The Boston Cocoanut Grove club, thriving during Prohibition in the late 1920’s, faded in popularity during the 1930’s. But with the onset of WWII, it became very popular once again. The club’s basement contained the Melody Lounge, while the first floor had a large dining area and ballroom with a bandstand and several bars.
On Thanksgiving weekend 1942, as many fans celebrated a Holy Cross football upset over Boston College, the Cocoanut Grove was packed with 1000 people. When a busboy in the basement lounge lit a match, trying to locate the socket of a light bulb that may have been unscrewed by a patron wanting more intimacy with his date, some decorations and a palm tree burst into flames. Bartenders tried to extinguish the fire with water and seltzer bottles, but were were unsuccessful and soon a fireball of flaming toxic gas raced across the room toward the stairs. A wild panic ensued and the emergency exit door at the top of the stairs wouldn’t open. The fireball flew up the stairs and burst into the foyer near the main entrance. Crying “Fire!”, customers rushed toward the exit, but after a few people successfully exited, the revolving door became jammed with the crush of panicked patrons.
492 people were killed in the fire. Among the dead were 51 servicemen and two WAVES. Military police, Red Cross workers, and Civil Defense personnel participated in the rescue efforts.
After the Coconut Grove disaster, significant changes were made in building codes and in fire ordnances—e.g., requirements for outward swinging doors, alternate exits to revolving doors, and emergency exit lighting.