How the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire changed fire safety

The fast-moving Cocoanut Grove fire killed nearly 500 and changed fire safety and burn treatment as we know it


Updated July 6, 2017

Quickly after the Japanese attack on the American naval fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor, Americans prepared for fighting on a global scale. The war ultimately brought far ranging and unprecedented social, economic and technological change on a scale that no one could have then predicted.

The wartime awareness that people you knew might be killed very soon meant making the most of the time you had to share. That was the case in Boston on a Saturday evening late in November with a crowd expecting an evening of entertainment and fun with family and friends.

But those expectations would not be fulfilled. Instead, a nightclub fire would change not only their lives, it would impact the very future of fire and life safety for buildings.

The burn victims of the fire that evening at the Cocoanut Grove paid the greatest price for society's failure to enforce minimum safety requirements.

Massachusetts General EMS response

But they also served as test patients for the medical treatment of severe burns, and what was learned would help many future military personnel burned in both accidents and combat. This new medical knowledge also would be used to treat the civilian burn victims of the Hartford Circus Fire almost two years later.

That night, Dr. Oliver Cope of Massachusetts General Hospital, having just participated in a research project on burn treatment, would have the opportunity to test the new methods on the Cocoanut Grove fire victims.

The fire was also a test of Massachusetts General's newly developed war disaster plan. That night and through their long treatment and recovery, the burn victims received penicillin, a relatively new drug at the time, to fight wound infection.

Box 1521 fire alarm

"It's the Cocoanut Grove and it's going like hell!"

These were the words shouted by a Boston police officer from a radio-equipped patrol car as it passed the dooryard of the firehouse where Ladder 15 and its crew were moving to answer a third alarm for Box 1521.

The date was Nov. 28, 1942. The time was 10:23 p.m., and by a twist of fate, the Boston Fire Department had responded to a car fire near Box 1541 about 15 minutes earlier, roughly three blocks from the Cocoanut Grove.

The firefighters of Engine 22 and Ladder 13 found a vehicle fire on Stuart Street. While picking up after extinguishing the minor car fire, a civilian ran to them and told 22's captain, John Glynn, of a fire at the Cocoanut Grove. The officer quickly ordered the apparatus to respond to check out the report.   

Inside the Cocoanut Grove

From outside, the Cocoanut Grove looked inconsequential. The structure was originally built as a garage and later housed a film distribution business. But the Cocoanut Grove was now an overcrowded nightclub where no one present expected anything but fun, much less a fire.

However, around 10:15 p.m., a fire broke out in the crowded Melody Lounge in the basement. The fire quickly developed spreading fire, heat and smoke vertically to the foyer upstairs and across the ceiling into the main dining area. The fierce flames then raced horizontally through a passageway and into the Broadway Lounge. The fire's deadly path covered approximately 225 feet and involved two levels of the building, from end to end, in about five minutes.

On the outside, the quick arriving firefighters found heavy smoke pushing from the building as patrons and employees fled. At 10:20 p.m., Boston's Fire Alarm Office received Box 1521 for Church and Winchester Streets (pulled by a civilian bystander).

The fire chief on scene ordered his aide to skip the second alarm and go straight to a third alarm, via fire alarm telegraph, from Box 1521. This order transmitted at 10:23 p.m. was followed quickly by a fourth alarm at 10:24 p.m. and a fifth alarm at 11:02 p.m.

Firefighters Rose and Estes

Riding the tailboard of Engine 22, Boston firefighters Johnny Rose and Bill Estes were eyewitnesses to the scene of horror and death in the doorway of the Grove's Broadway Lounge. The firefighters reacted quickly, connected to a hydrant, and advanced a line, as pump operator Joe McNeil charged the line to feed their nozzle.

The two firefighters faced a plug of humans jammed in the exit with flames spitting over their heads. The roaring fire was in search of the necessary oxygen needed to sustain its combustion and it was in the same path as the means of escape.

With no chance of helping the burning victims by pulling them out, Rose and Estes tipped their nozzle upward into the flame-path to cool the heat. As the stream struck the ceiling and broke into droplets of spray, the water provided at least some protection to those jammed in the exit.

The narrow and congested streets around the Grove clogged with fire apparatus, police cars and ambulances.

The fire, although extinguished in short order, took a great toll in lives. Although rescue and body recovery operations began immediately near the exits, firefighters would find greater horrors deep inside the building. Patrons who had exited collapsed in the street and stacks of bodies, both living and dead, piled up by the exits.

The final death count established by the investigating commission was 490 dead and 166 injured. The number of injured was tallied by counting those treated at a hospital and later released. Many more patrons were injured and did not seek hospitalization. As the years went by, 492 fatalities were recognized.

Safety lessons learned from Cocoanut Grove

After a thorough investigation of the fire, officials focused on improving safety in similar venues by reclassifying restaurants and nightclubs as places of public assembly thereby mandating more stringent regulations. Automatic fire sprinkler system requirements were included, depending on occupant load and building configuration.

Regulations for emergency exit doors were changed to ensure that all exit doors swing outward. Illuminated exit signage and emergency lighting was required. Requirements for widely separated means of egress for higher occupancy loads and minimum exit widths were established. More attention was given to flame spread and smoke development.

Another important change involved revolving doors. Such doors would be required to have the individual leaves collapse and fold backward or out of the way to permit passage on both sides of the hinge or alternatively to have conventional doors on both or either side of revolving doors depending on occupant load.

Around the fire service today, you hear the phrase, "expect fire" and you might wonder what that really means. Don't we always expect fire?

Clearly civilians tend not to expect fire, but firefighter should and must expect fire and always expect the fire to be the worst. Read more about historic fires and the Cocoanut Grove fire, and as you read, imagine if you had been riding Engine 22 that night. 

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