Department of Public Protection
Tragedy Led to Safer Buildings in Kentucky
May 28 marks the 30th anniversary of a horrific fire that swept through the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. By the time the last embers were extinguished, 165 people were killed and 200 injured in one of the nation’s worst fire disasters.
Kentuckians are far safer today because of building code and fire safety measures adopted and enforced as a result of the Beverly Hills fire.
The tragedy unfolded when nearly 3,000 people jammed into the popular northern Kentucky nightspot on Saturday, May 28, 1977. More than 1,000 patrons filled the club’s main showroom, the Cabaret Room, eagerly anticipating a performance by singer John Davidson.
Shortly before 9 p.m., fire broke out in a small area called the Zebra Room. At first, staff and patrons did not realize it was a fire, but when they eventually saw flames they attempted to extinguish it while others made calls to the Southgate Fire Department.
Within moments, the Zebra Room went up in flames as all its combustible materials ignited in a phenomenon known as “flashover.” Thick smoke rolled down a hallway toward the over-crowded Cabaret Room. A few minutes later, a busboy, Walter Bailey, interrupted the two comedians on stage and informed the audience that a fire had broken out, asked them to evacuate and pointed to the exit doors. Some patrons believed he was part of the comedy act and stayed at their seats. Others began heading for the exits. Before long, thick, black smoke filled the Cabaret Room, the lights went out and panic ensued.
Patrons rushed frantically in the dark trying to find the exits. Dozens of people crammed the exits, only to find the doorways were too narrow, the doors opened inward and they were blocked shut by the surging crowds.
Outside, emergency crews from throughout the region were responding to the scene. In all, 33 fire departments comprising 522 firefighters rushed to the burning nightclub. Over the next two to three hours, the frustrated firefighters tried to get to the victims inside. The roof of the Cabaret Room collapsed around midnight and by dawn, rescue workers had pulled 134 bodies from the burning remains of the Cabaret Room.
Then-Governor Julian Carroll ordered a massive investigation of the tragedy. The results of the investigation were disclosed in a news conference on Sept. 16, 1977, which was attended by news media from around the world.
The investigation found many building code and fire safety violations. As the club’s owners made additions to the building, they did them in a piecemeal way, which did not follow building codes, and the owners had no knowledge of the need to have code-compliant wiring or non-flammable materials used in the construction and decorations. In addition, it was found that the building’s architect was not licensed to practice in Kentucky.
Improperly installed and faulty aluminum electrical wiring is believed to have started the fire. The club lacked smoke detectors, so its staff was slow to discover the fire and by then it was too late. As the blaze spread, overcrowding and poorly designed fire safety doors led to dozens of guests being trapped as toxic smoke filled the building.
“Wide-ranging reforms followed the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire,” said Van Cook, executive director of the Office of Housing, Buildings and Construction (OHBC). “The state adopted strict construction and fire safety codes including a requirement that any building undergoing major renovation must be inspected and brought up to existing code requirements.”
A unified OHBC, including the State Fire Marshal’s staff, was created. OHBC oversees inspections of 190,000 buildings in the state; every structure except single-family dwellings must comply with code.
“Kentucky now has a reputation as one of the top states in the country in our construction and fire safety code enforcement,” Cook said.
OHBC is an agency of the Department of Public Protection in the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet.