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Street renamed in memory of Cocoanut Grove fire

 Boston’s mayor-elect, Martin J. Walsh, spoke with Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire survivor John Rizzo, 93, on Saturday.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Boston’s mayor-elect, Martin J. Walsh, spoke with Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire survivor John Rizzo, 93, on Saturday.

They came to commemorate a tragedy. And to celebrate the lessons learned from it.

Some had lost parents, spouses, and friends in the fire. Many others had only read about the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in history books or heard about the notorious blaze from older relatives.

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Still others, like 93-year-old John Rizzo, had been trapped inside the inferno as the deadly flames tore through the building, leaving 492 people dead in one of the worst fires in the country’s history. And 71 years later, Rizzo said, he still feels lucky to be alive.

They gathered Saturday morning in Bay Village as the street that once housed the Cocoanut Grove nightclub was renamed in memory of the fire and its victims.

Rizzo and other survivors praised the city for formally recognizing the lives lost in the deadliest fire in New England history. City leaders and historians noted the various advances in fire safety and medical care that came about as a result of the fire.

“This is truly hallowed grounds we stand on today,” said Paul Christian, a former Boston Fire Department commissioner and the department’s historian. “The lessons of Cocoanut Grove are clear: It’s only through constant vigilance that tragedies like this can be avoided.”

The fire, which is believed to have been started by a match, brought about sweeping changes to the way city fire departments inspect buildings for safety.

Just moments after it had begun, the fire shot throughout the building, which was elaborately decorated with highly flammable materials. Access to side doors and the roof had been boarded up — to stop people from leaving without paying — and the revolving door at the front of the building got stuck, trapping hundreds of people inside as the building burned.

The tragedy led to new fire code requirements that all revolving doors also have outwardly-swinging doors next to them and more stringent occupancy checks.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times it takes tragedy to have change,” said Mayor-Elect Martin J. Walsh, who helped unveil the new street sign declaring the small side street where the nightclub once sat “Cocoanut Grove Lane.”

Decades later, the fire is also seen as a catalyst for major advances in medical care for burn victims. Those hospitalized after the blaze were some of the first patients to be treated with penicillin, at the time a new and relatively unknown drug, and the fire is still frequently cited by fire safety advocates.

“We’re all participating in a solemn and historic moment in the ongoing history of the City of Boston,” said Roderick Fraser, the city fire commissioner. “It’s my hope and prayer that a tragedy like this never happens again anywhere.”

Until Saturday, a small plaque and a historical marker were the only memorials at the site of the fire.

That plaque, dedicated in 1993, describes the site as “Phoenix out of the ashes” — a phrase that was frequently repeated during Saturday’s ceremony.

“I’ll never, ever, forget that day,” said Ann Marie Gallagher, an 87-year-old survivor from Keene, N.H., who returned to the site on Saturday for the first time since the night of the fire.

Gallagher, then 16 years old, was dining at Cocoanut Grove with her parents, her boyfriend, and his parents after the group had traveled to Boston to watch the Boston College-Holy Cross football game.

She was the only one who survived.

“Out of the bad comes good, too.” Gallagher said, after noting the drastic improvements in fire safety codes that came as a result of the fire. “It’s sad, but beautiful.”

Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.
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