Today was the 75th anniversary of the deadliest nightclub fire in United States history. On November 28, 1942, fire erupted at the Cocoanut Grove in Boston, killing 492 people and injuring hundreds more, making it the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.
The Cocoanut Grove had one main entrance; six other doors were locked to keep patrons from leaving without paying their tabs. Reportedly, a man lit a match to change a lightbulb, prompting a fire which spread quickly to highly flammable tropical décor. Panic ensued, and nearly 500 lives were lost. Within thirty minutes, the blaze was extinguished but the impact on the 1,000+ revelers, friends, families, first responders and life safety was enduring.
The Cocoanut Grove fire had a significant impact on the development and enforcement of fire codes throughout the United States.
Speaking to more than 400 people in attendance at a 75th Anniversary event in Boston just steps from the historic fire scene, Vice President of Field Operations Don Bliss spoke about NFPA’s commitment to documenting and sharing memories from this historic fire. “The tragedy that we are commemorating today resulted in a much higher level of safety and protection for adults and children who work, study, worship, recreate, and sleep in all types of buildings. There is no way to measure how many lives have been saved over the last seventy-five years, but I am confident that we live in a safer society because of the lessons learned from the Cocoanut Grove fire.”
This week’s 75th anniversary recognition event was attended by organizers from the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee, local dignitaries, historians, and friends and families of the victims. The Boston Globe reported that the most poignant moments of the program, however, occurred when two survivors shared their stories.
Joyce Mekelburg, 93, told the crowd she was an 18-year old girl who went to the club with her fiancé. When the fire broke out, she got separated from her love. She escaped. Her fiancé did not. “It changed everything in my life,” Mekelburg said. “I was going to marry this man. You love one person. You can’t possibly get that person back.”
Marshal Cole was a teen dancer at the club’s Melody Lounge that fateful night. The 92-year old Massachusetts resident told event attendees that he stayed in his dressing room where it was quieter in between appearances. “The place was just mobbed. It was standing-room only.” Cole’s retreat to his dressing room on that Saturday evening in the fall of 1942 was his saving grace.
There has been a campaign for some time to create a movie about the Cocoanut Grove. During the anniversary event Zachary Graves-Miller debuted a new documentary film, entitled “Six Locked Doors,” that features stories from survivors. Graves-Miller’s family lived in the Bay Village neighborhood where the Cocoanut Grove nightclub was located; and the film-maker grew up seeing the historic landmark and hearing about the wartime tragedy that prompted today’s stringent fire and life safety infrastructure.