Eighty years ago, on November 28, 1942, just after 10 p.m., a 16-year-old busboy had been ordered to fix a light bulb located at the top of an artificial palm tree at the Cocoanut Grove “restaurant-supper club” in Boston, Mass. (legend has it the bulb had been unscrewed by a patron desiring more intimacy with his date in the Grove’s basement lounge). He lit a match to locate the socket for the light bulb, and moments later, a flicker of a flame in the palm tree quickly spread to the highly flammable cloth-covered ceiling.

The official Boston Fire Department report states that “from the first appearance of flame until it had explosively traversed the main dining room and passed, almost 225 feet away, to the entrance of the Broadway Lounge, the commissioner estimated at total time of five minutes at most. At this point in time all exits normally open to the public, of which each had something functionally wrong, were useless for a safe escape.” A revolving door at the main Piedmont Street entrance was the worst culprit; it became jammed as patrons pushed toward the door to escape. See “Cocoanut Grove: Estimated Path of Fire and Timeline” below.

A combination of corruption, greed, and wanton disregard of local fire regulations led to the deadliest “nightclub” fire in U.S. history (Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903 ignominiously holds the title of deadliest fire in an assembly occupancy, with 602 fatalities). So lethal was this disaster—which occurred somewhat ironically in the National Fire Protection Association’s own backyard—that it is still taught to this day in architectural and engineering schools, as well as by the NFPA itself, as a cautionary tale.

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