Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

May 30, 2012

18 from area died in dinner club fire

GEORGE WOLFFORD
The Independent

ASHLAND — Eighteen members of Ashland’s Roadrunners Club were killed in the third-worst nightclub fire in U.S. history on May 28, 1977. In total, 165 revelers died in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire just across the river from Cincinnati.

 Victims were: Virginia Lee Fitch, 62; Robert D. and Charlotte Burns; Fred M. and Ellen Cooksey; Roy and Maxine H. Butler; Marian Adkins, all of Ashland; Helen W. Floyd and Ruth John, Bellefonte; Charles Joe and Maymie Rist of Catlettsburg; Ruth Patterson, Coal Grove; Orville Coulter, Mr. and Mrs. George Polley, Ironton; James E. (Bus) Fowler, Hanging Rock; Millie Overton, Huntington.

 The five-year-old travel club — widows, neighbors, mature couples — were there to hear singer John Davidson, who had visited twice before.  They were not aware that the nightclub — destroyed by a 1970 fire — had been rebuilt (legally) without sprinklers and with dangerous foam in the structure.

Most of the fatalities — 160 — occurred in the Cabaret Room.  Walter Bailey, an 18-year-old busboy who had seen the growing fire and evacuation of other rooms, warned the crowd.  Some 10 minutes after initial discovery he walked briskly to the stage and directed the 3,000 patrons toward two exits.  He told them there was a small fire in the Zebra Room on the other side of the building, no reason to panic, but leave, now.

Ruth Osborne and others thought he was part of a comedy act but others headed for the doors.  There was no panic, no pushing or hurry, and abandoners aided one another. The problem was mass disbelief. They had not seen fire nor smelled smoke. The crowd that did start outward broke into three groups. One headed to a north-south exit, another to double doors in the southeast corner, the third past a bar in the northeast corner of the building. In other rooms, the fire was raging, sending out deadly black smoke.

All at once the choking smoke forced realization, too late for many.  A slowly moving file began to panic, to fall victim to smoke and jam the hallway to the principal exit. Some fought their way back inside the Cabaret Room in an effort to escape the smoke. The main exit didn’t lead outside, but through a twisting hallway that would later be filled with smoke and flame.  Two 90-degree turns hidden by black smoke trapped many victims. Those headed out a back way couldn’t see and bypassed the door on their left.

Then, while the rest of the building crackled afire, a ball of flame shot 15 to 20 feet through the Cabaret doors. The sight was far more terrifying than smoke had been.  The outgoing crush compacted at the other two exits. Realization brought a rush that jammed the doors, working against evacuation, particularly at the corner exit behind the bar. Once outside, patrons stood near the exits, drinks in hand, waiting to return. All at once they formed a block for coming escapees; they were amazed at the crowd.  Edith Callihan, among others, was trampled but survived. Helen Artis had to pull out of a trapped shoe.  G. W. Curnutte’s eyes were burned, and he and his wife had to be helped outside and hospitalized, along with Elna Rayburn.  Survivors called out for friends and relatives and doctors ran from one injured person to another.

About midnight, a bus picked up 43 club members to head back to Ashland.  President Bill Mordica remained, identifying the victims, laying in the yard next to the burned-out club.  A second bus, carrying only six, got back to Ashland at 7 a.m.; families unaware, came to the community college at 10 a.m. looking in vain.

Only two nightclub fires before Beverly Hills were more deadly. They were the 1942 Coconut Grove fire in Boston with 492 deaths and the Rhythm Nite Club in 1940 at Natchez, Miss., with 209. The worst single-building fire in this country came in 1903 when 602 perished in the Iroquois Theater in Chicago. More recently, The Station fire of 2003 in Warwick, R.I., took 100 lives.

Owners of Beverly Hills were accused of cutting corners, creating a potential trap. Previous state officials were blamed for turning a blind eye to those cuts; lack of funding was given as an excuse. Gov. Julian Carroll, appearing before a Congressional committee, criticized the length of time taken to warn guests in the Cabaret Room. A special grand jury, after being advised not to return indictments unless sure of conviction, returned none.

A civil trial including those issues was tried in federal court in a case moved to Ashland in 1985.

In his analytical book published seven years after the fire, Robert G. Lawson, UK law school dean who served as consultant to the special prosecutor in the case, summarized the blame: “165 lives were lost ... because of a failure of ordinary individuals to measure and recognize extraordinary risk of death to other people.”  Lawson concluded by comparing the Cocoanut Grove and Beverly Hills fires and hoping intervals between such tragedies would be more than 25 years.

At least two books have been written on the fire and trial. They are: “Beverly Hills: The Anatomy of a Nightclub Fire,” by Robert G. Lawson, OU Press 1984 and “Inside the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire,” by Ron Elliott, with Wayne Dammert.