Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire Remembered

The Beverly Hills Supper Club was remodeled and upgraded and opened in 1971.  It had previously gone through many changes and the original building had burned in the late 1930′s.

It had changed hands, sat vacant and been an off and on hot spot for several years until it was the primary club for top notch entertainment and high class amenities.

On May 28th, 1977, the place was packed with visitors that were expecting a night of glamor and star entertainer John Davidson.  It is uncertain exactly how many patrons were in attendance that evening, but estimations put the number at approximately 3,000 at the entire facility with 1300 in the Cabaret Room.  There were multiple events taking place in multiple rooms which were all filled to or over capacity, according to reports.

In the Cabaret Room alone, people were squeezed in and sat in aisles and ramps that would be exit pathways.  Some of these ramps led to the stage and people were placed there in order to get as many people into the room as possible.

Smoke was first noticed in the Zebra Room by two waitresses sometime around 2100 hours.  They  noticed a dense smoke in the room and they notified management.  The fire department was called within a few minutes and extinguishers were used on the fire with no effectiveness.  Within 10 minutes, the fire had spread to the Cabaret Room and things would turn tragic very fast.

Here is quote from one of the first arriving firefighters about what he saw, “When I got to the inside doors, which is about 30 feet inside the building, I saw these big double doors, and people were stacked like cordwood. There were clear up to the top. They just kept diving out on each other trying to get out. I looked back over the pile of – it wasn’t dead people, there were dead and alive in that pile – and I went in and I just started to grab them two at a time and pull them off the stack, and drag them out…” , Bruce Rath, a Fort Thomas firefighter.

The results of this night were that 165 people lost their lives that night.  The reports were not much different from the Cocoanut Grove fire some 30 years prior.

-Overcrowding of the facility, namely the Cabaret Room.  The room had a listed occupancy load of 615 -756 people.  That night, it was estimated that nearly 1300 people were in the room, almost double the allowed load.

-For the size of the facility Kentucky law required that there should have been at least 27.5 exits for the occupant load, there were only 16.5.

-The wiring was considered inadequate and it was stated that it would have never passed inspection by an electrician who inspected the electrical work.

-There were no fire walls to prohibit the spread of fire from one area to another.

-No sprinkler system and no audible fire alarm system.

-The local volunteer fire department acknowledged that there were issues, but had not ordered any of them to be corrected.  (I was unable to find out if the department had fire or building codes ordinances at the time of the fire.)

-There were reports of locked doors.

These factors are all too familiar.  We see the same failures in these large loss of life fires in assembly occupancies.  We sometimes take our inspections and prevention activities lightly because it is not “fun” or interesting to some.  Remember these fires and the lives that have been lost because of poor prevention measures and a lack of life safety measures in these buildings.

Below are some links where you can get more information and much of the sources for this post were from the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Until next time, stay safe, do your inspections with conviction and stay low.

http://www.enquirer.com/beverlyhills/lives.html

http://migration.kentucky.gov/NR/rdonlyres/CBCD1D5A-F7F3-4341-BF52-733BFDD35AD8/0/20090313BevHillsSummary.pdf

http://www.enquirer.com/beverlyhills/only.html

http://www.metropolitan.edu/disastercentral/index.php/emergency-management-planning/the-beverly-hills-supper-club-fire-another-look.php

12 Comments

  • A good example of how health and safety regulations often save lives. The place was insanely over capacity and the owner these days would have been 100% liable.

  • forex robot says:

    nice post. thanks.

  • Christian Anthe says:

    Actually, the correct number of persons in the Cabaret Room was 900-1000, not 1300.  That was ruled out during hearing conducted around 1979 by the Grand Jury of Campbell County.

  • Paul Schewene says:

    "The local volunteer fire department acknowledged there were issues but had not ordered any of them to be corrected."  ("I was unable to find out if the department had fire or building codes at the time of the fire."

    I live in the same county that the fire happened.  In fact I'm just 3 miles from the site of the fire, and spent 15 years in the fire service in the years after the fire.

    Basically… there are building codes… but the issue is… the fire department was not an authorized enforcement agency of those codes.     They couldn't really do anything about the code violation situation at that time, much as I'm sure they wanted to.

    They had a lot more in the way of troubles on that fire… than just building codes.

    The building was up on a hill, with a single narrow driveway leading to it and the parking lot behind it.  That driveway was made even more narrow by cars, because the place was so crowded, that the Beverly Hills used  as much 'overflow parking' as possible.

    So just getting fire equipment into position for the fight, was a chore.   Water supply as an issue also, in that it took some work to get the kinds of fire flows they needed.  (It was doable… but there was plenty of hose stretching and work done to make sure the water supply was more and more firmed up as the incident progressed.)

    Far from being a tragedy… this fire was one of the finest miracles in the history of the business.  The death toll SHOULD have been 5 times higher at LEAST.  It was only the tenacity of emergency workers, and yes, the people involved themselves… that averted a bigger calamity.

  • Jason says:

    Paul, you make some valid points. Specifically about the location of the building. Had buildling and fire codes been enforced there would have been requirements for adequate access for fire apparatus and for adequate water supply to protect the building based on square footage and occupancy.  So, I would argue that fire and buildling codes or the lack there of did play a significant role in the results of this fire. Let it also be noted that not all jurisdictions adopt these model codes.

  • Dan Cunningham says:

    It is apalling to think that there was NO fire alarm system in the building.  No way to notify everyone to get out…except for Walter Bailey!

  • Great post – very informative. 

  • Christian Anthe says:

    We all know at this point that the mafia ordered the club to be burned down because the Schilling family would not accept a considerably large offer to purchase the club from them and bring back gambling.  Codes, aluminum wiring, etc., played no part in the cause of the fire, nor did the fire start in the Zebra Room.  It started in the air handling unit in the basement and spread to the Zebra Room from a ventilation duct.  I just wanted to make that clear.

  • John Fireman says:

    @ Christian Anthe…I know there's an arson camp out there, but honestly taking out innocent people is NOT the Mafia's style. They may take you out or evan your family if you have pissed them off, but to kill innocent people that have nothing to do with the goal(s) of the Mafia is just not their style. As bad as they are they are not Muslim terrorists. There are 2 books on the subject and I highly recommend them both. In the older book, "Beverly Hills: The Anatomy of a Nightclub Fire" By Robert Lawson, The owners were %1000 negligent from the time they first purchased the property until the day it burned to the ground. If that happened today they would have hanged with out a shadow of a doubt. Neither book to include the Newer book written by a survivor who is now in the "arson camp" mentions a single thing about arson. The arson "theory" is based on nothing more than a tiny shred of evidence impropriety and a HUGE mountain of conjecture. The investgation into the fire on both sides of the fence was done by the best investigators at the time it took years and both sides had more at stake in this case than anyone could possibly fathom. To look at photos of the wiring of that club, which I have would evan lead a total layman to believe without a doubt that a 3 year old child could have wired the BHSC better than the morons that were contracted by the Schillings (owners of BHSC). It was not arson, believe me.

  • John Fireman says:

    @ Christian Anthe…I know there's an arson camp out there, but honestly taking out innocent people is NOT the Mafia's style. They may take you out or even your family if you have pissed them off, but to kill innocent people that have nothing to do with the goal(s) of the Mafia is just not their style. As bad as they are they are not Muslim terrorists. There are 2 books on the subject and I highly recommend them both. In the older book, "Beverly Hills: The Anatomy of a Nightclub Fire" By Robert Lawson, The owners were %1000 negligent from the time they first purchased the property until the day it burned to the ground. If that happened today they would have hanged with out a shadow of a doubt. Neither book to include the newer book written by a survivor who is now in the "arson camp" mentions a single thing about arson. The arson "theory" is based on nothing more than a tiny shred of evidence and a HUGE mountain of conjecture. The investgation into the fire on both sides of the fence was done by the best investigators at the time it took years and both sides had more at stake in this case than anyone could possibly fathom. To look at photos of the wiring of that club, which I have would evan lead a total layman to believe without a doubt that a 3 year old child could have wired the BHSC better than the morons that were contracted by the Schillings (owners of BHSC). It was not arson, believe me.

  • Christian Anthe says:

    There is scheduled to be a 35 Anniversary Memorial Service for the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire this Saturday, May 26th, estimated time 11 am – 1 pm (although time has not yet been officially confirmed).  Location: base of the driveway of the former club, now a doctor’s office parking lot.  Please watch or contact the news media stations for updates,  or call Dave Brock at 859-609-7111 or Wayne Dammert at 859-635-2274 for further details.  This message will be updated before the event this weekend.  All are invited, please share the word.  Temperatures will be in the mid-90’s fahr, so please dress appropriately.  Hope to see everyone there!

  • Kim says:

    After reading so many articles about this fire, this one shows me so many similarities to The Station Nightclub fire of February 2003. Both building were reconstructed over time. Both building burned at some time before the fatal fires. It goes to show history does repeat itself but not for the good. I can't say this will never happen again because it will and already has. You think that in this modern day that people would get it but they haven't. Firefighters lives are also on the line everytime they respond to a fire. It is sad to think that people go to nightclubs every day to have fun and relax. They shouldn't have to be worried that their may be a fire and how to get out of the building. Adding alcohol to the mixture and it spells disaster. I hope and pray this will never happen again but it will. God Bless those whose lives were lost to a senseless fire.

     

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Jason Hoevelmann

Deputy Chief/Fire Marshal with the Sullivan Fire Protection District, a combination department, and a career firefighter/paramedic with the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District in North St. Louis County.

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