Cocoanut Grove Nightclub – the second-worst single-building fire in American history

The Cocoanut Grove was a nightclub located at 17 Piedmont Street, Boston, Massachusetts. On November 28, 1942, the fashionable nightclub burned – it is the deadliest nightclub fire in United States history, killing 492 people and injuring hundreds more. It is also the second-worst single-building fire in American history. Only the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago on December 30, 1903 killed more (602). The Coconut Grove fire led to a reform of fire codes and safety standards across the country.

One of the earliest grief studies was performed after this fire, and is considered a classic work on grief. Dr. Erich Lindemann, a Boston psychiatrist, studied survivors and their relatives and published “Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief.”

The club’s owner, Barney Welansky, was eventually convicted on 19 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Shortly after, Massachusetts and other states enacted laws for public establishments that banned flammable decorations in public assemblies. Inward-swinging exit doors were prohibited, and each exit door required signage to be visible at all times. After this fire, all revolving doors used for egress must either be flanked by at one or more outward-swinging doors, or of the type to permit the individual doors to fold flat to permit free-flowing traffic in a panic situation.

Knowing our fire history will help prevent recurrences in the future. Many of the codes we use today are built on the lessons and failures of yesterday.

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