The Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, is engulfed in fire, killing 165 people inside.
The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, Kentucky, is the third deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. It occurred on the night of May 28, 1977, during the Memorial Day holiday weekend. A total of 165 people died and more than 200 were injured as a result of the blaze.
On Saturday, May 28, 1977, the Beverly Hills Supper Club was operating beyond capacity, largely due to the popularity of that evening’s Cabaret Room show, featuring popular Hollywood singer and actor John Davidson. Based on its number of exits, the Cabaret Room could safely accommodate about 600 people, according to the calculations of the Fire Marshal; on this night it exceeded capacity, with people seated on ramps and in aisles. According to later estimates based on seating charts and memories of those present, the number of people in the Cabaret Room at 9:00 p.m. on May 28 was somewhere between 900 and 1,300. Regardless of the exact number each gives, sources agree that the room was well beyond its safe holding limit.
Elsewhere in the club, patrons were eating gourmet meals. Later estimates place the total number of people in the Beverly Hills Supper Club on May 28, 1977 at approximately 3,000, substantially more than the 1,500 people fire code allowed at the time for a building with the number of exits the club had.
Near the south exit close to the main bar, opposite end of the building from the Cabaret Room, a wedding reception drew to a close around 8:30 p.m. in the Zebra Room, near the building’s main entrance; some of its guests had complained of the room being excessively warm with loud explosions from beneath the floor, and the group left the building before the end of their allotted time. The room remained vacant from their departure until a minute before 9 p.m., when an employee smelled smoke and opened the Zebra Room’s door to confirm the presence of smoke. She asked another employee to call the Fire Department while she and others grabbed any available fire extinguishers and began trying to fight the flames. Though the employees were not aware of it, their opening of the Zebra Room’s door allowed enough oxygen into the room to cause what had been a smoldering fire in the room’s drop ceiling to flashover and begin to spread rapidly. It quickly became clear that fire extinguishers were useless against the fast-growing blaze. The Fire Department was alerted to the fire at 9:01 p.m. and arrived by 9:05; as they approached, firefighters on the first emergency vehicles could already see smoke coming from the building.
As smoke began to escape the Zebra Room and drift down the hall toward other banquet rooms, patrons and employees nearest to the Zebra Room smelled it. The employees began to urge room occupants to leave the building. However, as the sprawling complex lacked an audible fire alarm, those in more isolated rooms had no way to know that there was a fire in the building until an employee walked the length of the building alerting them. Fire investigators later estimated that the fire, once it spread through the northern doors of the Zebra Room, took only two to five minutes to enter the Cabaret Room; as a result, news of the fire and the first of the smoke and flame reached the Cabaret Room, the farthest point from the Zebra Room, nearly simultaneously. By the time busboy Walter Bailey arrived in the Cabaret Room and interrupted the show to order an evacuation at 9:06 p.m., there was very little time left for the audience of around 1000 people to make their way through the room’s small number of exits. As it spread laterally, the fire also began to spread upwards, engulfing the spiral staircase that would have provided the best exit for those on the second floor of the building.
Around 9:10 p.m., power failed in the building, extinguishing the lights. Panic ensued, and even those who had been calmly moving toward exits in the Cabaret Room began to push and shove each other. The situation was made even more desperate by the fact that of the three exits in the room, two were soon blocked off by the fire, leaving the crowd to funnel through a single exit. Employees outside the exits attempted to pull guests to safety, but the crush of bodies as those behind pushed upon those in front became so solid that no amount of strength could free most of them. Many of those who escaped the crush blocking the northeast fire exit became lost trying to find other exits. The building’s confusing design often led to a set of doors opening into a bar area that funneled frantic guests into a dead end.
Firefighters, alerted that the majority of the building’s occupants were in the Cabaret Room, focused their efforts there, but even the combined efforts of every fire department in the county were simply too little, too late. Temperatures in the Cabaret Room soared into the thousands of degrees and even firefighters, weary and dehydrated, were soon unable to safely attempt any further rescues.
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. They 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, Fort Thomas Volunteer Fire Department,
At 11:30 p.m. fire command, suspecting that the building’s roof would soon collapse, ordered all firefighters to evacuate the building. At approximately midnight, the roof did indeed implode onto what remained of the building. The magnitude of the blaze was such that firefighters did not have the flames under control until around two o’clock that morning; parts of the building continued to burn until May 30, two days after the fire began.
By the early morning of May 29, 134 bodies had been removed from the building and laid out, initially on the hillside surrounding the building and then in a makeshift morgue inside the nearby Fort Thomas Armory. By the end of June 1, 28 more bodies had been discovered, bringing the death toll up to 162. All but two of the dead were found in and around the Cabaret Room, with 125 clustered near the room’s north exit and another 34 at the room’s southern exit. Two bodies were removed from the Viennese Room. A small number of fire victims died after being rescued from the scene: one on June 25, one on July 2, and the last on March 1, 1978, nearly a year after the fire. This brought the number of verified deaths to 165.