A Lesson from the Past: The Cocoanut Grove Fire

Members of the Shirley Parsons Boston office recently attended the Greater Boston ASSP and New England AIHA Technical Dinner Meeting in Waltham, MA, where they were among the first to view a recently completed documentary called “Six Locked Doors”.

A Lesson from the Past: The Cocoanut Grove Fire

The documentary was presented by producer, Paul Miller, and told the story of the Cocoanut Grove Fire, along with victims’ personal accounts and the legal and regulatory aftermath. Further research was conducted following the technical dinner; here’s what our team learned.

What happened at Cocoanut Grove?

Cocoanut Grove was a hugely popular nightspot in Boston. In 1942, tragedy struck when a fire broke out at 10:00 pm, killing 492 people and injuring 130 more.

It soon became clear that there were a number of contributing factors:

  • The club was overcrowded. The maximum capacity was 460; it is estimated that nearly 1000 patrons were in the club that night
  • The owners had sealed off six of the seven doors to the club so that no one could exit without paying their tab. The only usable exit was a revolving door at the front, which quickly jammed as hundreds of people tried to escape
  • The club was decorated with flammable cloth that lined the walls and ceilings, along with palm trees and other flammable decorations

Despite these issues, the club passed a fire-safety inspection just eight days before the fire broke out. 
Countless organizations and independent agents have studied the fire to determine the cause, but the data is inconclusive, and the origin of the fire has yet to be determined. 

What is the size and seriousness of this issue in modern America?

According to the NFPA, there were 1,318,500 domestic and commercial fires on record in 2018 throughout the U.S., causing an estimated $25.6 billion in property damage and loss.

3,655 civilians were reported to have died in fires in 2018, though this number has actually reduced significantly since the ‘70s when fire-death tolls were up over 7,500 per year.

According to the latest figures, a fire department responds to a fire every 24 seconds, one civilian fire-related injury occurs every 36 minutes, and one civilian fire-related death occurs every 154 minutes

One of the worst affected industries is manufacturing. The NFPA estimates that there were 37,910 fires at industrial manufacturing properties between 2011 and 2015. Electrical distribution was the leading cause of these industrial fires, followed by heating. The results were roughly $265 million in direct property damage costs each year.

What did we learn from Cocoanut Grove?

There were many factors that contributed to the inferno that blazed through Cocoanut Grove. Some safety risks were made with blatant disregard (i.e. the doors being locked) and some were less intentional (such as the flammable cloth decorations). The silver lining of this tragedy is that it drove stricter regulations on fire safety compliance for public and commercial spaces. 

The Fire Commissioner in 1943 made recommendations for places of public assembly to improve fire safety procedures and preparedness.

These recommendations included the installation of automatic sprinklers in restaurants, night clubs and places of entertainment, as well as clearly illuminated exit signs marking exits locked only with panic locks.

Places of assembly were also prohibited from using suspended cloth as a false ceiling. Protocols were also introduced with regards to walkways and ventilation.

What can we do as safety professionals?

As EH&S professionals, looking to the past serves as a reminder for why we push for better safety culture, why we strive for excellence and continuous improvement. It’s not enough to check a box or pass an audit - a safety professional is there to anticipate risks and protect lives.

In order to do this effectively and avoid a repeat of something like the Cocoanut Grove tragedy, safety professionals must stay vigilant and look out for new hazards or potential dangers and proactively work to prevent them.

Effective instructions, training, evacuation procedures and equipment should be available in all workplaces. These should be reviewed and refreshed on a regular basis.

Fire safety is a risk across all industries, and should always be considered when assessing for occupational hazards.

There is a lot to be learned from the events of the past, and there are reasons why fire safety regulations exist today. We can never bring back those who were lost in the Cocoanut Grove Fire, but we can honor their memory by ensuring that nothing like this event ever occurs again. 
 

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