Trouble in Paradise
It is sad to think that tragedy must occur before rules are created to prevent accidents from
occurring again. The infamous fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, Mass. is just
one example of that.
On the evening of Nov. 28, 1942, one couple seated in a lounge in the building’s basement
wanted a little privacy, and unscrewed the light bulb above their table. A 16-year-old busboy
was instructed to put the bulb back in its place, and in doing so lit a match so he could see the
socket in the dimly-lit area. However, before he knew it, the flame from the match had jumped
to the satin ceiling and began to spread like wildfire.
About 1,000 patrons were in the building that night, which was 25-percent beyond capacity.
A total of 492 people died as a result of the fire; a majority of them that night, while others not
until the following spring from complications.
Some necessary changes came into play as a result of this tragedy. It propelled tighter
building codes, including lighted exit signs, doors that open outwards, and revolving doors
flanked by conventional ones. Though a firefighter had examined the building just days before
to find everything satisfactory, the building’s demise proved otherwise. Its tropical decor was
not fireproof; the electrician who wired the building had no license; exits were locked; and a
window that could have allowed 200 more people to escape had been boarded up.
Source: The Boston Globe
young women who were cut off and unable
to reach the small elevator or the crowded
stairs were driven to the windows.
“Above their heads,” Hashagen con-
tinued, “sheets of flames pulsed out the
eighth floor windows and into the open
windows on the ninth and tenth floors,
igniting the extremely flammable fabrics
and cuttings on each floor. The first warn-
ing of fire the 300 workers on the ninth
floor had was the wave of fire suddenly
pouring over their heads. A mad scram-
ble ensued as each one tried to squeeze
through the 20-inch opening that led to
the Greene Street stairway. Others franti-
cally made their way to a single small fire
escape that was soon overcrowded.”
In a New York Times report on March
26, 1911, it was noted that “Samuel Bern-
stein, the waist factory’s foreman, and Max
Rothberg, his first assistant, were stand-
ing together on the eighth floor when the
screams of girls attracted their attention
to the southeast corner of the large room.
They rang for the elevators, which were on
the south side of the building, and Roth-
berg telephoned the fire department and
the police department.” On the street, a
passerby saw the smoke and pulled the
corner fire alarm box, #289. Within min-
utes, Engine 72 was on its way.
Hashagen reports that Engine 72 was
a 1909 Knox high-pressure hose wagon,
the city’s first motorized apparatus. The
next arriving engines were horse-drawn.
Battalion Chief Edward Worth took com-
mand, commenting, “As I turned the
corner at Fourth and Green, I saw that
the fire was already in possession of the
eighth floor. Nobody showed at the win-
dows of that floor. From the ninth floor,
people were jumping.” More engines ar-
rived as multiple alarms were triggered.
The firemen tried to keep the women
from jumping, but were unsuccessful.
The “life nets” being used to catch jump-
ers were ineffective because of the height
from which the women were jumping.
students) shoved them away and let the
women out of the danger zone first. More
than 100 women and 20 men escaped
this way. Another hundred reached the
building north of the burning one, whose
roof was only five feet higher and could
be reached without a ladder. How many
reached the streets through the stairways
nobody knew, as they were foreigners
who spoke little English and fled for their
homes in the lower east side as soon as
they gained the sidewalk.” It was not until
the blaze was out and bodies were moved
to the morgue that the true horror of the
fire was realized.
The company, according to the New
York Times, was owned by the partnership
of Max Harris and Isaac Blanck, both of
whom escaped the fire. Discussion immediately followed regarding possible charges against New York’s then-mayor William
Jay Gaynor, but instead the fire led to the
creation of the Ladies Waist & Dressmakers Union, which was a forerunner
of International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Also, founded in 1911 was the
Factory Investigation Committee headed
by Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner,
both of whom would later become prominent New York politicians. The committee also included notables such as Frances
Hardly a year passes without some fire-related
tragedy involving locked or barricaded doors, a
deadly impediment often initiated by management
to prevent wrongful entry or keeping patrons from
exiting without paying a bill.
Across the street on the 10th floor of
another building, 50 law students were
attending a lecture by a former New Jersey sheriff-turned-law professor. After
spotting the flames, the lecturing sheriff ordered his students up to the roof.
There, they found two ladders that had
been left by painters, and although the
two buildings were 15 feet apart, the students were able to lower ladders to the
women trapped below, as several students
climbed down and rescued some of those
on the floors affected by the fire.
The New York Times reported that “men,
panic-stricken, fought with the women to
get to the ladder, but Kremmer (one of the
Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the Franklin
Ken Brownlee, CPCU, is a former adjuster
and risk manager based in Atlanta, Ga.
He now authors and edits claim-adjusting