircase similar to the meandering corridors in the upper level. Patrons escaping from the lower level were on fire, and and as they ran through the main level they spread the fire there.
The revolving door jammed almost immediately with customers pushing to move it in both directions, causing an unimaginable pile up of dead, crushed and burned bodies that would be found when firefighters were finally able to remove the revolving door.
In the final count, a horrifying 495 of the 800-1000 people in the club died. Some who failed to act quickly enough died suffocating at their tables. Bodies wedged against doors were burnt beyond recognition and/or trampled to death in the stampede. Entertainers in the club were able to escape by a stairway to the roof.
You can thank the Cocoanut Grove tragedy (and others) for the lighted exit signs and properly designed exits in public buildings today. So, the next time you enter a nightclub or theater, be sure to notice the posted exits and know how you could quickly reach them in a fire.
Books used for this article:
Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy and Its Aftermath by John C. Esposito. This is the single best source of information on the fire. A special section of the book is reserved for images of the nightclub before, during, and after the fire.
The Greatest Disasters of the 20th Century by Frances Kennett includes articles on several disasters including one about the Grove, and might be an especially good choice to buy since it includes equally good information on other disasters besides the fire at the Grove.
Websites used for this article:
Important Fires in History.