Over the Memorial Day holiday weekend on May 28, 1977, a fire broke out at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, that killed 165 people.
The blaze was the 3rd deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.
THE BEVERLY HILLS CLUB
The club was a major attraction. It sat just 2.5 miles outside of Cincinnati and booked entertainers from Las Vegas, Nashville, Hollywood and New York. The club was popular for illegal gambling back in the 20s, but reopened in 1971 as an elegant venue, attracting a top-tier clientele.
Unfortunately, like most nightclub fires, the venue was not exactly built with the idea of quick, efficient evacuation in mind. The building was non-linear with a bunch of different rooms. The hallways were narrow and the exits were poorly placed, requiring a lot of movement, rooms and hallways to reach. There were a ton of different rooms inside.
The building's frame itself was non-combustible, but wooden materials for the 2-story portion of the complex, and framing for the doors and hallways was absolutely flammable. In addition to highly combustible carpeting, wood wall paneling, wooden tables, tablecloths and curtains, if a fire broke out, the whole place could, in theory, go up in flames.
At the time, the club did not have a fire-suppression sprinkler system, as they were not required. It also did not have a fire alarm or smoke detectors, which I have to assume were required. The event rooms did not have their own exits, but lead into narrow corridors. All-in-all, it looked like a fun place to hang but was an evacuation nightmare, which they would come to find out on May 28, 1977.
In another similarity to other nightclub fires I have written about, the place was well over capacity on the evening of the fire. Popular Hollywood singer John Davidson was performing, which was a popular show. The Cabaret Room where he was performing was meant for about 600 people, but with the nearly 900-1,300 people inside the room at the time of the fire, people were sitting in ramps and aisles to see the show.
Elsewhere throughout the extravagant club, there were people eating gourmet meals and mingling. There were about 3,000 people in total, well over the 1,500 people allowed by the fire code.
On the opposite end of the building from the stuffed-past-capacity Cabaret Room, a wedding reception was taking place in the Zebra Room, one of the event rooms near the main entrance. At around 8:30 PM, the reception drew to a close, and some of the guests were complaining that there had been a lot of loud noises beneath the floor and that the room was excessively warm. Because of this, the reception ended before their allotted time, the guests leaving the building.
The reception room remained empty, but right before 9 PM, an employee smelled smoke coming from the Zebra Room and opened the door, confirming his suspicion. They called the fire department and the employee and others began to try to fight the flames with fire extinguishers. They did not know it at the time, but opening the door to the Zebra Room allowed the oxygen in the room to cause the fire to begin to spread more rapidly. The extinguishers were useless against the blaze. The fire department arrived only a few minutes after the call, and they could see smoke coming from the building from outside.
The smoke began to drift down the halls from the Zebra Room into other very full banquet rooms. Employees tried to get people to leave, but because there was no fire alarm system and the rooms were not all in close proximity, it was impossible to spread the news of the blaze efficiently. Employees tried to walk through the narrow corridors, alerting people as they could.
Busboy Walter Bailey arrived in the Cabaret Room to interrupt the show and order an evacuation, but with somewhere around 1,000 people, it was very difficult for them to make their way to the small amount of exits in the room. The staircase that would have provided the best exit became engulfed in flames, as well.
About 10 minutes after the fire was found, at 9:10, the power went out, and panic further ensued. People had been calmly moving to exits, but patrons began pushing and shoving. When the fire blocked off 3 of the exits, everyone was funneled through 1 small exit, furthering the chaos and commotion.
Employees tried to pull guests to safety, but a stampede began and the influx of bodies at the door made it impossible to free them. People tried to move away from the small exit, but became lost looking for other exists, given the confusing layout. Patrons wound up at dead ends as the fire continued to blaze through the building.
Even with every fire department focusing their efforts on the Cabaret Room, it was too little, too late. The temperatures reached into the thousands and even the firefighters were unable to make rescue attempts. People were stacked up at the doors, some dead, some alive, screaming and trying to get out of the doors to no avail.
The fire command believed that the roof was due to collapse soon, and all firefighters were ordered to evacuate the building. And, at approximately midnight, their belief came true as the roof imploded. Parts of the building continued to burn for 2 days after the fire began.
The following morning, 134 bodies were removed from the building, laid out on the hillside surrounding the club. By the end of June 1, a few days later, 28 more bodies had been removed. All but 2 of the dead were in, or close by, to the Cabaret Room, 125 of them clustered at the main exit. A few victims died after bing rescued from the scene, the last victim dying on March 1, 1978, almost a year later. The total verified death count was 165.
INVESTIGATION AND AFTERMATH
There were a multitude of factors that weighed into not only the fire itself, but the amount of casualties from the fire.
The first of which was overcrowding. Staff estimated the occupancy to be close to 925, while some estimates put it well over 1,000. Additionally, inadequate fire exits contributed to the death toll. Kentucky law mandates 1 exit per hundred occupants, so there should have been 27.5 exits. The club had 17 or fewer, and many of them were not clearly marked, or only accessible after going through 3+ doors or rooms. Poor construction practices, including highly flammable materials, and lack of sprinkler system and audible fire alarm were also cited as deficiencies that lead to the death toll.
Faulty wiring was also cited, as the report called the club's wiring an "electrician's nightmare", riddled with code violations, believing there was now way it had ever been inspected.
The site remains empty, with a historic marker commemorating the fire. It is technically off limits to the public, but it is a popular destination for explorers.
In 2012, it was alleged that arson could have been the cause of the fire, specifically done by the mafia in retaliation for the club owner refusing to sell the venue to them. However, it is mostly just speculation and there is not nearly enough evidence to justify an investigation into it.
Chief litigation attorney Stanley Chesley raised millions through a class action lawsuit, which benefited many of the survivors of the disaster.
I did not realize nightclub disasters were nearly as common as they are. I've written about 2 already this year, including the Station Nightclub Fire and the E2 Nightclub Stampede that took place 3 days apart from each other in 2003. In both of those examples and this, the venue was well over capacity, mass panic lead to stampedes, and poorly designed fire exits lead to build-ups in narrow hallways, allowing people to be feet away from freedom, but unable to reach it. If anything, I have become far more aware of fire exits in most places I visit, and I certainly have more respect for the occupancy postings in most buildings.
The fault does not fall on the victims or the patrons. Maximum occupancy must be enforced by the owners and workers. Patrons aren't going to count everyone inside. There is some expectation for appropriate fire exits when you go into a building. There is also an expectation that in the event of a fire, alarms go off to alert you so you aren't continuing to enjoy yourself in a building that is burning behind you. Pushing and shoving and panicking cannot be faulted to the patrons who are terrified that they are about to die. Orderly fashion goes to the wind in this situation, especially when there is only 1 exit for 1,000+ people.
Owners of buildings, venues and clubs must be diligent about fire safety and evacuation procedures. Unfortunately, it took the multitude of deaths in this and many other nightclub disasters to put rules and guidelines in place for fire safety, but certainly, some of those rules are still broken.
There are too many ways to die in this world, and nobody should have to die because a building owner tried to cut costs or skirt processes for whatever reason. But unfortunately, 165 people died for that very reason 43 years ago today.