Tonight marks 80 years since a terrible inferno struck a Boston nightclub, killing hundreds and permanently changing how the nation plans for, builds and responds to fires.
According to different reports, the Cocoanut Grove was packed at twice its capacity and entertained over 1,000 people when a fast-moving flame engulfed it after 10 p.m., Nov. 28, 1942.
The death toll was 492, with panicked people trapped between revolving door doors or against other doors that open only inward.
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“Frantic efforts of medical personnel to save life, and the very open investigation which took place in the days that followed, led to unprecedented modifications to building fire codes and medical treatment guidelines, as well as grief counseling,” says the 100 Club of Massachusetts. This group is dedicated to helping the families of first responseers.
The inferno was allegedly started by a busboy who lit a match while fixing a lightbulb at the top of an artificial palm.
The tree, which was made of highly flammable materials, caught on fire and spread rapidly as panicked customers raced to the few exits marked poorly.
Many of those who lived around Boston in the 1950s and 1960s grew up hearing horror stories.
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Betty Soroko, Irving and Betty Soroko survived the inferno at Cocoanut Tree that night.
Avi Rosenfarb (Betty’s brother) did not attend. The three family members celebrated with a coworker at work.
As they knew there was an exit, the Soroko clan got out. The people smashed the revolving doors.
But unable to find his work friend, Rosenfarb went back into the burning build to look for her — and did not make it out alive.
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Jordan Soroko was only a 1-year old baby at the time and confirmed the details of the horrible evening years later.
“They found my uncle’s remains up against one of the revolving doors,” Jordan Soroko recalled on Monday. They identified him only using his wristwatch.
Jordan Soroko never heard his dad talk about the terrible night. However, his mom shared one haunting memory.
“She said the most difficult thing she ever had to do was to go home that night and tell her mother that they couldn’t find Avi,” he said, referring to her now-deceased brother.
That night, hundreds of mothers across the country heard the same shocking news.
Major changes were made to fire and building codes in the United States and all over the globe as a result of the outcry from the inferno.
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Many of the changes that occurred in the following decades resulted today in familiar features of public places.
Buildings used for public assemblies now needed at least two separate means of egress, while exits had to move the flow of human traffic — outward, instead of inward, for example.
Standard swinging doors were required to flank revolving doors.
Revolving doors had to now be flanked with standard swinging doors. Emergency lighting was also required to mark exit locations.
Interior decor was no longer permitted to contain combustible materials. However, automatic sprinklers were encouraged and often required in new construction.
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The National Fire Protection Agency stated that the Cocoanut Grove fire was a terrible tragedy.
“Yet this event brought about very positive changes in regulations concerning fire safety … Fire officials from all over the country came to Boston in the days following the fire to take back with them the painful lesson learned.”