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Seventy Years Ago ~ The Coconut Grove Fire

Seventy Years Ago ~ The Coconut Grove Fire

This week marks the seventieth anniversary of the worst nightclub fire in American history, the Coconut Grove fire in Boston, in which 492 people were killed and dozens of others injured.

On the night of Saturday, November 28, 1942, Thanksgiving weekend, the popular Coconut Grove nightclub was jam-packed with about a thousand people, more than twice as many as the building was supposed to accommodate. When a fire broke out on one of the lower levels of the sprawling complex (supposedly accidentally started by a busboy striking a match to see), it spread quickly among the flammable palm trees, draperies, and other frippery that was supposed to add “atmosphere” to the place.

When people realized what was happening, panic became general. (In Fire in the Grove, a fascinating account of the fire and its aftermath, author John Esposito explains the “group psychology” of people in a panic situation.) Among the narrow hallways and staircases of the various “lounges” of the club complex, many people were simply not able to find their way to safety. Many who died were trampled to death or died from the poisonous gases that the fire released into the air. Others died from breathing the super-heated air. To make the situation worse, there was a revolving door at the main entrance to the club that became jammed and inoperable with people trying to escape. Many of the victims were found in and around the revolving door.

Most of the victims of the Coconut Grove fire were young, in their twenties and thirties. The youngest victim was fifteen. Servicemen on leave from the war were among the victims. A cowboy movie actor named Buck Jones also died. A young couple who perished had been married earlier in the day. Their wedding day became the day of their deaths.

The Coconut Grove fire did for fire safety laws what the Titanic sinking had done for maritime safety laws thirty years earlier. It focused attention on things that were wrong that needed to be fixed. When Titanic sank and 1500 people lost their lives, never again would a boat be able to set sail without having adequate life boats for everybody on board. The Coconut Grove fire assured that owners of nightclubs and other public venues would never be allowed to put patrons in danger by violating common-sense fire safety codes.

Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp

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