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Great Fires of Boston

A guide to resources about devastating fires in Boston's history at the BPL and beyond.

November 28, 1942

Cocoanut Grove fire, Boston, Nov. 28, 1942
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Cocoanut Grove interiors after the fire
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The deadliest nightclub fire in history took place on a cold night on Thanksgiving weekend at one of the most popular nightclubs in Boston. Over one thousand people, more than the club’s capacity, were in the club that night. The fire spread from the northwest corner of the basement-level Melody Lounge to the street-level lounges within five minutes. From the time the first firefighters responded at around 10:20pm to 11:02pm, it became a five-alarm fire. Many of those who died were crushed in the panic to get through the doors, some of which were either locked or opened inward. Those that escaped the building managed to either use the designated exits before the fire reached them or after the fire passed them, or they escaped through the kitchen or one of the windows. Five people reportedly survived by hiding in a walk-in refrigerator until they were rescued by firefighters.

Killed: 492
Injured: 166
Buildings destroyed: 1
Cost of Damages: $134,500 (about $2 million today)
Cause: Officially undetermined, theorized to have been caused by the use of a flammable gas as a refrigerant in conjunction with faulty wiring and accelerated by the the large amounts of paper decorations.
Convictions: Owner Barney Welansky, 19 counts of manslaughter. Sentenced to 12-15 years in prison, he was pardoned by Governor Tobin after serving four years and died of cancer a few weeks later. Charges against law enforcement and other club operators and officials resulted in mistrials, acquittals, and suspended sentences.
Effects: In the short term- revolving doors were temporarily banned and all nightclubs and theatres in Boston were closed for a week. The name “Cocoanut Grove” was also banned from usage by licensing agencies.
In the long term- fire and building codes were strengthened across the U.S. in an effort to prevent the huge loss of life caused by inadequate access to exits and flammable decorations. The large amount of burn and smoke inhalation victims treated at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston City Hospital also led to improved practices in the care of such patients.


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