To the hopelessly indecisive (such as your humble diarist) the specter of multiple door choices is an invitation to what must be, to the disinterested observer, amusing zigging and zagging before the incurably befuddled finally settles on one. But while the seeming belt-and-suspenders array of swinging doors flanking a revolving door might be good for unintentional comic relief, there's a very good reason -- and the customary tragic history -- behind the arrangement.
Early in our involvement in World War II, not yet a full year after Pearl Harbor, the Cocoanut Grove night club in Boston, Massachusetts was a popular place for a little fun and frivolity, and for taking ones mind off the conflicts overseas. Drawing from Boston's navy base as well as from the civilian population, the nightclub could be counted on for a good crowd.
Regarded as one of Boston's most elegant night clubs, the Cocoanut Grove had started as a speakeasy in 1927 and had recently expanded into an adjacent, converted building. It was decorated in a tropical theme with artificial palm trees forming a canopy overhead in the main dining room, and featured dining, drinking, dancing, and entertainment. The National Fire Protection Association described the layout:
The club offered entertainment in a nightclub on the street level as well as more intimate surroundings in a small lounge on a lower level. In the months leading up to the fire, another lounge (Broadway Lounge) had been opened adjacent to the club on the main level by renovating several adjacent buildings and adding them to the club's footprint.
This renovation gave the facility the shape of two overlapping rectangles. The original building was constructed of concrete in 1916. In the years prior to its transformation into a nightclub, the building was used as a garage and film storage facility. It was bordered on three sides by Piedmont Street, Shawmut Street, and Broadway. The building measured 100 ft x 90 ft (30.5 m x 27.4 m) in an irregular shape. (See Figure 2.)
The building was mainly a single story (with a partial lower level), except for a small upper level above the new lounge that contained dressing rooms and restrooms. The lower level contained the Melody Lounge as well as the kitchen and liquor storage for the club. The main club area measured approximately 60 ft x 60 ft (18.3 m x 18.3 m). The Broadway Lounge measured 40 ft x 40 ft (12.2 m x 12.2 m), and the Melody Lounge measured 55 ft x 35 ft (16.8 m x 10.7 m). Exits from the facility were located on the Piedmont Street, Shawmut Street, and Broadway sides of the building. The main entrance was through a revolving door arrangement on Piedmont Street. This entrance opened into the lobby of the club.
NFPA Journal: Robert Duval, "The legacy of nightclub fires".
Club owner Barney Welansky had bragged of being "in with the mayor". Evidence suggested he was certainly "in" with someone. The club's property taxes had mysteriously been cut in half. The club had been wired by an unlicensed electrician. Despite the presence of extensive paper and fabric decorations, and a flammable imitation leather covering many of the walls, a fire inspection eight days before the fire found everything "satisfactory". The Melody Lounge in the basement of the club had only one public point of entry and egress, the stairs to the ground level lobby. Some fire emergency doors, though equipped with the required anti-panic devices, also had additional locks installed in violation of fire codes so they could be locked to prevent patrons from sneaking out without paying their tabs. Many exits were not marked, and despite the lessons learned in the Iroquois Theater fire forty years earlier, some exit doors still opened inward. Many doors that could have provided egress were concealed in private side rooms and unmarked. Windows that could have been broken to provide an escape route to the exterior had been covered over with plywood as part of the war-time blackout. Shortly before the fire, club manager James Welansky had been seen dining at the club with a police captain and an assistant district attorney amidst all these violations.
Into this environment on the night of the fire the management packed over a thousand revelers, far beyond the club's legal capacity of about 600. The club's staff, many later discovered to be under-age, were untrained in fire procedures. And not that it probably would have mattered, given all the other codes and regulations that were ignored wholesale, but fire codes at the time did not consider a nightclub packed with hundreds of people to be a "place of public assembly" which would have subjected them to stricter fire regulations. It is hard to imagine a more inviting setting for disaster.
The exact cause of the fire is still a mystery, although that hasn't stopped a widely-accepted bit of folklore from growing up around it.
A young couple, wanting privacy, reached to a palm frond to unscrew a 7.5- watt bulb. Told by a bartender to restore the light, a 16-year-old busboy climbed upon a seat, and then struck a match to locate the socket. A moment later, someone noticed flame along the satin ceiling. At first, people were amused by the antics of waiters trying to douse the fire with seltzer water.
The Boston Globe, "The Cocoanut Grove inferno: 50 years ago this week, 492 died in a tragedy for the ages"
Even at the time -- although the busboy in question confirmed to investigators the actions described above -- the account wasn't accepted at the official level as a plausible explanation of the cause of the fire. The City of Boston Fire Commissioner's report listed the cause as undetermined. Trying to mesh the behavior of the fire as described by multitudes of witnesses with the known facts and evidence has kept fire investigators occupied even up to the present, as in this 2000 NFPA article, "Searching for answers to the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942" (NFPA Journal, May/June 2000). Despite 65 years of investigation, the fire has never been fully explained.
Shawmut Street entrance after the fire
Once the fire was underway, it spread rapidly. Some patrons in the basement Melody Lounge where the fire started, hearing shouting and seeing a commotion at the far end of the room, at first thought people were shouting "fight", and did not realize the room was on fire until a ball of fire rolled through the highly flammable ceiling decorations overhead and shot up the only exit, the stairs to the lobby, scorching the first of the patrons trying to escape up the stairway.
And yet, in the middle of what should have been obvious peril, many people -- as is so often the case in fires -- did not react with appropriate urgency. Survivors also reported bizarre behavior by the staff. A man in a gray suit reportedly tried to block patrons from leaving until they had paid their bills. A coat check girl refused to give customers their coats until she had been paid. A cashier, urged by a co-worker to save herself and get out, objected that she couldn't leave her cash drawer unattended. She was later found dead in the charred ruins of the club. As panicked customers tried to escape the flames, they were confronted with a myriad of obstacles.
Access to the Melody Lounge was via a single set of stairs from the lobby. There were no other means of egress from this portion of the club. The Shawmut Street exit was located approximately halfway along the wall in the main club area. Another door on the Shawmut Street wall, adjacent to the stage, was locked. The Broadway exit was located in the new cocktail lounge. A single door, in the lounge, leading to the outer doors on Broadway opened inward. All other doors within the building that would have provided access to the outside were locked or obscured at the time of the fire.
One of these locked doors was located on the Piedmont Street side, to the left of the marquee over the main entrance. Had this door been unlocked at the time of the fire, it would have provided a means of egress for the patrons in the Melody Lounge without their having to travel into the lobby and use the revolving door.
Dining room rubble after the fire. Loose tables and chairs were
overturned in the panic, obstructing patrons trying to escape the club.
The first indication of trouble for occupants on the main floor was when a young woman ran screaming through the lobby with her hair on fire, immediately followed by a wave of smoke and heat from the stairwell. Many headed toward the exit on Piedmont Street, having entered the club earlier through the revolving door at that entrance. The revolving door quickly became jammed as patrons pushed toward the door. Others within the main club headed toward the door on Shawmut Street. Many were able to exit through this door until smoke and toxic fumes, along with the tangle of hundreds of tables and chairs, overcame those remaining in the building.
NFPA Journal: Robert Duval, "The legacy of nightclub fires"
The fire flashed through lobby and into the connected Caricature Bar and then into the main dining room, and shortly after into the new Broadway Lounge. Within five minutes of the fire's start, the entire nightclub was engulfed. As the fire spread into the main level, panic gripped the crowds. Charging to the exits they quickly jammed the revolving door and rendered it useless. At other exits they found doors locked. The electricity failed within a couple of minutes of the fire's start and the nightclub was plunged into darkness, save for the flames. Overturned tables and chairs soon turned the club into an obstacle course as patrons were overcome by toxic fumes and collapsed in piles. Firefighters who were on the scene of an automobile fire a few blocks away saw the smoke from the club and rushed to the scene.
The Piedmont Street entrance. The notorious revolving
door was located just past the portico's three arches. The
configuration trapped heat in the portico area, preventing
firefighters from approaching the revolving door.
The portico was a furnace, and firefighters were unable to get under the three arches of stucco, unable to penetrate nine feet to the revolving door, jammed with bodies, where they could see, through the glass, flames, smoke and men and women, succumbing and falling in a stack. Officer Elmer Brooks recalled that when rescuers tried to pull bodies from the door, arms and legs came off in their hands.
The Boston Globe, "The Cocoanut Grove inferno: 50 years ago this week, 492 died in a tragedy for the ages" (1992)
Once firefighters were able to gain entrance to the building, they began the gruesome work of cleaning up after the fire, which, like the Iroquois Theater fire forty years earlier, had done virtually all of its damage in the first fifteen minutes. The fighting of the fire had generated four "alarms". A fifth alarm had to be sounded just to provide adequate manpower for the task of removing the victims from the building.
Once fire fighters were able to gain access to the interior of the building, they were met with a horrific sight: bodies piled several feet high at the revolving door and near the exit in the Broadway Lounge. Approximately 200 bodies were found at the revolving door and 100 more were found at the Broadway entrance. The remaining fatalities were found throughout the facility, many at their tables, overcome so rapidly that they were unable to make an effort to escape.
NFPA Journal: Robert Duval, "The legacy of nightclub fires".
In all, 492 people lost their lives as a result of burns, smoke inhalation, or toxic fumes believed to mainly result from the burning wall covering and a flammable leaking refrigerant. In the United States, only the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 claimed more victims in a single-building fire.
There is never a good time for a tragedy like the Cocoanut Grove fire to happen; still, three is something to be said for timing.
The toll would have been worse except that, because of the war, hospitals were well-stocked with bandages, plasma, saline, oxygen tents and intravenous units. A week earlier, a mock blitz by German Luftwaffe had been enacted to test Civil Defense workers.
Nevertheless, the impact upon hospitals was stunning. At Mass General, as patients arrived, four priests administered last rites. For 75 minutes, Boston City Hospital averaged a new patient every 11 seconds. Of the first 200 victims to arrive, 150 were dead. Morphine was administered before doctors had time to determine if a patient were alive, and their foreheads were then marked with an "M," written in lipstick.
Most victims died that night. It took 90 hours to identify all bodies. For 10 consecutive days, newspapers reported deaths. Scores of victims lingered in hospitals for months until the final victim died May 5. Mass. General said there would be no financial reward to doctors and it was unlikely the hospital would bill families. "We don't care if the hospital is ever repaid."
The Boston Globe, "The Cocoanut Grove inferno: 50 years ago this week, 492 died in a tragedy for the ages"
Massachusetts General associate Dr. Oliver Cope had recently headed a National Research Council Project to develop new methods for treatment of burns. Over the next hours and days those new methods would be put to the test. Additionally, hospital administrator Dr. Nathaniel Faxon ordered the implementation of all phases of the war disaster plan that had been rehearsed the week previously.
The research project headed up by Cope was intended to develop a superior and simple method of treating burns. Throughout the year every patient suffering burns was treated in accordance with these studies. The new plan of therapy was carefully tested and developed, and involved the use of ointments containing boric acid. After Pearl Harbor, Massachusetts General Hospital administrative staff had developed a plan by which the institution's full facilities could respond to a disaster of war by virtue of their mobilization plan and this ongoing burn research. The hospital was ready for the crisis that impacted them following the Cocoanut Grove fire.
The awful toll in human life of the Cocoanut Grove fire produced taught medical professionals a lesson of enormous value. Those who lost their lives and those who suffered agonizing pain and misery in the days that followed were to make available through their sacrifice knowledge that was to save thousands of victims in the future.
NFPA Journal: Casey C. Grant , "Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove "
The methods of burn treatment field-tested by the doctors treating the Cocoanut Grove victims would become a standard for hospitals across the nation. In the months following the disaster, a Boston psychiatrist, Dr. Erich Lindemann, monitored surviving family members of the victims and in 1944 published a pioneering study of the grieving process, "Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief", which became a standard in the emerging field of grief counseling. From a medical standpoint, it is hard to understate the impact of the fire:
With regards to advances in medicine, the sheer enormity of the work done in Boston ’s hospitals along with the timeliness of war-related research allowed significant strides forward in medical knowledge. The Cocoanut Grove fire, with its terrible aggregate of victims, became one of the most informative single tragedies ever approached by physicians.
NFPA Journal: Casey C. Grant, "Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove"
The most significant impact of the Cocoanut Grove tragedy, though, came in the area of fire safety and regulation. The Fire Commissioner's 1943 report on the fire made the following recommendations:
- Installation of automatic sprinklers in any room occupied as a restaurant, night club, or place of entertainment.
- Prohibition of the use of basement rooms as places of assembly, unless provision is made for at least two direct means of access to the street with installation of metal-covered automatic closing fire doors being required in any passage existing between basement room and first floor.
- Requirement of defined aisle space between tables in restaurants, such tables to be firmly affixed to the floor to prevent upsetting and obstruction of means of egress.
- Exit doors in places of assembly to have so-called panic locks and no others. Such exits to be marked by illuminated "EXIT" signs with the minimum candle power to be specified in the law, and supplied by an electrical system. Such system might also be permitted to serve a few recessed or box-type fixtures, for emergency use as guide lights in the event of failure of the main lighting system.
- Absolute prohibition of any fabric or material containing pyroxylin in places of
- Absolute prohibition in any place of assembly of the use of any suspended cloth false ceiling.
- Window openings of sufficient area, equipped with louvers secured by a fusible link so as to open automatically when subjected to heat, for the purpose of drawing off flames or gases, should be required in basement rooms used as places of public assembly. A major lesson of this fire is that persons and fire must be provided with separate means of exit. The law already requires the installation of vents above stages in theater-.
See General Laws (Ter. Ed.), chapter 143, section 27: Boston Building Code, section 309). Whatever may be the width of exits, lives of persons remain in jeopardy so long as flame is allowed to escape through such exits. Stairways, particularly, in the absence of such vents, become chimneys for the flame. This recommendation is in line with a basic principle of firefighting the immediate creation of vents in the roof of a burning structure in order to allow the flame to escape upward out of the building.
CITY OF BOSTON: WILLIAM ARTHUR REILLY, Fire Commissioner, REPORT CONCERNING THE COCOANUT GROVE FIRE, NOVEMBER 28, 1942
(Plain text version)
In Boston in particular, and across the nation in general, officials took a hard look at fire codes which, despite the presence of voluntary recommendations by national groups such as the National Fire Protection Association, are implemented and administered primarily at the municipal or county level.
In many places, restaurants and nightclubs were re-classified as places of public assembly, requiring adherence to stricter regulation. Sprinkler system requirements were expanded. Fire inspectors kept a sharp eye out for illegal locks on emergency exit doors, and requirements for all exit doors to swing outward were implemented or strengthened. The requirements for exit signs were strengthened and standards established for minimum levels of illumination, and requirements for emergency lighting in the event of power failure were established.
Rooms were required to have at least two widely-separated means of egress, and more the higher the occupancy capacity, and minimum sizes for exits were established. Louvers or smoke vents with fusible links that would automatically open in a fire, allowing smoke, fire, and toxic fumes to be vented through a different avenue than the public exits were mandated. Decorations were required to be of non-flammable materials. Regulations were enacted requiring stairways to be enclosed and fire doors installed to prevent the spread of fire.
And the change perhaps most visible today, the one that should remind you of the Cocoanut Grove every time you see it, revolving doors were required to be either constructed so as to allow the leaves to collapse and fold out of the way to permit passage through both sides, or to have conventional swinging doors installed adjacent to the revolving door on at least one side.
Nearly half of the partiers who entered the Cocoanut Grove on November 28, 1942 -- 492 people -- lost their lives in the fire that night. Over 400 lawsuits were filed against the club, but when the suits were settled and assets divided, survivors and families of the victims received only about $150 each. The club carried no liability insurance. Eleven individuals -- public officials and club management -- were indicted on charges related to the fire, but only club owner Barney Welansky was convicted. He served less than four years of a 12 to 15 year sentence before being released in December 1946, dying of cancer.
We learned a lot from the Cocoanut Grove fire, but given how much of it should have been obvious, the Portland Press Herald was well-justified in calling the tragedy a "perfectly stupid way to learn elementary public safety."
So that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from, not some bored bureaucrat sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit. They bring suffering on those who trust them, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again. We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along. That's how Regulation came to be.
Previous installments of How Regulation came to be:
How Regulation came to be: 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
How Regulation came to be: The Iroquois Theater Fire
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part I
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part II
How Regulation came to be: Radium Girls - Part III
How Regulation came to be: Construction Summer
How Regulation came to be: Red Moon Rising
How Regulation came to be: The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part I
How Regulation came to be: The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part II
How Regulation came to be: Ground Fault, Interrupted
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