Life is what happens when you are making other plans~ John Lennon
An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind~Gandhi
The time is always right to do what is right~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Beverly Hills Supper Club fire

Beverly Hills Supper Club fire

In case your wondering what this applies to, Beverly Hills Supper Club was a nightclub that burned to the ground in the 1970s, in Southgate, Ky, which is actually the next town over from Bellevue, Ky, where I live.


  • This was considered to be the 3rd deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history
  • Occurred on May 28, 1977, in Southgate, Ky. Of all times, during the Memorial Day weekend
  • 165 people died from injuries that warm summer night and well over 200 were injured
  • Most of it's talent came from Las Vegas, Nashville, New York, Hollywood
  • In early 1937, this had been an illegal gambling spot and singer Dean Martin had been a blackjack dealer here
  • It went under new management in 1971, and several additions were made in 1976. With all the new additions, the Beverly Hills Club became a sprawling complex of corridors, function rooms, service halls and areas connected by narrow halls
  • At 9:00pm, it was believed that as many as 3,000 people and 182 employees were present in the club, and the headliner of the evening was popular Hollywood actor and singer John Davidson. He was in his dressing room while the comedic duo of Jim Teeter and Jim McDonald were warming up a capacity crowd in the Cabaret Room, one of the larger show rooms with a stage. There were 1, 300 people crammed into the room, and because of the unanticipated large crowds and overcrowding, additional guests were situated on the ramps leading up to the stage. Everywhere else, guests were enjoying drinks and entertainment in Main Bar, private party rooms and a show was going on in the Empire Room, the other large performance room with a stage. There was a special awards banquet for 425 people going on, while all 6 of the upstairs Crystal Rooms were occupied with various functions. 
  • In the Zebra Room, a newer, smaller facility located near the front entrance, a wedding reception had ended at 8:30 pm. Some of the patrons had complained to Beverly Hills staff saying the room was overheated and too hot, yet nothing suspicious had appeared. After the reception ended, the doors to the Zebra Room were closed and the fire burned inside the walls undetected for 25 minutes. Around 8:56 pm, 2 waitresses looking for tray stands entered the Zebra Room and saw dense smoke lingering near the east wall and they notified upper management. At 9:01 pm, a call to the fire department was sent out. To keep the fire under control until the fire department arrived, management used 2 hand fire extinguishers to no effect. The fire had started to burn out of control inside the walls until there was an orange glow on the east wall.
  • At 9:08 pm, 18 year old busboy Walter Bailey interrupted the comedy duo in the Cabaret Room and started nervously pointing out the exits. People started laughing thinking he was part of the comedy act. He was later hailed as hero and received an official recognition from President Jimmy Carter
  • At 9:10 pm, the fire finally revealed itself, bursting out into the Cabaret Room, taking everything with it. Many of the people panicked, which eventually led to them being found dead and piled up  near the main entrance. The fire spread so quickly that a full evacuation would have proved too difficult.
  • The firefighters on the scene focused squarely on the scene of the fire, the Cabaret Room, where it was believed that many of the victims were. But at midnight, the roof collapsed and it probably took all the victims inside under it. John Davidson had escaped via an exit near his dressing room. His road manager also escaped, but his musical arranger wasn't so lucky, he died in the fire.
  • There was an investigation by the police into the club and found the following problems:
    • Overcrowding: Although the Cabaret Room held between 614 and 756 people because it was the largest facility at the Beverly Hills club, that night it held well over 925
    • Inadequate fire exits: at full occupancy, the club was said to have been able to occupy 2,750 people, which would require 27.50 exits. But the club had only 16.5 exits, many of which were not clearly marked with lighted signs, or easily reached. Some exits could only be reached by passing through 3 or more interior doors. Many of the victims became lost in dead ends and perished.
    • Faulty wiring. State governor Julian Carroll stated that the wiring was "an electrician's nightmare". The club had very many code violations, and a year and a half later Bridgetown electrician James H. Amend said that he couldn't believe that any of that was never inspected.
    • Lack of fire walls: Without these safety precautions, that allowed the fire to spread. Without these in place, this allowed the fire to draw oxygen, which is what drives a fire, from other areas.
    • Poor construction: The club had been been with no common ceiling space, no roof support, highly flammable components. 
    • Extreme safety code violations:  no sprinkler system was installed, no audible automatic fire alarm, and some doors were locked and chained shut!
    • Poor authority oversight: it is said that the local volunteer fire department knew about the inefficiencies of the club but didn't do anything to fix them
  • This was the first case to sue for a class action.
How the evening went on:
  • 4:00 pm: a wedding ceremony begins in the wedding chapel in the back of the club
  • 4:30pm:  the wedding ends and guests begin moving inside to the Zebra Room, a newer, smaller facility located near the front entrance, near the Main Bar. At this time, electrical wiring in a small, hidden light fixture begins smoldering in the ceiling above the East Wall of the Zebra Room
  • 5:00pm:  guests in the Zebra Room are served dinner while yet more guests arrive for later shows. By 9:00 pm, over 3,000 people will arrive
  • 6:00 pm: on the main driveway, more guests arrive and the valet parking staff is up to their eyes in arrivals. Meanwhile, the fire in the Zebra Room continues to burn, undetected, it's now smoldering and burning insulation, and other materials
  • 6:30 pm: Many of the first guests begin noticing puffs of smoke coming from the club. These are the first of many guests who arrived between 6:30 pm-8:45pm. No one, however, bothers to report the suspicious smoke to Beverly Hills staff
  • 7:45 pm:  Oran Hall, who rented the Zebra Room for his son's wedding reception, as well as other guests, complain the room is too hot and that someone adjust the AC. 1 guest notices a "burning" smell, but does nothing as she associates the smell to lighted candles in the room.
  • 8:20 pm: the small wedding reception in the Zebra Room ends and the staff begins the initial "clearing" of the room, stacking dirty dishes on tray stands for later. Now a roaring flame has completely consumed the east wall, but it remains hidden behind decorative tapestries and paneling.
  • 8:30 pm: After the servers clear the room, they blow out all the candles, and they leave the room, closing the doors behind them.
  • 8:45 pm: Wayne Dammert, an employee in charge of 2 events on the 2nd floor, speaks with fellow employees in a service hall near the Zebra Room. No one notices anything suspicious, and he continues gathering things for the upstairs guests.
  • 8:55 pm: Dammert makes a final trip to the kitchen via an elevator at the end of the 2nd floor service hall. 2 bar boys enter a storage area to change out soft drink cups while another retrieves a clean uniform from a closet. This area is directly below the Zebra Room, yet no one notices anything suspicious
  • 8:58 pm: 2 waitresses, Roberta Vanover and her sister Marsha enter the Zebra Room in search of more tray stands to use for a group of doctors entertaining and being served in the Viennese Room. They see dense smoke lingering near the ceiling and no flames. One departs to the kitchen to alert kitchen staff while the other tries to locate club management to alert them to a possible fire in the Zebra Room
  • 8:59 pm: Rick Schilling, one of the co-owners of the club and busboy Dave Brock enter the Zebra Room. Thick smoke allows them to only enter a few feet. Flames are not yet visible, so they leave the room, closing the doors behind them. Schilling then locates receptionist Eileen Druckman, and tells her to call the fire department and inform other employees to start evacuating the club
  • 9:00 pm: Wayne Dammert arrives in the upstairs hall with his serving cart. Waitress Fran Oaks is standing in the hall just after learning of the situation downstairs. She says "There's a fire in the Zebra Room". He adds he was just there and didn't see anything.  They both walk toward the spiral staircase at the end of the hall and immediately they see smoke seeping up from the 1st floor. Downstairs Ron and Scott Schilling, as well as 1 bartender, enter the Zebra Room with handheld fire extinguishers. Thought flames are still invisible, they notice a red glow on the east wall. They go and empty their extinguishers on the wall to no effect. The smoke is described as heavy, thick and black. The fire is just about to burn its way through the thick wood paneling.
  • 9:01 pm:  the first call for help is received by the Campbell County Dispatch Center. Southgate, Ft. Thomas and Newport fire departments are immediately notified. Rick Schilling exits the building by way of front entrance and he alerts the valet parking staff to keep the driveway clear for emergency vehicles. He walks to the northwest side of the building and enters a little known exit that will take him to the Viennese Room. Upstairs, Wayne Dammert begins along with Fran Oaks, evacuating the Crystal Rooms. In Crystal Rooms 1,2,3, 100 people are entertaining. They are members of the Greater Cincinnati Choral Union and they are also using the rooms for a special fashion show. They quickly evacuate the rooms using the hallway leading to the kitchen. Soon Dammert and Oaks enter Crystal Rooms 4,5,6 to evacuate the 90 member Afghan Hound Club of Southwestern Ohio. They see the room empty, assuming they already evacuated
  • 9:04 pm: The Zebra Room is now fully engulfed. A metal tray stand is jammed under the doorknob to keep the fire contained. 18 year old busboy Walter Bailey notices the smoke and tries to locate the club owners, unaware they are already outside. He goes down the hall, first shouting a warning into the Main Bar. Next he goes to the Viennese Room, where a party is in full swing in 1 section and a Bar Mitzvah is in full swing in the other section. He sees a fellow busboy, Jay Neace, and he instructs him to get those people out. In a matter of minutes the room is safely evacuated. Next he goes to the Cabaret Room, only to find a long line of people waiting for the 2nd, later show. He tells them to leave immediately for their safety through the Garden Rooms at the back. Other employees are scattered all over the 1st floor, evacuating other patrons. Only 300 of the nearly 4,000 people have left.
  • 9:04 pm: A small Southgate rescue van with single fireman is the first to arrive. He sees smoke seeping from the eaves of the building and makes additional calls for help. Upstairs the nearly 100 patrons that Oaks and Dammert found are all safe outside. They find themselves dizzy and disoriented in the hall. They finally locate the door to the kitchen
  • 9:05 pm: Fire depts. from Southgate, Newport, Ft. Thomas arrive and begin assessing the situation. The lights in parts of the club begin flickering. Dammert remembers that the upstairs dressing rooms were never checked. The Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Savings and Loan Group, totaling near 500, are in the Empire Room and are being evacuated. 700 other patrons in the Dining Room, the Main Bar, Garden Rooms calmly exit the club
  • 9:06 pm: Walter Bailey enters the Cabaret Room and notifies hostess Pauline Smith of the fire. If Walter hadn't done this, the death toll might have been more than 1000
  • 9:08 pm: Walter Bailey takes the mic from comedy duo Jim Teeter and Jim McDonald, who are warming up a capacity crowd for Hollywood actor and singer John Davidson, and he starts nervously pointing out the exits. Many laugh, assuming he's part of the act. One of the comedians regains the microphone and says they'll continue when it's safe to do so
  • 9:10 pm: Additional crews from Alexandria, Wilder and other jurisdictions arrive with additional alarms. Crews begin pouring water on to the building. The fire in the Zebra Room finally reaches it's "flash over"
    • Flash over:  describes the point that a fire consumes all burnable material in one room and literally explodes into other areas in search of more "fuel" to burn.
  • This sends roaring flames into the Main Bar, Viennese Room, and down the long hall towards the Cabaret Room. Most of the guests have already evacuated the building, especially the patrons in the Main Bar, Garden Rooms, and Empire Room. The comedians are directing people toward the exits and progress is slow. Many of the guests trip and stumble over the many chairs and tables that clog the aisles. It's all smooth sailing because there are yet no flames present. John Davidson is in his dressing room shaving when his drummer tells him the building is on fire. Davidson's musical arranger, Doug Herro, along with the 5 man orchestra, attempt to save instruments and sheet music before evacuating the backstage area.
  • 9:11 pm: Newport Assistant Fire Chief Ron Bridewell, and the Dayton Fire Department attack flames in the Main Bar and adjacent hall. The heat forces them out after only a few minutes. They make their way to the Cabaret Room after learning there are people trapped there
  • 9:12 pm: heavy smoke and flames become visible for the first time in the Cabaret Room. Panic takes hold of the crowd and they begin pushing and shoving. Some run over tabletops, and when people stumble and fall, no assistance is offered. The lights flicker again and this time go out permanently. Davidson's musical arranger and 5 man orchestra are lost in the dark and are unable to save themselves or their instruments and sheet music
  • 9:15 pm:  Hundreds of soot covered, well dressed guests exit the club. Many walk around as if in a daze, bodies begin lining up on the landscape near the chapel in the back and on the hill near the main driveway. Many of the ones outside begin looking for lost loved ones. Most others seek refuge at the Oasis, a small tavern just at the bottom of the long driveway along the highway. Passing drivers pick up the guests to take them away and some are even driven to residential houses to call loved ones where they are comforted. Others walk aimlessly down the middle of Alexandria Pike and others are seen lost on nearby residential streets. Local TV stations have picked up the word that many may still be trapped in the burning nightclub.
  • 9:18 pm: additional alarms have been sent out to Covington, Bellevue, Dayton. Most efforts go from fighting the flames to just rescuing victims. TV shows are interrupted with a plea for doctors, nurses, anyone in the medical field or anyone with medical experience that they are needed at the scene. Many people become lost, confused, disoriented in the darkness of the Cabaret Room. Many are attempting to exit through a set of double doors to the back service hall. Many are overcome with toxic fumes and smoke. It's said the double doors were filled head high with soot covered bodies. Firefighters try and rescue some of the people, but the weight of the other bodies on top makes rescue nigh on impossible
  • 9:20 pm: Ron Bridewell and his crew enter the east exit of the Cabaret Room and are hit with pitch blackness. They turn right and enter what is later described as the backstage hall and dressing area. There are several bodies back here, and in one of the dressing rooms. It's believed that in the confusion and darkness, they walked right past their door to freedom and got trapped in a dead end. They pull 8 bodies from that room and find a closet with 15 bodies in it, huddled on the floor they mistook for an exit.
  • 9:30 pm:  the Beverly Hills club is now fully engulfed. The bright red glow can be seen for miles. Rescuers begin pulling bodies from the Cabaret Rooms side exits
  • 9:50 pm: Ft. Thomas firefighter Bruce Rath continues pulling bodies from the west end hall's door. While rescuing 1 victim, he hears another plea for help, saying "she has babies at home". He pulls her out in addition to the original victim. Hr lays them down near the chapel. He sees a doctor checking the newer victim and he declares her dead.  He performs mouth-to-mouth on her and brings her back to life.
  • 10:00 pm:  nearly every jurisdiction in Campbell county is there. Fire crews from as far as Florence, Hebron, Walton, Harrison County, and Maysville in Ky, and Colerain Twp, Madeira and Delhi Twp in Ohio now line the driveway. The main routes to st. Elizabeth Hospital and Booth Memorial Hospital and St. Luke's in Ft. Thomas are blocked to regular traffic so that emergency vehicles can go.
  • 10:45 pm: firefighters set up high powered lights outside the west exit doors of the Cabaret Room and point them into the dark. Only then does their nightmare come true. Dozens of bodies are illuminated in the once dark hall. For the next few hours, body after body is removed. Once they are able to enter the Cabaret Room, it's said they find an ocean of black death, bodies lying side by side, and one on top of the other, in some areas they are stacked waist high.
  • 10:45 pm: a temporary holding shelter is set up for the dead near the chapel. A clergyman is seen going around administering last rites to those who have died. Reports of a man looting the dead bodies only adds to the frustration of volunteers, fire crews and police
  • 11:00pm:  Local TV stations begin their evening reports. They interrupted regular programming with regular bulletins about the nightclub fire. Now everyone knows about the fire at the Beverly Hills Club. As 100 bodies have been removed, it is decided that the nearby Ft. Thomas Armory post will be the makeshift morgue location. US Army Reserve personnel trucks arrive to transport the dead
  • 11:15 pm: 2 women are found alive near the Cabaret Room and are whisked to safety.
  • 12:00 am: Governor Julian Carroll and Commissioner Terry McBrayer begin plans to depart to Southgate while Lee Majors, who had been to the Beverly Hills Club many times, stays in Frankfort, fearing he might get in the way. They then leave in an unmarked police car traveling at high speeds.
  • 12:05 am: the north wall of the building collapses. Southgate fire chief Dick Rosenberg issues a statement to the Kentucky Post that 120 people are confirmed dead. Now firefighters are more worried about fighting the fire rather than search for any more living victims
  • 1:16 am: Newport patrolmen John Peluso and George Miller arrive at the armory for the first arrival of dead bodies
  • 2:00 am: dozens of ambulances and Army trucks line the driveway. Civil defense workers tag the bodies and stack them on a ridge near the gardens in rows. The fire is now out aside from small grass fires scattered around the site
  • 3:00am: Governor Carroll arrives in Southgate, goes to visit the scene briefly and then heads to the armory
  • 4:45 am: Singer John Davidson, unable to locate his musical arranger and his orchestra, arrives at the morgue to positively ID their bodies
  • 6:00 am: the final truck arrives at the armory with another load of charred bodies. At this time, 160 people are confirmed dead. 125 are taken to local hospitals with injuries ranging from minor to life threatening.
  • 8:00 am: a large crane begins moving pieces of the building. Firefighters begin sifting through the rubble and find no other additional bodies.
  • 12:00pm: 2 additional bodies are found in the rubble of the Viennese Room, bringing the death toll to 162. They were in the upstairs dressing room that Dammert and a firefighter were unable to check at the height of the fire. They fell to the lower floor when the building started collapsing.
  • All of this info is from the book Northern Kentucky Fires by Robert Webster
On June 1, 1977, Governor Carroll proclaimed a state of mourning and ordered all flags to be flown at half mast for 30 days and a state organized memorial service would be held.

On June 2, 1977, a patron injured in the fire sued for damages and this opened the floodgate for a class action lawsuit. By 1985, out of court settlements totaled $30 million

On June 25, 1977, nearly a month later, the 163rd victim died from injuries, and the 164th victim died on July 2, 1977

On July 13, 1977, fire investigators concluded that all evidence points to an electrical fire in the Zebra Room. On Sept. 9, 1977, a special task force commissioned by Governor Carroll concluded that there was a shocking amount of disregard by owners for the safety of the patrons. Inadequate fire exits, gross overcrowding, substandard electrical work, poor building construction was to blame.

On August 2, 1978, neither criminal negligence or structural problems were responsible for the loss of life. This was what the task force concluded. Cabaret Room patrons failed to react when asked to leave and remained seated until the need to evacuate presented itself.

On March 10, 1978, nearly 10 months after the fire, the 165th victim died from injuries in the fire.
Nowadays, there are signs in rooms for public gatherings stating the maximum occupancy, random inspections by fire marshals, exits must clearly be marked with lighted signs, special spotlights with battery backups must be used, fire exit doors with special "panic release" bars for easy opening.

To think, all of this because of an incident like this. That's sad, it took 165 people dying to make the laws stricter! 

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