The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire revisited

CarolinaFireJournal - Ronald Inge The Firetruck Guru
Ronald Inge The Firetruck Guru
07/15/2014 -

The Beverly Hills Supper Club was located in Southgate, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. On the evening of May 28,1977 a deadly fire broke out in the club and by dawn the next morning, 165 people had lost their lives and another 200 had been injured.


Let’s take a look at the events leading up to the fire and at the factors that lead to the large loss of life. As you read think about building codes of today in your community that are largely in place to prevent such events from happening again, or will they?

In the late 1930s, the Beverly Hills Supper Club had burned, then it changed hands, sat vacant and changed hands several times again over the years. The building was remodeled, upgraded and many changes had taken place from the time of the original building by the time it opened again in 1971.

On the evening of May 28,1977 the facility was at full capacity and overflowing with people, some estimated as many as 3000 people were in the facility. Many people were in attendance to see entertainer John Davidson. In other sections of the facility there were private parties taking place. In one area there was a private awards banquet with around 450 people in attendance. With such overcrowding, additional seating was required and this took place in the isles, ramps and in doorways throughout the facility.

There had been a wedding reception in the Zebra room that ended around 8:30 p.m. and some of the guests reported that the room was becoming overheated, but no one reported a smell of smoke or seeing anything. Two employees entered the Zebra room around 8:56 to find heavy smoke at the ceiling level. The fire department was notified at 9:01 and the management attempted to use fire extinguishers to contain the fire but was unable to control it. The fire department arrived on the scene within three minutes of the call. Access to the building was limited. The long uphill single lane driveway to the business was packed with patron vehicles as the parking lot was overflowing. This factor alone hampered efforts to get units to the scene as well as making for extremely long hose lays for water supply.

The fire continued to spread to other parts of the building, and by 9:10 the fire had begin to involve the Cabaret room where John Davidson was performing. This room had an occupancy load of 615 to 756 but on this evening the estimates were at 1300, although in future reports it is stated that there were between 900 to 1000 people in the Cabaret Room.

There were no reports of the exit doors being locked, however, Bruce Rath, a Fort Thomas firefighter was quoted as saying, “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 cord wood. 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 and it wasn’t dead people, there were dead and alive in that pile and I went in and just started to grab them two at the time and pull them off the stack and drag them out.”

Other issues that contributed to a large loss of life in this fire can also be found in other fires throughout history. There were 16.5 exits and Kentucky law required that there be 27.5 exits for the occupant load. The wiring was considered inadequate and would have never passed inspection. Firewalls did not exist in the building to prevent the spread of fire. A sprinkler system or an audible fire alarm was non-existent. Reports are that the fire department was not authorized to enforce the building codes.

Looking at this incident in the history of the fire service, we have to think that we as a society have made great strides in the safety of occupants in places of assembly. But Looking back just 30 years prior to the Beverly Hills blaze was the Coconut Grove Night Club fire in Boston, Mass. with very similar results. Then looking ahead to February 21, 2003 at the Station Night Club fire in Rhode Island, again very similar results.

As you can see from this incident, history does tend to repeat itself.

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