70th Anniversary of Boston’s Deadiest Fire

Shortly after 10 p.m. on Saturday, November 28, 1942, a fire at the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub in Boston left 492 dead and many others injured. This tragedy, which occurred 70 years ago, is still one of the deadliest fires in the history of the United States.

“Poor building design was a major contributing factor to the significant number of deaths and injuries,” said Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager with the Bethesda, MD.-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “Because the fire moved quickly through the building and there was a lack of proper building exits, many lives were lost.”

At the time of the fire, the Cocoanut Grove Club was a multi-function nightclub and entertainment facility. The nightclub was one-story high with a basement.

Although there are many theories behind the cause of the fire, the direct cause still remains undetermined. The fire started in a basement cocktail lounge.  Because combustible decorations and wall/ceiling finishes were installed throughout the building, the fire rapidly spread up the stairs and to the first floor.

Over 1,000 people were crowded into the building at the time of the fire, well above the building’s safe capacity.  Many of the occupants tried to exit through the main building entrance located on the first floor. This exit quickly became blocked when the occupants attempted to exit through a revolving door that quickly jammed. Over 200 of the dead were piled up behind this revolving door. Others could not exit safely when they found several more locked exit doors.

Additionally, the building was not equipped with a sprinkler system or a fire detection/notification system.

“Because of the inadequate exits, the lack of fire protection systems and the rapid moving fire, the occupants just didn’t have enough time to get out alive,” said Jelenewicz.

As a result of this fire, many building requirements were enhanced to make nightclubs and other buildings with large populations safer from fire. Some of these requirements included provisions for improved exiting systems, safer interior finishes, emergency planning and the installation of fire alarm and automatic fire suppression systems.

“The Cocoanut Grove Fire reminds us of the threat that is posed by fire and the importance of designing buildings that that keep people safe from fire,” said Jelenewicz.

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