Fire Class 277
The Coconut Grove Fire
The Coconut Grove fire happened on November 28, 1942. The building, located in a garage and warehouse complex, made of brick and concrete, had been converted to a one-and-a-half-story meandering complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges. The building was mainly a single story with a partial lower level, except for a small upper level above the new lounge that contained dressing rooms and restrooms. The lower level contained the lounge as
well as the kitchen and liquor storage for the club. 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. Barney Welansky, whose connections had allowed the nightclub to operate while in violation of the loose standards of the day, was convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter (19 victims were randomly selected to represent the dead). Welansky was sentenced to 12-15 years in prison in 1943. He served nearly four years before being quietly pardoned by Massachusetts Governor Maurice J. Tobin, who had been mayor of Boston at the time of the fire. In 1997, new information and improved understanding of fire dynamics led to the determination that the flash fire was caused by extremely flammable methyl chloride leaking from a faulty refrigerator in a service area near the downstairs Melody Lounge. The gas exuded from enclosed spaces as its temperature rose and ignited rapidly as it mixed with oxygen above the entryway, up the stairway to the main floor and along ceilings. The fire accelerated as the stairway created a thermal draft, and the high-temperature gas fire ignited the wall and ceiling coverings in the foyer, which in turn exuded flammable gas.
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 the fire started at approximately 10:15 pm. 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, which many people tried to make their way to but was rendered useless as the crowd stampeded in panic. The employees of the establishment fared better in escaping than customers, owing to their familiarity with service areas, where the fire’s effects were less severe than in the public areas, and which provided access to additional window and door exits. 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 and 181 victims were taken to Massachusetts General and Boston City hospitals. Newspaper trucks were appropriated as ambulances. Smoldering bodies, living and dead, were hosed in icy water. Some victims had breathed fumes so hot that when they inhaled cold air, as one firefighter put it, they dropped like stones. 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. During the cleanup of the building, firefighters found several dead guests sitting in their seats with drinks in their hands. They had been overcome so quickly by fire and toxic smoke that they had not had time to move.
The fire resulted in some major changes in building and fire codes. Massachusetts and other states enacted laws for public establishments banning flammable decorations, inward-swinging exit doors, and requiring exit signs to be visible at all times, meaning that the exit signs had to have independent sources of electricity and be easily readable in even the thickest smoke. The new laws also required that revolving doors used for egress must either be flanked by at least one normal, outward-swinging door, or retrofitted to permit the individual door leaves to fold flat to permit free-flowing traffic in a panic situation, and further required that no emergency exits be chained or bolted shut in such a way as to bar escape through the doors during a panic or emergency situation. Exit signs were also required be visible at all times (meaning that the exit signs had to have independent sources of electricity and be easily readable in even the thickest smoke.) With these new laws, Commissions were established by several states that would levy heavy fines or even shut down establishments for infractions of any of these laws. These later became the basis for several federal fire laws and code restrictions placed on nightclubs, theaters, banks, public buildings, and restaurants across the nation. It also led to the formation of several national organizations dedicated to fire safety.
The five-alarm fire affected so many people that Massachusetts General Hospital, which treated a majority of the victims, averaged one victim per 11 seconds. As dozens of burned victims were transported to the hospital, Surgeons Francis Daniels Moore and Oliver Cope at Massachusetts General Hospital pioneered fluid resuscitation techniques for the burn victims, whose wounds were treated with soft gauze covered with petroleum jelly instead of tannic acid. The survivors of the fire were also among the first humans to be treated with the new antibiotic, penicillin. The drug was crucial in combating staphylococcus bacteria, which typically infect skin grafts. As a result of the success of penicillin in preventing infections, the US government decided to support the production and the distribution of penicillin to the armed forces. Alexandra Adler, a psychiatrist, worked with more than 500 survivors of the fire and conducting some of the earliest research on post-traumatic stress disorder.
After the club building was torn down in 1944, the street map of the vicinity changed due to urban renewal, with nearby streets being renamed or built over. For decades after the fire, this address was used as a parking lot. Much of the club’s former footprint, including what was the main entrance, now lies under the Revere Hotel. In 1993, the Bay Village Neighborhood Association installed a bronze plaque embedded in the brick sidewalk next to the location where the club formerly stood, as a memorial to those who lost their lives. The plaque states: The Coconut Grove. Erected by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, 1993. In memory of the more than 490 people who died in the Coconut Grove fire on November 28, 1942. As a result of that terrible tragedy, major changes were made in the fire codes, and improvements in the treatment of burn victims, not only in Boston but across the nation. “Phoenix out of the Ashes”
One important thing as a firefighter is to have situational awareness, Situational awareness is critical – Always know the location of your primary and secondary exits. Countless lives were lost at Coconut Grove due to the large masses of people who fled to their primary means of egress, yet many survived by choosing an alternative exit point. As firefighters, we must never rely on one way out of the building; we must always work to maintain our situational awareness to include alternative means of egress.