Written by: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
The sparks of aluminum wiring in the walls could have been smoldering for hours by the time the smoke lingered along the ceiling line. It only took the introduction of some oxygen into the room to create a ball of fire shooting through the large entertainment venue, killing 165 people.
It was a packed house at the Beverly Hills Supper Club on May 28, 1977 in Soulgate, KY. A wedding was going on in the Zebra rooms, the bars were full, and the Cabaret Room was past full capacity for all those waiting to see Jim Teter and Jim McDonald. There were between 900 and 1,300 people in the Cabaret Room alone and about 3,000 in the entire Beverly Hills Supper Club. According to Kentucky Building Code, only 1,500 patrons should have been in the entire building.
The Beverly Hills Supper Club was a split level with dining rooms, 18 private party rooms, bars, and a cabaret nightclub. The location was maze-like with additions being added without thought of fire code and without a Kentucky licensed architect. There were only 16 exits - and some were hidden in corridors or behind multiple doors - when over 27 were needed for the capacity the club saw that night.
At 8:30pm, family and friends attending a wedding in the Zebra Room complained that it was too hot, and left a half hour earlier than the scheduled time. Around 9pm, two servers entered the room to clear tables. Smoke lingered along the ceiling. Soon after, the receptionist opened the doors because of a smoke smell complaint. Minutes later a flashover took over the property.
The flashover spread quickly. There was no audible alarm, so wait staff ran room to room to tell patrons about the fire. Walter Bailey, a teenage busboy, was the first to see the fire. He ran straight to the Cabaret Room, went on the stage, grabbed the mic, and told the patrons to evacuate calmly, pointing to the exits, which were not lit. Some people began to evacuate. Others thought that it was part of the comedy act and stayed. Soon after Bailey's warning, the flash fire shot into the Cabaret Room. People screamed and ran toward the exits. The power went out and soon no one could see the exits. A stampede proceeded with people falling and blocking off the exits. Others would then jump on top of the pile and make it higher and higher. When firefighters arrived, they couldn't enter the room.
"When I got to the inside doors, which is about thirty 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 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," said Bruce Rath, Fort Thomas Volunteer Fire Department.
Some inside tried to find alternative ways out, only to find two exits blocked by fire and doors leading to nowhere.
In the end, 165 people died and 200 were injured.
The fire was the third largest nightclub fire in U.S. history. The Governor of Kentucky ordered a special investigation into the disaster. After a thorough investigation, it is believed that the fire started from faulty electrical wiring. Following this fire, a new state law was established, banning aluminum wiring. Two additional laws were added because of the fire. It became mandatory to have emergency lighting in public venues. Additionally, public venues needed to use non-toxic fabric coverings for seats and floors.
In the aftermath of the fire, the following issues were found to have contributed to the quick expansion of the fire and high death toll.
• Inadequate fire exits (the club had 16, when at least 27 were required).
• Faulty wiring with multiple, wide ranging code violations.
• No firewalls, allowing the fire to spread and draw oxygen from other areas of the complex.
• Poor construction practices
• Safety code violations - no fire sprinkler or automatic fire alarm
A local attorney said, "I can't believe that any of this was ever inspected."
This fire inspired new laws to become established.
• Fire sprinklers are required in nightclubs and public assembly areas over 300 capacity.
• Aluminum electrical wiring became banned.
• First fire scene to be preserved for investigation.