Are you reading this article at work? Via a public Wi-Fi hotspot at a coffee shop or airport? Anywhere in public? If so, look around you. You’ll probably see at least one door with one of those standard illuminated EXIT signs above it. You might notice that the exit door has a brightly colored handle, so as to be easy to see in case of a smoky fire. You might also have noticed that just about every door leading to the outside in a public building – be it an office, a church, a shopping mall or a school – pushes out from the inside, rather than pulls in, so that in case of emergency the people inside can exit the building as quickly as possible. You might have even noticed that buildings that have revolving doors always have at least one “normal” door next to the exit, so that if there’s some emergency people aren’t stuck waiting to walk through the revolving door.
All of these fire\emergency safety precautions might seem like common sense today. But it took one of the greatest tragedies in American history for such changes to become required by law. That tragedy was the Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942.
The Cocoanut Grove nightclub was the place to be in early WWII-era Boston. The club had a maximum official occupancy of 460, but the club was so popular that it often had two or three times that amount inside. And it’s not difficult to see why everyone would want in: the club was a virtual paradise inside, a lush, tropical-themed club lined with artificial palm trees and cloth coverings on the walls and ceilings. The club even had a retractable roof that was opened in the summer months so that the club’s patrons – a lot of them soldiers and sailors on their last fling before setting off to fight in Europe – could dance under the stars. The club had a main floor which had your basic bar and dance floor setup, a dining room upstairs, and an intimate lounge downstairs. If a GI played his cards right, he could spend an entire evening there: after a nice dinner upstairs, he could go downstairs for drinks and dancing on the main floor, and then go down to one of the dark corners of the lounge for a make-out session if he’d been lucky.
The night of November 28th began much like any other at the Cocoanut Grove. Over 1,000 people were inside around 10pm. Bandleader Mickey Alpert was about to kick off his group’s second show of the evening in the dining room. People were drinking, talking and carousing. Downstairs in the Melody Lounge, a soldier unscrewed a light bulb from its fixture, so as to get some privacy whilst making out with his date. The couple left shortly thereafter, and a bartender instructed a 16 year-old busboy named Stanley Tomaszewski to put the bulb back in. Tomaszewski went to the sofa and attempted to screw the bulb back in. The bulb must have been quite loose because the bulb fell off into Tomaszewski’s hand. Try as he might, he just couldn’t find the socket in the dark, so he lit a match to light up the area. He found the socket, screwed in the bulb, and walked away.
Almost immediately, witnesses reported seeing flames break out amongst the palm fronds. It appears that the bartenders and staff made a heroic attempt to put out the fire with ice buckets full of water, but the flames moved too quickly, feeding on the flimsy paper palm trees and the satin wall coverings. The fire seemed to almost have a mind of its own, and a malevolent mind at that. It raced up the stairs, turned into a massive fireball and made its way across the main dance floor. From there it moved into one of the side bars, then another, then raced up the stairs to the dining room. Within minutes, the entire block-long nightclub was on fire.
As you might guess, panic quickly ensued amongst the people inside the club. Many attempted to leave via the club’s main door – a revolving door. People began pushing and shoving, so much so that bodies fell into the door and jammed it shut. In fact, when Boston firefighters arrived they had to remove the door altogether to get inside the club. There were emergency exits, of course, but most were either locked or welded shut to prevent people from skipping out on their tabs. Other doors were available, but these opened inwards from the outside, and the sheer crush of people against the doors kept them closed. There was even a large plate glass window that could have been used to escape, had it not been boarded up at the time.
All in all, 492 people died in the fire and hundreds more were injured. Popular cowboy actor Buck Jones was one of the dead, as were a couple that had been married that same day. A sailor named Clifford Johnson went back into the building at least four times searching for his girlfriend. He developed third-degree burns over 50% of his body as a result of his chivalry; little did he know that she had already escaped without harm. The Boston College football team – nationally known and undefeated so far that season – were scheduled to hold a victory party at the Cocoanut Grove that evening; a loss that afternoon to Holy Cross led the team to cancel it. All in all, the Cocoanut Grove fire was a living nightmare. So many people had rushed the jammed front door that many began dying from smoke inhalation as soon as they got to the back of the “line” (such as it was). The pile of bodies was said to extend nine feet from the revolving door.
But some good came of the fire. Most states quickly adopted new rules for nightclubs, theatres and other public places as a result of the disaster. One of those rules included the standard EXIT signs you see today. Another was the adoption of doors that open outwards from the inside; this rule was especially crucial, as Boston’s fire officials estimated that 300 additional people could have survived the fire had the Cocoanut Grove had such doors. Yet another was a rule that places having revolving doors now had to either have a standard door next to the revolving one, or to install revolving doors with “wings” that would quickly fold flat and create a exit in case of emergency. Most states also overhauled their fire inspection procedures and gave their inspectors more teeth to fine owners of failing buildings. Doctors also learned a great deal from the fire, including how to treat inhalation injuries, the use of topical antibiotics on burns, and the metabolic consequences of thermal injury – all of them standard procedures in hospitals to this day.
Like the sinking of the Titanic or the Hindenburg explosion, the Cocoanut Grove fire has long held a grim fascination for some. And for years people wondered how the fire moved so quickly and explosively. Certainly all of the cheap paper decorations helped the fire along, as did the flammable fabric lining the ceiling and the walls. But neither of those could have created the huge fireball that swept the dance floor… What could have caused it? The findings of an exhaustive investigation carried out in 1997 pointed to methyl chloride – an extremely flammable gas that was used as a refrigerant at the time. Maintenance records indicated that one of the coolers in the lounge was leaking coolant, so once the small frond fire hit the gas, a disaster was guaranteed.