Monday, May 28, 2007

This Date in Fire History: May 28

1977. The top single of the year would be Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s The Night.” Other performers in the top five would be Andy Gibb, the Emotions, Barbra Streisand, and Hot. 1977, however, also featured a number of clean-cut handsome young singers like Bobby Goldsboro, Bobby Sherman, and John Davidson.

On May 28, 1977, Davidson was scheduled to headline the show at the Beverly Hills Supper Club, “The Showplace of the Nation,” in Southgate, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati. About 8:50 PM, the comedy team of Jim Teeter and Jim McDonald were getting the audience ready for Davidson’s entrance.

The Beverly Hills Supper Club was one of the most luxurious venues of its time, offering banquet and meeting facilities for groups from 20 to 1,000. A beautiful central hallway lined with mirrors had an open, curved stairway known as the Cinderella Stairway, which was itself lavishly decorated.

The building was of what is termed "unprotected, noncombustible" construction, what we might call "ordinary" construction: most of the exterior walls were masonry. The original building, constructed in 1937, had been added to many times over the years, especially after a major fire in 1970, during major remodeling. One result of all the additions was that virtually all the interior walls had been, at some time, exterior walls. The 1970 project included the construction of the Cabaret Room, the Garden Rooms, and a 60 foot glass atrium.

That May evening, “the joint was jumping.” In addition to the Davidson show in the Cabaret Room, the Greater Cincinnati Choral Union and the Afghan Hound Club of Southwestern Ohio were each using three of the upstairs Crystal Rooms for dinners; the Savings & Loan League of Southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky was holding an awards banquet, and a wedding reception was breaking up early in the Zebra Room.

The people at the reception complained about the temperature in the room; the consensus was that the air conditioning was out of order. Instead, improperly installed aluminum wiring was smoldering.

At 8:50 PM, about the same time that Teeter and McDonald were wrapping up their act, reservations clerk Eileen Druckman smelled smoke. She tracked the smell to the Zebra Room, opens the door and sees fire. A bartender grabs a fire extinguisher and races to the Zebra Room, returning just moments later. He tells a waitress to call the fire department and yells, “Let’s get the people out of here.” The Campbell County Dispatch Center, however, doesn’t log their first call on the fire until 9:01.

At 9:00 PM, busboy Walter Bailey takes the stage in the Cabaret Room to announce “a small fire.”

By 9:02, the fire has spread to the Cabaret Room. “Some 1,200 screaming people are pushing toward the three small exits, throwing chairs and tables out of their paths. Some are climbing from table to table, stepping over others,” according to the Cincinnati Post.

By 9:25 PM, portions of the building start to collapse, and by 2:00 AM, it is all over.

The “small fire” killed 165, including a member of Davidson’s entourage, music director Douglas Herro.

The investigation by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) listed the major factors contributing to the large loss of life:
  • The lack of alarm and sprinkler systems allowed the fire to grow undetected for an extended period of time (sprinkler systems were required by Kentucky code at the time, although not necessarily at the time of construction)
  • Staff attempted to fight the fire themselves before evacuating the patrons or notifying the fire department
  • There was no evacuation plan for the complex, nor were staff trained in emergency duties
    The building was grossly overcrowded – the Cabaret Room alone was at double the legal capacity
  • There were insufficient fire exits for the facility, especially in light of the overcrowding
  • The entire complex was decorated with highly-flammable materials; the interior finish materials in the main corridor exceeded the flame spread allowed for places of public assembly and contributed to the rapid spread of the fire from the Zebra Room (where the fire originated) to the Cabaret Room.

WKRC-TV, Cincinnati's Channel 12, has video clips of the fire here.

The Cincinnati Post has extensive coverage here, and the Cincinnati Enquirer, here. Both include detailed coverage of the fire, the investigation, ensuing lawsuits, and stories by and about the survivors.

The biggest tragedy, of course, is that most or all of these deaths could have been prevented. All six factors above were also cited as causes for the deaths at the Cocoanut Grove – a fire that had occurred 35 years earlier.

Adding to the horror is the fact that five of the six factors also contributed to the 100 fatalities at the Station Nightclub… 26 years after Beverly Hills. (The Station staff didn’t try to fight the fire; they couldn’t – it spread too quickly).

Of course, there are moments of irony in this story, as with any other. Sycamore Township Fire Chief B.J. Jetter uses the Beverly Hills Fire in teaching his classes at Cincinnati State. But in 1977, he was the drummer in a band scheduled to play at wedding at Beverly Hills on May 28. The wedding was cancelled.

Thirty years later, by the way, the site of the club lies vacant. Trespassers who explore the site can still find macabre souvenirs: a spoon with a tree embedded in a tree root, partially burned serving trays, smashed plates, etc. Several attempts to develop the property have failed. The last proposal, for a shopping mall, was voted down by citizens who felt the area could not support a mall. A proposal for an office park was deemed not economically feasible by the property owners.

There are, as yet, no plans for a permanent memorial to the victims, but one will probably be an integral part of any future use of the land.

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