Flammable Decorations, Lack of Exits Create Tragedy at Cocoanut Grove
Pages from the Past
“Probably no fire in the nation’s history has caused as much comment and speculation, as much grief, and horror. Surely no holocaust has had so many angles, or has brought forth so many contradictory statements.
“While parts of the building were frequently called ‘new,’ and on applications for food and liquor licenses were labeled as such, it was really an old, made-over set of buildings, frequently referred to as a rebuilt garage.”
This was the comment of Alton H. Blackington, who reported on the Cocoanut Grove nightclub disaster for Fire Engineering in the December 1942 issue. The flash fire (and panic) that swept through the Boston club on Saturday evening, November 28, 1942, took the lives of 491 persons and seriously injured 200 others.
The fire, according to a witness who survived, started in the Melody Lounge, a basement cocktail lounge. It fed on highly combustible decorations—artificial palm trees and cloth-covered ceilings and walls—and spread rapidly. From this room it moved up an open stairs, the only apparent exit from the basement, and into the first floor, cutting off the main escape route of hundreds.
The “Grove” was one of the largest and most lavish of New England “hot spots,” and was located in the heart of the club, theater and film district in the Park Square Section of the South End.
It was famous for its palm-garden dance floor with moving stage and rollback roof that permitted dancers to see the stars on pleasant evenings. This main dance floor had a seating capacity of about 500.
Adjacent to this large room, where food and drink were served at tables set among paper palms around three sides of the floor, was a new cocktail lounge and a few exits which were not used because they were hidden by drapes. Witnesses testified that other doors were locked and barred—at the time of the fire. With nearly 1000 merrymakers divided into four groups, and all of them dependent upon a revolving door at the main entrance as the principal exit, it is not difficult to understand why so few escaped. Many were burned beyond recognition, and hundreds of others died from inhaling smoke, flame and fumes.
The one-story, Piedmont Street section was of stucco; the Shawmut Street side was of brick, with fancy modernistic designs that disguised the old plate-glass windows; and the corner building on Broadway and Shawmut Streets was a very old three-story brick house that by no stretch of the imagination could be considered modern. Dressing rooms for the show girls and rest rooms for the help were on the top floors.
First units arrive
An insignificant blaze in an automobile saved many lives on that fateful Saturday night. Here is what happened.
At 10:15 p.m., a passerby pulled box 1514 at the corner of Stuart and Carver Streets for a blazing auto, bringing Engine Companies 35, 10, 7 and 22. Also responding to that box were Ladders 13 and 17, Rescue Company 1, Tower 2, and Deputy Chief Louis C. Stickle of Division 1 and District Chief Daniel Crowley of District 5.
When the chiefs arrived, the fire in the auto was out and most of the companies were either taking up or starting back. At that moment somebody yelled that the Grove was on fire just around the corner.
Stickle ran the short distance and found thick clouds of black, acrid smoke rolling in great billows from the building. Not knowing that box 1521 had already been sounded at 10:20, he skipped the first and second alarms and ordered a third at 10:23. One minute later, when sheets of flame seemed to envelop the whole building, he ordered a fourth alarm. The fifth alarm, to bring additional manpower, was sent in by Chief McDonough at 11:05.
The first alarm from box 1521 at the corner of Winchester and Church Streets at 10:20 p.m. brought Engine Companies 3 and 26, the deputy chief of Division 3, and the district chief of District 7.
Many of the fire fighters and much of the apparatus that responded to box 1514 for the auto blaze were already at the burning nightclub when the firstalarm companies rolled in to box 1521. No one will ever know how many were saved by the coincidental arrival of those first companies.
According to Blackington in his report to Fire Engineering, it is impossible to describe the scenes of horror in those first terrible moments when scores of human torches raced from that inferno, screaming as they died. Others followed, and soon the street was littered with blazing and burned bodies. Then, as the revolving door became jammed, and the searing flames snuffed out the lives of hundreds more inside, the fire fighters managed to get streams of water in and more bodies out of the vestibule where the revolving door was located.
Windows made of glass blocks were smashed and streams of water used to cool down the interior so that rescue work might go on.
Without the large Saturday night crowd, and if the entrance had not been solidly blocked with bodies, the fire could have been brought under control in a short time. Ordinarily it would have been considered a second or third-alarm fire at most. All early efforts were, of course, bent on rescue work and first aid.
Fire extinguished quickly
As it turned out, however, the major fire was darkened down in a short while. But long after the “all out” was sounded, fire fighters and police probed the blackened shell for bodies that lay buried under debris.
Deputy Chief Louis Stickle, who had arrived at the earlier alarm for the automobile, testified that when he pulled in he saw a man hanging over the window on the Broadway side of the club and then “the flames came up to him.”
“There were bodies on the Shawmut Street sidewalk,” Stickle added, and the crowds milling around pushed him one way and another.
He felt at the time that there was a fast-spreading fire and that panic had taken place.
Testifying to the horror of the scene at an inquest following the fire, District Chief John F. McDonough, who was one of the first to arrive, stated that he had met Police Superintendent Fallon on Piedmont Street and “we looked into the entrance of the club together.
“I saw a heap lying in the vestibule and thought it was a dummy. I crawled in and touched the body. It was nude, with the clothes burned off entirely. Then I backed out. The heat was terrific. We moved around to the Broadway side and opened an exit door. One of my men crawled in with a gas mask and came back to report that there were a lot of bodies inside. The heat was so intense, the men with gas masks went in on their stomachs and couldn’t stay. They would snatch at an arm or leg and back away, dragging the body free. I got a hose line to cool it off so we could work. One of the men with a mask reported there were a lot of bodies on the stairs, and I got hose lines in there to cool it. Then I met Chief Samuel Pope and we went to the Shawmut side of the building and directed the work of recovering valuables and wraps to help establish identification later.”
McDonough also testified that he had checked an egress door on the Piedmont Street side which was equipped with a panic lock and found that the “lock was not working, that the bolt was shot and the door locked so the panic bolt couldn’t work.”
This was one of several exits that were either locked, blocked by tables and chairs or hidden by curtains. As later testimony disclosed, there were a total of six exits:
- The main doorway on Piedmont Street with a revolving door which quickly became jammed as flames poured up from the Melody Lounge in the basement.
- A door with a panic lock that led onto Piedmont Street bolted by a second lock.
- A door leading from the new cocktail lounge onto Broadway Street, which became blocked by victims.
- An exit door leading from the main dining hall on Shawmut Street, covered by draperies.
- A service entrance leading to the kitchen next to the Melody Lounge.
- An entrance leading to secondfloor lockers and third-floor dressing rooms for employees and performers.
Both exits to Shawmut Street were heavily bolted on order from the management and had to be broken down by the fire fighters. One of them provided the only means of escape from the Melody Lounge other than the flame-enveloped staircase.
Armed services toll high
The entire section of the city was roped off for hours and was under military guard. Streets were kept open for the hundreds of cars, trucks, express wagons and ambulances that raced from the scene of disaster to hospitals and morgues. A half million people visited the fire area and pushed six deep against the fire lines to gape with grief at the smoke and flame-seared ruins. One hundred traffic officers were kept on duty for 24 hours to handle the crowds. At noontime, on Monday and Tuesday, 20,000 people shuffled slowly along Shawmut Street and Broadway or peeked down Piedmont Street where the revolving door had trapped so many. The streets were still littered with hats, shoes, torn and burned clothing, and piled-up furniture.
Scenes in the hospitals and morgues were indescribable.
By mid-afternoon Sunday, the immediate area in front of the ruins was cleared as high-ranking army and navy officials, FBI agents and state detectives made an inspection. A huge pile of officers’ hats and servicemen’s clothing told of the great loss to the armed services.
Every hospital in the city was taxed to capacity. Outlying districts sent hundreds of stretchers and doctors, nurses, civilian aides, workers of every description.
Chemical analysis of decorations
From all accounts, the decorations in the Cocoanut Grove made a heavy contribution to this tragedy. At the request of Fire Commissioner William Arthur Reilly, Andrew Landini, a chemist for Skinner & Sherman, Inc., industrial chemists, ran a test on the various decorative materials used in the nightclub to see if they were flame-resistant.
Landini explained that supplies were brought back from the Grove to the laboratory while still wet and were allowed to dry overnight before being subjected to the match flame ignition test. He could not state positively from the tests that none of the materials had been treated to render them flame-resistant.
Landini’s report stated, in part:
- Blue fabric from the molding in the Melody Lounge over the palm tree where the fire was supposed to have started when touched with a match burst into flame instantly and was entirely consumed.
- Fibrous material wrapped around the trunks of the same imitation palm tree burst into violent flame as a dry Christmas tree or excelsior would do. Brown colored leaves from the same palm in the Melody Lounge burned slowly, but freely.
- Netting still fastened to the ceiling at the stairway did not catch fire as quickly as the blue fabric or the fiber. It flamed for a short time, then died down and continued to glow.
- Straw or imitation straw matting from the Piedmont Street side of the Melody Lounge did not ignite readily, but caught fire after a few seconds.
- The outer surface or coating of the red imitation leather taken from the lower part of the wall in the lobby ignited readily and was consumed quickly before the base fabric showed any evidence of fire. A chemical test showed this coating to be pyroxylin or nitrocellulose. When this coating burned, irritating fumes were given off, believed to be oxides of nitrogen.
Grand Jury findings
After listening to evidence from many witnesses over a 10-day period, including several night sessions, the Suffolk County Grand Jury returned 10 indictments against 10 Boston men in connection with the holocaust.
Among those indicted were four city officials, the owner of the nightclub and their wine steward, the interior decorator, a construction worker and a contractor.
Before the jury was dismissed, it made the following statement: “We, the Suffolk County Grand Jury, have heard testimony assembled up to the present time relative to the Cocoanut Grove case and have returned indictments thereon. In addition to facts upon which our indictments are based, we have found certain conditions which in the interest of public safety must be corrected as speedily as possible.
“Realizing that we, as a Grand Jury, have no power to correct such conditions and that our term of service is about to end, we wish to record certain conclusions which the evidence compels us to draw, even though such evidence may fall short of establishing willfulness or corruption required to make neglect of duty a criminal offense.
- We have found among members of various departments charged with the protection of public safety, laxity, incompetence, failure to fulfill prescribed duties effectively and also lack of complete knowledge of duties.
- We have found shifting of responsibility and a tendency by various officials in different important departments to rely too much on their subordinates without exercising sufficient and proper check on such subordinates. Officials in each department seemed to attempt to shift the responsibility to some other department and vice versa.
- We have found no complete coordination between building department, fire department, police department and licensing board with respect to various types of inspection intended to be made to insure public safety in addition to protecting the public health, morals, etc.
“We hope that by thus calling attention to conditions, which have come within our knowledge the more effective and immediate remedying of such conditions may be made possible.”
- Interior flammable decorations played a major part in the loss of life at the Cocoanut Grove. Flameproofing with chemicals can retard the ignition of combustible materials and slow down flame travel but cannot provide absolute fireproofing. Elimination of all combustible decorations and furnishings is therefore called for in any place of public assembly.
- Exits also played a heavy part in the loss of life. While the number of exits was adequate under existing law, some were locked, others blocked by tables and chairs and still others hidden by drapes. The revolving door at the main entrance was completely inadequate for the crush of panic-stricken people who attempted to go through it.
- Panic, the third leading factor in the death toll, is difficult to predict and eliminate. But free and unobstructed exit to the outside can reduce the causes of panic. Escape paths should be clearly marked and lighted. Design of exitways should be such as to reduce the danger of stumbling or falling that could cause pile-ups (no step or narrow stairs, adequate railings, etc.). Width of exitways should be uniform all the way to final exit and with no constrictions such as a narrow door.
- Sprinklers would in all likelihood have handled the fire at the Cocoanut Grove and should be required in all places of public assembly.
- Testimony brought out that overcrowding was a factor in the Cocoanut Grove fire. One witness stated that patrons were standing three deep at the bar in the basement lounge. Again, this could have been eliminated by frequent and irregular inspections by the authorities.
- One of the waiters of the Cocoanut Grove who had worked there for eight years testified that he had never been given any instructions as to what to do in case of fire. It would seem then that the help—in any place of public assembly—should be at least minimally trained in fire protection, suppression and inspection. An employee’s use of a first-aid fire appliance such as a pressurized water extinguisher might have knocked out the fire before it gained headway. An employee’s complete knowledge of the building and its exits might have saved many lives.
- The Cocoanut Grove was actually a cluster of separate buildings, referred to as a former garage, and one which was never designed as a nightclub. A proper building code would never have permitted it to exist.
- Since the Cocoanut Grove fire, and because of it, building codes in United States and Canada have been tightened. But codes are only as good as the people charged with enforcing them. Constant vigilance and inspection by these people provides the only way to prevent a repeat of the Cocoanut Grove holocaust.
The revolving door should have been eliminated before a certificate of occupancy was granted. Blocked, locked and hidden exits could have been eliminated by frequent and irregular inspections, particularly when the club was open to the public. (The building commissioner and a fire prevention inspector were two of the 10 men indicted.)