The Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, lies in ruins after a fire killed 165 people. (Photo: AP Wide World Photos)
Slow to React
The Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire, 1977
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2011
Despite the confusion of the moment, there was no chaos, a waitress said later, “no screaming, no panicking.” Not until the patrons of the club saw the smoke, that is. “It just rolled into the room,” she said. “It was the blackest smoke I’d ever seen.”
Download: NFPA's Fire Investigation report on the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire. (PDF, 7 MB)
That smoke might have been the last thing 165 people saw before they died in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, Kentucky, on May 28, 1977. The sprawling restaurant and nightclub covered an area of about 1.5 acres [0.6 hectare], according to Richard Best, author of NFPA’s investigation report into the blaze. The original portion of the building was constructed in 1937, and additions were made over the years until the club had 18 rooms that could accommodate up to 1,000 patrons.
The building, which was of unprotected, noncombustible construction, had no sprinkler protection or fire detection and alarm systems. There was no evacuation plan, the number of exits was inadequate for the number of occupants, and the staff had not been taught what to do in case of a fire. Fire protection consisted solely of portable fire extinguishers.
On the night of the fire, the club was packed with 2,400 to 2,800 patrons and staff, approximately double the number of people the building could safely accommodate. About 1,200 to 1,300 of them were in the Cabaret Room waiting for singer John Davidson to begin his 8:30 show. According to witnesses, tables in the room were placed close together, narrowing the aisles, and chairs blocked both the aisles and the ramps to the food service stations.
The blaze started in a function room at the opposite end of the club from the Cabaret Room, probably as a result of an electrical problem, and was discovered by employees between 8:45 and 8:50 p.m. The employees notified management, who ordered a hostess to evacuate the patrons and call the fire department at 9 p.m. after trying unsuccessfully to fight the fire using the portable extinguishers.
The patrons in the Cabaret Room didn’t learn of the fire until 9:06, when a busboy interrupted the opening act and told the guests to leave the building through the exits he indicated. As a survivor noted, however, the warning “just didn’t register with people,” many of whom were slow to react. About four minutes later, smoke and flames filled the room, killing those who had not yet left. Nearly all of those who died were in the Cabaret Room when the fire broke out.
Among the factors contributing to the large number of casualties were delays in discovering the fire and notifying patrons to evacuate, the club employees’ lack of emergency training, the lack of fire detection and suppression systems, overcrowding, and the lack of adequate exits.
As of 2007, the site of the Beverly Hills Supper Club remained vacant, a stark reminder of one of the deadliest nightclub fires in U.S. history.
— Kathleen Robinson