Historic Moments in Safety -- The Coconut Grove Night Club
By SMSgt Gary A. Bristol , 507th Air Refueling Wing Safety Office
/ Published September 29, 2006
Tinker AFB, Okla. -- The Coconut Grove, once a trendy Boston area night club, was destined to be the sight of the deadliest night club fire in United States history.
On the night of November 28, 1942, The Coconut Grove was packed full with men and women, many of whom were in the military.
The recently expanded night club had approximately 1,000 occupants on that evening, more than twice its official capacity of 460. The club had been decorated in a romantic tropical style with paper palm trees, cloth draperies covering the ceiling, and other flimsy decorations. Some of the decorations were allowed to obscure exit signs.
That night an employee was instructed to change one of the light bulbs in the dimly-lit lounge area. Unable to see the light socket in the dim light, the employee lit a match. How things happened next is unclear, but somehow one of the artificial palm trees caught fire. Waiters tried to douse the fire, but despite their efforts, the fire spread quickly to nearby decorations on the walls and ceiling. Flames raced through the clubs adjacent bar, the new lounge area and main club room. Within five minutes the entire night club was ablaze.
Panicked club patrons tried to exit through both sides of the club's main entrance, a single revolving door. One other unlocked door, which opened inwards, was rendered useless because of the people pushing people against it trying to escape. To keep club patrons from exiting without paying their bill, the club's management had the side exit doors welded shut.
When firefighters arrived, they had to dismantle the revolving door to get inside. They found patrons' bodies behind the revolving door piled four to five deep for almost forty feet at each side. The fire took 492 lives, and hundreds more were injured.
The investigating fire officials said that 300 of those killed could have been saved if exit doors opened outward. Emergency lighting is now a requirement as a result of the concern generated by this fire. Exit signs are required to be visible at all times.
Occupancy capacity placards are now posted, and fire sprinkler systems are used in places of assembly. Many of the safety features we now take for granted or even go unnoticed today are a result of the many fire codes which were established after the fire. Have you ever noticed how revolving doors now have flanking exit doors?
There is still a valuable lesson for all of us here. Practicing safety is a life-style commitment. Never try to circumvent safety standards and never assume "the other guy" has taken care of making sure your environment is safe. You are that other guy.