Cocoanut Grove: Examining an American Tragedy
As a Failure of Fire Prevention Policy and Practice
Eastern Kentucky University
This paper was prepared for FSE 101 Fire Prevention, taught by Professor Sobaski. Cocoanut Grove: Examining an American Tragedy
as a Failure of Fire Prevention Policy and Practice
On November 28, 1942, approximately 1000 people packed into three main rooms of a two-level nightclub at 17 Piedmont Street in Boston, Massachusetts. The Cocoanut Grove club was one of New England’s premier nightclubs, located just outside the theater district on the edge of Bay Village, one of the city’s oldest historical neighborhoods. “At the time the Coconut Grove was the largest and most popular nightspot of its type in the city of Boston and was referred to as ‘the poor man’s Ritz’”(Cunningham, 2003). The tragic fire which swept through this building turned a dreamy fall night on the town into a nightmare for the victims of the fire, the survivors, and the collective consciousness of a city which has never forgotten this terrible event. What will be examined in this paper is how the Cocoanut Grove fire was a perfect storm of negative interacting factors and an example of a catastrophic failure of fire prevention policy and practice.
Scope of the Tragedy
Nearly half of the revelers who were in attendance at the party on Piedmont Street lost their lives that night, and at least 170 more were seriously injured. The official death toll grew to 492 in the days and weeks that followed, which marks the Cocoanut Grove incident as the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. “All of the 492 dead had been identified 89 hours and 40 minutes after the alarm was sounded at 10:20 p.m. on Saturday (Turner & Tuite, 2012, p.G3).” In this country only the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 claimed more victims in a single-building fire. At the Iroquois Theater in Chicago, 602 perished, “most of them women and children attending a matinee at a theater that had been advertised as fireproof” (Esposito, 2005, p.226). The Cocoanut Grove catastrophe still holds its place as the worst fire in Boston history. Following the holocaust, the anguished city mourned its dead. “On December 3 alone, 150 funerals were scheduled. The chapel bell at Malden’s Holy Cross Cemetery tolled almost continuously, as nineteen burials were scheduled” (Schorow, 2005, p.41). Cause Unknown
How could this terrible event happen in the city known as the Athens of America? Unfortunately, “[i]n this case, no official cause has been determined even after all these years (Beller & Sapochetti, 2000, p.91). The origin of the fire and its rapid spread mystified the experts who witnessed it and later investigated it. The responsibility for analyzing all phases of the fire rested with William Arthur Reilly, Boston’s fire commissioner, and Stephen J. Garrity, the state fire marshall to whom Reilly reported. They were assisted by Fire Chief Pope and the heads of Fire Department divisions that had responded to the Grove alarms. These men had dealt with blazes in slums, warehouses, office buildings, and tenements for years. None of them had ever seen a fire that moved so fast, burned so fiercely, produced such curious gases, yet consumed so little of the building in which it broke out. (Benzaquin, 1959, p.215)
Some writers believe that a cause has been determined by advanced computerized fire modeling techniques. “As to the cause 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” (Fire Rescue Magazine, 2010). However, this is a misconception; the jury is still out, as Beller and Sapochetti explain, “The last step in the scientific method is testing and selecting a...