The Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire

I occasionally help teach EMT classes, and one of the topics I enjoy covering is multiple casualty incidents (MCIs). I frequently use examples from real incidents, and I've searched for so many recordings of fire-rescue radio transmissions during active shooter incidents that I probably have my own electronic file somewhere in a bland national security data warehouse.

As a firefighter, I'd heard of the Cocoanut Grove fire, which played a tragic role in the advancement of fire safety regulation in the US. I stumbled across it again and took an unexpected deep dive into the history of the fire.

In 1942, despite passing routine fire inspections, the nightclub was a fire trap, even by the lax regulatory standards of the day. In addition to placing cloth and palm-frond decorations on the walls and ceilings, the club owner had locked up emergency exits and windows to prevent patrons from slipping out without paying their tab. 

The Cocoanut Grove was full beyond capacity on the night of November 28, 1942. A patron in the downstairs lounge removed a light bulb so he could kiss his girlfriend in the darkness. A sixteen year-old waiter, who took the job to help pay expenses for his ill mother, was told to screw the bulb back in. He climbed on a stool, struck a match to see what he was doing, and restored the bulb to its place. Shortly afterward, flames began to spread across the ceiling. Flames and choking smoke spread so quickly that some patrons were overcome at their seats, their bodies later recovered with hands still grasping their glasses. Archive.org includes hundreds of pages of witness statements.

In all, 492 people lost their lives that night. The fire is credited with spurring changes to both fire protection standards and burn treatment

Investigators said they could not point to the match as the cause of the fire (other investigators have theorized the fire began as a result of an electrical spark igniting fumes from the club's air-conditioning system), but many people blamed the young waiter for the tragedy, and he bore the stigma for the rest of his life.