Fire Class 277
The Coconut Grove Fire
The Coconut Grove fire happened on November 28, 1942. The nightclub was known as a premier nightclub during post-prohibition in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Boston, Massachusetts. The fire is known as the worst nightclub fire in U.S. history, taking the lives of 492 people and injuring hundreds more. On the night of the fire it was estimated that over 1000 Thanksgiving weekend revelers, wartime servicemen their sweethearts, football fans and others crammed into the space rated for a maximum of 460 people. It had a tropical theme decorated with palm trees made of flammable paper, cloth draperies covering the ceiling and flammable furniture. The owner of the nightclub at the time was Barnet “Barney” Welansky. He was known to be a tough boss who hired street thugs and bouncers as busboys, he locked exits, concealed others with draperies and even bricked up one emergency exit to prevent customers from leaving without paying. The Club had become one of the most popular nightspots, featuring a restaurant, dance floors, floor shows and piano-playing entertainers. Eight days before the fire, fire
department inspectors found “no flammable decorations” and sufficient exits and fire extinguishers.
On the night of the fire patrons of the nightclub claimed that a busboy was instructed to screw back in a lightbulb that possibly a soldier had unscrewed to get some privacy. The boy stepped on a chair to screw it back in, unable to see the bulb he lit a match that happened to be next to some of the hanging decorations. Witnesses said they first saw flames just moments after he extinguished the match. Although the lit match was close to the decorations where the fire was seen to begin the official record stated the source to be unknown.
Firefighters a few blocks away that night were extinguishing a car fire at the time when they saw smoke at the nightclub and headed in that direction. Official reports state that fire started approximately 2215 hours. The fire response ultimately included 187 firefighters, 26 engine companies, five ladder companies, three rescue companies and one water tower. The fire spread rapidly consuming everything in its path. Waiters tried to put out the fire with water as it spread along the fronds of the decorative palm trees. The flames raced faster than patrons could move, followed by thick clouds of smoke. People searched in panic all over to find exits in the dark smoke which were either non-functioning or hidden in non-public areas. The buildings entrance was a single revolving door, many people tried to make their way too but was rendered useless as the crowd stampeded in panic. As bodies piled up both sides of the door jammed, the fire incinerated whoever was left alive in the pile, approximately 200 bodies were found at the revolving doors. The other means of escape were useless; side doors were bolted shut, windows were boarded up and the other unlocked doors opened inwards, making them impossible to open in the crush of people trying to get out. Fire officials later testified that if the doors had been able to swing outward, at least 300 lives could have been spared, the building itself additionally did not have an automatic fire sprinkler system.