Remember the Horrific Cocoanut Grove Fire, One of the Reasons for Fire Safety Codes

Photo via AP Images.
Photo via AP Images.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the infamous Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, which ripped through the packed hotspot in minutes and ultimately killed 492 people. It’s responsible for many of the fire prevention measures that we take for granted today.


The Associated Press recounted the horrifying events:

The first flames broke out in a basement portion of the club, known as the Melody Lounge. From there, the fire rushed through the lounge and above the heads of people trying to race up a stairway, which acted as a chimney. A side exit door and a second door that opened onto a neighboring alley were locked.

Minutes after the first flames were seen in the lounge, the fire had reached the street floor lobby. The club was plunged into darkness when the lights went out, adding to the panic. A few people managed to escape before the front door became jammed, trapping hundreds.

In a 1992 piece (via, the Globe pointed out that the venue was at least 25 percent over its legal capacity—just one among a slew of factors that contributed to the disaster, like locked doors and flammable decorations. One consequence was advancements in treatments for burns and smoke inhalation. But perhaps the most important impact was a greater attention to the importance of fire prevention, inspiring stricter fire codes and enforcement. For instance, you’ve probably noticed—without making much of it—that revolving doors often have regular doors on either side. That’s because so many people were trapped at the Cocoanut Grove fire.

The anniversary is an important reminder that lots of red tape exists for very, very good reasons. “We have to make sure we are vigilant and follow those codes because they are based on experiences that we have gained sadly through tragedies like the Cocoanut Grove,” said Massachusetts Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey. And while it’s easy to picture such a terrible event as purely a curiosity from the archives—the sort of thing that happens in history books—more modern disasters like the Oakland Ghost Ship fire quickly corroborate the danger.

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One reason the Republicans are getting away with dismantling not only our democracy, but all of the regulations and protections it has enabled (from Social Security to public employee unions to fire safety regs) is that so few people are alive today who can remember the world as it was before.

The vile old people who turned out in droves to vote for Donald and his Republicans literally do not comprehend what their lives would be without Social Security and Medicare, which they imagine to have existed forever, built into the constitution or some such. They know nothing about how many old people used to die prematurely, of preventable diseases—and of hunger: they know nothing about how many old people lost their homes and their life savings because of bank failures or catastrophic illness (imagine an Enron, a Bernie Madoff, or a global financial meltdown happening, not as a one-off event, but every year, relentlessly and predictably). They know nothing about the seamy, shabby poor farms and county homes where those old people who had lost everything were lodged until they gave up and died.

Meanwhile, the younger folks who vote Republican because they’ve fallen for the agitprop about what Charles Koch’s people like to call “The Freedom Agenda” (the deregulated, pure capitalist state that is a fantasy more beguiling than sex in the minds of liver-spotted old hereditary billionaires) don’t know what it is to open up the morning paper and see that a schoolful of terrified kids has been consumed by a fire that swept through an unsafe, unregulated building (Our Lady of the Angels fire, Chicago 1958—it killed 92 kids and three nuns, and left dozens more with serious burns and other injuries).

Too many people have lived their lives protected by a century of progressive regulatory and tax initiatives to have any first-hand understanding of what their lives are about to become, now that Charles Koch’s Republicans own the country.