Cocoanut Grove Nightclub - Sixty-Eight Years and 492 Reasons to Remember


Ever wonder why occupancies with revolving doors have outward swinging doors to the left and/or right of them? Ever wonder why exit lights stay illuminated in movie theaters? Why exits at restaurants and places of public assembly (to name a few) swing outward? Or why your child’s elementary school is restricted from decorating the hallways with colorful artwork? The answer in part - Cocoanut Grove, November 28, 1942.


Unfortunately, like so many other factors within our profession these lessons while learned by some continue to be challenged from coast to coast. Case in point – May 28, 1977 – Beverly Hills Super Club (165 lives lost), February 20, 2003 – The Station Nightclub (100 lives lost). By their most basic description, many of the same mistakes were made thirty-five and sixty plus year’s later – highly combustible interior finishes, restricted exits, overcrowding, non-sprinklered public assembly, etc. When will we learn? What will it take to drive home the importance of public education and fire safety?

As firefighters, very few of us (we hope) will ever be faced with a tragedy of this magnitude, yet the events of November 28, 1942 provide each us with lessons that can and should be applied to our everyday operations:


1. Never let your guard down. Expect the unexpected. The first arriving company at Cocoanut Grove responded to a car fire and witnessed smoke emitting from the nightclub down the street. Little did they know that they would soon be responding to the deadliest nightclub fire in US history. Always remember, NO CALL CAN EVER BE CONSIDERED ROUTINE.


2. See something, say something is a phrase that has gained notoriety due to his linkage to terrorism and public education campaigns to defend our nation against the threat of terrorism, yet this same phrase can and should be linked to our actions when it comes to fire prevention. Its our responsibility to speak up, to identify the hazards we see and demand corrective action – take advantage of pre-fire planning sessions, company levels inspections, etc. to speak up and demand that corrective actions be taken – YOU HAVE 492 REASONS for your voice to be heard.


3. Situational awareness is critical – Always know the location of your primary and secondary exits. Countless lives were lost at Cocoanut Grove due to the large masses of people who fled to their primary means of egress, yet many survived by choosing an alternative exit point. As firefighters, we must never rely on one way out of the building; we must always work to maintain our situational awareness to include alternative means of egress.


4. Alternative tactics – many of the eighteen lines deployed on the Cocoanut Grove fire were deployed through windows and other means of access due to the obstructions created by exiting patrons. As firefighters, we are creatures of habit – same line, same method of attack. Take a moment to consider what alternatives you have as a first arriving company for initiating an interior attack – larger hand lines, over the ladder deployment, indirect attack for initial knockdown followed by the rapid deployment of a hand line for cleanup and final knockdown.


Ventilation – toxic gases are the leading cause of civilian deaths and the hazards of modern day fire gases continue to grow. How might we use ventilation (and/or alternative forms of ventilation) to rapidly remove or divert the assault of deadly gases on trapped occupants or exiting patrons? How effective are we at using all forms of tactical ventilation (vertical, horizontal, hydraulic, PPV, PPV-Fire Attack, etc.)?


I respectfully ask that each of you take a moment to remember the tragic events of November 28, 1942, but more importantly, the lessons that can be learned an applied to prevent a similar such tragedy in the future.

Stay Safe!!!


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Comment by Timothy Sendelbach on December 17, 2010 at 1:03pm
Firemedic - Thanks for taking the time to read my comments and many more thanks for taking the time to share yours.
Comment by Firemedic on December 16, 2010 at 5:42pm
Timothy, I enjoy your writings greatly. You always speak the truth and what the fire service needs to do in order to survive. Thanks for your commitment.
Comment by Timothy Sendelbach on November 29, 2010 at 8:58pm
Thanks Kathy for taking the time to share your thoughts - take care and stay safe.
Comment by Kathy Williams on November 29, 2010 at 3:33pm
An excellent article, Mr. Sendelbach. How awful that due to improper construction and an owner adding more and more rooms to his Club, doors were blocked off and exits made impassible, hidden or locked. As you mentioned, I took a moment to remember those lost at this Club, and to try and learn from it.

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