A Brief History
On this date, November 28, 1942, in the middle of World War II, the United States suffered mass carnage on the home front!
Digging deeper, we find that November 28, 1942 was the date of the infamous Cocoanut Grove fire, a blaze that took 492 lives.
This horrible fire remains the second deadliest single building fire in U.S. history, second only to a theater fire in 1903 Chicago that killed 602 people. Of course, the human toll did not end with those deaths, but also included many more (hundreds?) burned or otherwise injured non-fatally.
Since the death toll exceeded the occupancy limit, and obviously there were many more people than that inside, this incident resulted in stricter enforcement of fire codes, and the huge amount of burn victims resulted in a reform of how burns are treated.
With perhaps a thousand people inside the former speakeasy enjoying an evening of music, dance and drink, the fire is believed to have been started accidentally by a busboy who used a match to see what he was doing.
The deadly fire spread quickly and spectacularly, causing a panicked crowd to rush the main entrance/exit, which was a single revolving door! Obviously, this area became a choke point and escape was blocked. Other doors had been bolted shut to prevent people coming and going without paying, and a large glass window was boarded up.
Public outrage over rampant safety violations resulted in the club owner, Barnet Welansky, being convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years, of which he served 4. Welansky died shortly after release from prison. The busboy was not charged, but lived his life being blamed and tormented by guilt.
As noted above, some good did come from this horror, especially in the area of burn treatment, and there were numerous stories of heroism by fire fighters and other persons risking their own lives to save others.
A final bizarre note, is that the fire spread so fast, some patrons were found dead in their seats, drink glasses still in their hands!
Question for students (and subscribers): What other disasters occurred during World War II that were not necessarily directly related to the war? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information on this incident, please read…
Esposito, John C. Fire in the Grove. Da Capo Press, 2006.
Schorow, Stephanie. The Cocoanut Grove Fire (New England Remembers). Edited by Robert J. Allison. Commonwealth Editions, 2005.