162 Lose Lives in Supper Club Fire
—Kentucky Post photos.
In the largest loss of life fire since the Cocoanut Grove 35 years ago, 162 persons lost their lives when fire swept through the huge Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., last May 28. In addition, more than 100 persons, including several fire fighters, suffered smoke inhalation and burns.
Southgate, a small bedroom community just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, is. protected by 60 volunteer fire fighters manning a 750 and a 1000-gpm pumper, a light rescue van and an ambulance. The department averages 80 fire calls a year. There hadn’t been a fire fatality in recent memory.
The fire, which investigators now believe was started by an electrical short, apparently had burned inside a heavily plastered wall of the plush club’s Zebra Room for more than an hour before it was noticed. A small wedding reception broke up early after occupants complained of too; much heat in the 15 x 30-foot room. The room emptied and at approximately 8:25 p.m., the door was closed. At 8:45 p.m., employees discovered fire in the room and efforts to extinguish the blaze with three portable extinguishers failed.
The initial alarm was telephoned to the neighboring Fort Thomas Police Department at 8:59 p.m. Fort Thomas immediately notified the Campbell County Police Department, which is responsible for dispatching the county’s 16 fire departments. About the same time, bus boy Walter Bailey interrupted a comedy act in the club’s lavish Cabaret Room to announce the fire. At least 700 persons in the crowded room began to move toward the two exits heading outside.
At 9:01 p.m., both Southgate pumpers and the rescue van, commanded by Chief Richard Riesenberg, responded to what was their first working fire of the year. Fort Thomas, a part-paid department led by Chief Earl Reppetto, also responded with a 750-gpm pumper and a 1250-gpm quint with an 85-foot aerial ladder.
Sitting high on a bluff, the sprawling 17-acre complex, known as “the showplace of the nation,” attracted thousands each weekend for dining and big name entertainment. On this particular Saturday night, the crowd at the supper club surpassed Southgate’s total 3200 population.
The split-level building was divided into a number of large and small dining rooms, 18 private party rooms, bars, and the large Cabaret nightclub. A maze of narrow corridors interconnecting the rooms made exits difficult to locate. The building had been doubled in size after it was destroyed by fire in 1970. State codes at that time did not require sprinklers or fire detection systems— and none was installed. The club also had a 3-foot air space between the ceiling and roof which concealed air ducts and the unprotected steel roof supports. Exterior construction was concrete block and brick.
Sees people leaving
As his vehicle climbed the club’s narrow quarter-mile driveway, Riesenberg noticed many persons orderly evacuating the building down the wooden steps of the south exit of the Cabaret Room, which faces Rt. 27. He saw no smoke from this area of the building. Arriving at the club’s main entrance, Riesenberg saw hundreds of panicky people running out of the building. He also saw gray smoke coming from the roof and eaves. Based on these observations, Riesenberg believed the fire was centered in the area of the club’s main bar and directed his initial attack with that thought in mind. He radioed a signal 83 (smoke showing) at 9:05 p.m. As prearranged, the dispatcher automatically sent an additional 1000-gpm pumper from Newport, a fully paid department.
Following a pre-fire plan, Southgate Engine 1301 laid a 200-foot double 2 ½-inch line from a hydrant at the southeast corner of the building to the main entrance. Southgate Engine 1302 laid a 600-foot 2 ½ -inch line from a small yard hydrant at the building’s southwestern corner up a narrow unpaved driveway to the kitchen at the rear of the club. At the same time, Fort Thomas Engine 604 was hooking to a hydrant at the bottom of the hill. Rather than laying hose up the 1400-foot driveway, the pre-fire plan called for parallel 3inch lines to be stretched 450 feet directly up the side of the grassy hill.
These lines were hooked into Newport Engine 902 located at a preset point on the upper portion of the club’s driveway. Fort Thomas Quint 610 then laid a 2 ½-inch and a 3-inch line from the Newport engine to the front of the building. The entire operation was accomplished in minimum time since the three departments had flowed water in a drill for this pre-fire plan just two weeks before.
Black smoke pours out
Meanwhile, Riesenberg received a report from one of the building’s owners that occupants of a second-floor dining room were trapped on the roof of the building. He ordered the building laddered to check this report. The report turned out to be erroneous. At the same time, the crew of 1301 was having great difficulty advancing 1 1/2-inch lines into the main entrance against a flow of stampeding occupants. Heavy black smoke now began to pour from the front of the building. The crew of 1301 reached the general area of the main bar before they were driven back by intense heat and smoke. They reported that they could find no fire as people continued to stagger out of the building.
Riesenberg ordered his crew to abandon the hand lines to effect rescues. At 9:09, he requested two additional pumpers from the Wilder Fire Department and an additional rescue squad. At 9:11 p.m., he requested three additional ambulances from neighboring departments. Each unit had to be individually special-called by the chief since each department operated independently and there are no running assignments.
“People were standing around everywhere, blocking hose lines and getting in the way of our rescue operations,” Riesenberg recalled. “Some were standing around dazed, unable to comprehend what was happening while others were screaming about their loved ones still inside.”
Conditions quickly grew worse at the Cabaret Room exits. Panic set in. Occupants scrambled out of the building as heavy black smoke began to vent from the exits. This side of the building borders on a steep hill, which made apparatus placement impossible and footing treacherous. As the crew of the Fort Thomas quint approached the south exit door, those escaping from this door began to collapse, stumbling on the steps and falling down the steep hillside.
Suddenly the flow stopped. Wearing self-contained breathing apparatus, fire fighters entered the south exit and found it blocked by bodies. The fire fighters quickly began to move these victims outside, where other fire Fighters worked frantically to revive those overcome by smoke and heat. An additional 20 to 30 persons were removed before intense heat drove fire fighters out.
Much the same conditions prevailed at the Cabaret Room’s north exit. Here too, fire fighters found the exit blocked by fallen bodies overcome by intense heat and smoke. Those rescued were being placed on the lawn of the Wedding Chapel, where fire fighters and a group of 12 physicians who had been dining at the club checked for vital signs. Already, the fire was producing its first fatalities as the victims’ faces were being covered with their clothing.
In the front of the building, the aerial ladder had been raised into position to start ventilation. Fire fighters ascending the ladder found a heavy black column of smoke, flame-tinted at the base, rising 100 feet into the twilight sky. Flames were already through the center section of the roof. A ladder pipe operation was then set up.
More lines laid
Wilder Engine 1401 laid a 3-inch . supply line from Engine 902 and positioned itself next to the Fort Thomas quint, where the crew extended a 2 ½inch hand line down the east side of the building. Wilder 1402, which had a 750-gpm front-mount pump, was ordered to draft from a pond on the building’s west side to supply another line to Engine 1302. The yard hydrant was flowing only 150 gpm and as the fire moved toward the rear, the need for additional water became critical. The Wilder unit, unfamiliar with the club’s topography, could not locate the pond because of the darkness, high brush and jam-packed parking lots. Its crew gave up the futile search and assisted with operations at the front of the building.
The time was approximately 9:20 p.m. Many time references are approximations because the communications operator on duty was too busy dispatching additional equipment to log all transmissions. The communications center does not have automatic recorders.
After the failure to set up a drafting operation, a special call was made to neighboring Kenton County for a Covington pumper with 5-inch hose along with two other pumpers from Fort Thomas and Camp Springs. Additional ambulances were also requested. At 9:28, Covington Engine 5 arrived and hooked to a hydrant close to the base of the driveway. Its crew hand-stretched 1000 feet of 5-inch hose up the club’s driveway to Newport Engine 902 while Fort Thomas 603 and Camp Springs 301 each laid 2 1/2-inch lines from the Covington unit to outlying hydrants.
Since Engine 902 was already the main relay pumper, it could not shut down. The pump operator successfully hooked up the 5-inch line following tandem pumping procedures.
With this additional water supply, a 2 1/2-inch line was hand-stretched from Engine 902 to Engine 1302 operating at the rear of the building. A 3-inch line was also stretched to Wilder 1401, which placed its deck gun in service. By now, flames were shooting 100 feet into the night air.
Most rescue efforts were now concentrated at the north exit of the Cabaret Room. Bodies continued to be brought out as doctors continued triage so ambulances could transport the most serious first.
Riesenberg, who had been totally consumed with operations at the front of the building, now made his way toward the rear along the building’s east side. He came up on the south exit of the Cabaret Room and saw several bodies lying in a row beside the hill. These were the first fatalities he had seen.
As he studied the scene, someone said, “If you think that’s bad, look at the back!”
Making his way to the garden area Riesenberg was shocked at what he saw. “There were bodies scattered all over the place. I immediately thought of my men, I wanted them out of there before they too had to be carried out.” The magnitude of the holocaust was now apparent; “this isn’t a fire . . . it’s a catastrophe.”
Disaster plan activated
At this point, John D. Hoyle, chief administrator of Southgate’s St. Luke Hospital, who had been dining with the physicians, activated the Campbell County disaster plan. Field disaster kits containing intravenous fluids, morphine, a variety of emergency drugs, blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, among other items, were immediately rushed to the scene. All off-duty doctors were called to the hospital. The hospital also had direct radio communications with the county fire departments, which made coordination much easier.
By 10 p.m., the unofficial body count had mounted to 50 as ambulances from all over northern Kentucky began to arrive. A call also went out to Cincinnati for paramedics, and two ambulances equipped with advanced life support systems were sent. This equipment was used by doctors on the scene to speed the triage process. By 10:45 p.m., rows of sheet-draped bodies covered the garden area and the unofficial body count passed 100.
At 11:10 p.m., Newport fire fighters, using a battering ram, made a 4 x 2-foot opening through the concrete block east wall of the Cabaret Room. This area was a hallway that ran behind the main stage. The fire fighters were able to remove five or six bodies through this opening. All appeared to be musicians who were trapped while trying to get their instruments out of the club. One was found with his head stuck down an air return vent in the floor. He appeared to be alive as he was brought out, but in the confusion no one knew for sure.
Fire continued to rage through the entire building and at 12:05 a.m., the north wall of the Cabaret Room caved in. At 12:25, the east wall fell outward, almost hitting several fire fighters. Finally at 2 a.m., Riesenberg called the fire under control, just as Southgate fire fighters discovered 20 more bodies.
At 8 a.m., fire fighters began to search the building’s remains, concentrating on the area around the north exit of the Cabaret Room. The first sweep yielded 13 bodies. Digging further into the ruins, fire fighters discovered eight more bodies. On the third sweep, five more bodies were found. All were burned beyond recognition and were taken to the Fort Thomas temporary morgue, where FBI agents aided in the identifications. Two days later, two more bodies were recovered, bringing the total to 161. All except the last two perished in the Cabaret Room. A little later the 162nd victim died in a hospital.
Survivors complained of the crowded conditions in the Cabaret Room. The terraced room was filled with small rounded cocktail tables spaced so close together that guests reported they were elbow-to-elbow with those at the next table. Survivors also reported that as the crowd moved toward the exits, heavy black smoke coming down from the ceiling caused visibility to drop to zero. In the crush to get out, some tables overturned causing several people to fall. As they struggled to get up, others fell on top of them.
One of the last persons to be rescued reported that conditions were so crowded that he had to wait at his table for 5 to 10 minutes before there was even room enough to begin moving toward one of the exits. The great majority of the victims were reported to have died of smoke inhalation.