Disasters · Massachusetts

Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire

November 28, 1942
Boston, Massachusetts
A fire overtakes the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, killing 492

The club was packed beyond capacity, which was authorized to house 460 people at most. At some point during the night, a young man unscrewed a lightbulb in a corner of the nightclub to kiss his date with some privacy. A busboy was instructed to replace the bulb, but as the area was too dark to see what he was doing he lit a match to see clearly. The match was extinguished but the fire originated in the same general area. After an investigation it was recorded the fire was of unknown origin.

The fire spread through the fake palm tree decorations despite waitstaff attempting to put them out with water. The patrons in a panic attempted to flee through the main entrance at the front of the building which only had a single revolving door. Patrons, pushing those in front in an attempt to get to safety, jammed the doors with the bodies of other patrons. This fire was one reason fire laws later included mandatory standard doors to flank revolving ones.

Owner Barney Welansky was found guilty of manslaughter due to his use of contacts to circumvent fire laws. He was convicted of 19 counts of manslaughter (a handful of the dead to represent the full 492) and sentenced to 12-15 years in prison. He was pardoned by the mayor of Boston 4 years into his sentence as Welansky was suffering from cancer. When released he told reporters “I wish I’d died with the others in the fire,” and died 9 weeks later.

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