40 years ago, one of the country’s most disastrous club fires killed dozens from the Miami Valley

At about 8:30 p.m. on May 28, 1977, a waitress discovered a fire in the Zebra Room at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky.

 That began a devastating string of popping beverage bottles, crashing chandeliers, bodies at blocked entrances and lungs filling with black smoke.

It was one of the worst fires of its kind in the country’s history.

The fire at the supper club killed 165 people, including at least 50 from the Miami Valley. Forty years later, here’s what you should know about the historic event:

The club was overcrowded: About 3,500 people were there that evening. The multitiered Cabaret Room alone contained 1,200 - 300 more than its legal capacity.

Some thought it was a joke at first: An 18-year-old busboy named Walter Bailey took the stage during a performance by the comedy team of Jim Teeter and Jim McDonald, the opening act for headliner John Davidson. He picked up a microphone and announced the Beverly Hills Supper Club was on fire. "He seemed like he was part of the act," said Norma Lou Mitchell, a witness, in the years afterward.

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The location was historic: The club was once the sprawling, opulent "Showplace of the Midwest," known for some of the best entertainment between New York and Chicago. It had opened May 5, 1937, and over the years personalities such as Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, Carol Channing, Lena Horne and Sid Caesar performed on its stage.

Impact on the Miami Valley: Even though the club was south of Cincinnati, the Miami Valley had the highest number of casualties of any geographical area - 51 of the 165 dead were from the greater Dayton area. Thirty-one of the local victims were in a group of 82 that went to the Beverly Hills on a trip sponsored by the Dayton Automobile Club.

Many heroes: There were also many acts of great sacrifice and courage. For example, Harold Russell Penwell of Huber Heights managed to push his wife, Karen, to safety, but he was caught in the crowd and died. A psychological aide at the Veterans Administration Center, Penwell was 28, the father of two, a former VISTA volunteer and winner of the Bronze Star in Vietnam.

Charles Sherwood, 55, of Dayton also died after pushing his wife to safety.

Etta Leis, 70, of Miamisburg reportedly died while unsuccessfully trying to help a handicapped woman, 62-year-old Betty Wilson, also of Miamisburg, escape.

On May 28, 1977, a fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club killed 165 people, including 51 from the Miami Valley.

Problems identified: A 1977 Kentucky state investigative report found 10 factors contributed to "the loss of life or injury." Among them:

» Overcrowding in the Cabaret Room, where most of the 165 victims perished.
» Tables and chairs jamming the aisles and ramps of Cabaret Room.
» No employee training in evacuation and emergency procedures.
»Wood framing, lack of fire separation devices and the interior finish, especially "the decorative paneling," contributed to the spread of the fire.
» No audible alarm or sprinkler systems.

A makeshift morgue is set up for the victims of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.
Photo: BILL GARLOW

QUOTES FROM SURVIVORS

"I've never worked in another place,”  Ella Wilson, who was waiting tables in the front room, said in 1992. Before taking another job at a restaurant in Florida, Wilson said she checked fire exits and smoke alarms.

"It was so crowded that a waitress could not walk her way into our group to serve drinks. For the first time in my life, I was scared. I looked at (her husband) Bob and asked him how we would get out of there if something happened." - Cindy Treiber said in 1997 of a visit to the club about six months before the fateful fire. 

"I saw people picking up chairs, beating people out of line. There were people running across people. What human beings will do is unbelievable." - Terry Prugh, a former Dayton police officer who lost his father, mother and brother in the blaze, said in 1992.

 "I started to scream, 'I'm not dead!'" she said. "It was very, very strange." - Survivor Regina Wren of Kettering, who regained consciousness after the fire lying on her back with a tag on her toe, said in 1997. The tag was just being used for identification purposes in a makeshift emergency room.

"There was no crying, no talking, no sniffling. It was like a morgue (on the bus) on the way home." - Mary Kuntz of Dayton, a fire survivor, said in 1992 of a bus ride back to Dayton. She and other survivors were put on the  bus and given oxygen by officials.

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Memorial services are held for the victims of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire at the Edgewood High School Stadium.
Photo: ED ROBERTS

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

May 28, 1977

Fire destroys the Beverly Hills Supper Club. Thirteen members of a group from the Edgewood City School District — there to celebrate the retirement of Wayne School teacher Ona Mayfield — died in the fire.

May 30, 1977

The Edgewood Board of Education closes all schools for the next two days. School officials decide to close Wayne School for the rest of the year, but later reverse their decision.

June 1, 1977

About 3,000 people attend a combined memorial for the 13 victims from the Wayne School group at the Edgewood High School football field.

Destruction after the fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club. May 1977
Photo: BILL GARLOW

June 1, 1977

The official death list from the fire is issued. It has 150 names. Eleven more bodies are later identified; four people die later from their injuries.

June 3, 1977

A $21.5 million lawsuit is filed on behalf of a southern Indiana man whose wife died in the fire. It is the first of many victims’ lawsuits that are filed.

June 10, 1977

State investigators announce that defective electrical wiring in the Zebra Room started the fire.

June 25, 1977

A Cincinnati woman dies of burns suffered in the fire, bringing the death toll to 163.

Sept. 18, 1977

Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll suspends three top Kentucky fire officials, including Kentucky state fire marshal Warren Southworth after an investigation into the enforcement of fire regulations.

Nov. 5, 1977

Carroll names a new state fire marshal and appoints 30 additional inspectors and a full-time attorney for the fire marshal’s office.

Dec. 20, 1977

U.S. District Judge Carl Rubin rules that all lawsuits filed in federal court will be tried as a class action lawsuit.

March 1, 1978

The 165th fire victim dies.

April 11, 1979

The Schilling family, former operators of the Beverly Hills Supper Club, propose building a private supper club in Butler County. The new club is never built.

July 15, 1985

A federal court jury decides an overheated connection from outdated aluminum wiring caused the fire. The decision reverses an earlier ruling.

July 19, 1985

A $10 million settlement with General Electric Co. ends the last of an eight-year series of civil lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of the fire. In all, victims and their families won about $43 million in settlements. Previous settlements involved lawsuits against the club owners, insurance companies, a utility company accused of failing to inspect wiring, and makers of polyvinyl chloride and other products and materials used in the club.

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