BY PATRICK CROWLEY
And they dreamed. Dreamed of the day they could follow the path their fathers and brothers had taken before them.
The day they could become Southgate Volunteer Firemen.
''There is a lot of pride in this community when it comes to the fire department,'' explained Lt. Eric Muench, a son of a former fire chief.
''We all grew up around this fire department, waiting for the day when we turned 16 and we could join. It's almost like a brotherhood. It's something very special for us.''
Seven of them are seated around a table in the fire station. The pride that Lt. Muench spoke of is evident in their crisp white uniform shirts, the immaculate station, the brand-new shiny red pumper that is being paid for with money made at summer festivals and winter turkey raffles.
They are together, as they were when they were kids, as they probably will be until they are old men.
Together as they were that night 20 years ago. It was the department's finest hour and its worst tragedy.
''It was,'' said Captain Jim Herman, ''our greatest moment and our worst moment. We rose to the occasion, and did our jobs ...
''But 165 people died,'' Greg Hirsch said, finishing his fellow firefighter's thought. ''But, yeah, we did our jobs. We did what we had to do.''
Though Beverly Hills was a mile or so from the firehouse, and these firefighters -- who were in their early 20s and late teens in May 1977 -- were among the first on the scene, this is the first time they've gotten together to talk with an outsider about the fire.
Why has it taken so long?
''I guess because nobody ever asked,'' said Eric's older brother, Marc Muench, who has followed in his father, Ray's, footsteps as the department's current chief.
''But we don't consider ourselves heroes,'' Chief Muench said. ''We took an oath and we did our jobs. That's all.''
When the call came over the radio that night, Eric Muench was getting off work as an apprentice meat cutter at a Covington grocery. A couple of the guys were watching Emergency, a television program about paramedics. Firefighter Hirsch was watching TV with his girlfriend.
''They were building (Interstate) 471 at the time, and were having a lot of brush fires up near Beverly,'' Firefighter Hirsch recalled. ''I told my girlfriend I'd be right back because I figured it was just another little brush fire.''
Almost as soon as the Southgate firefighters entered the burning building, Chief Ray Muench gave the order to ''drop hose.'' That told his men to concentrate on saving lives, not fighting the fire.
Their stories are filled with horror, fear and grief. Bodies piled on top of one another. Seared flesh rolling down a victim's arm. The putrid smell of burnt hair. The terror of wondering if that thick black smoke that had wiped out a table of well-dressed diners would claim their young lives, too.
Assistant Chief Tony Kramer says he won't, or can't, forget the gruesome task of moving the dead.
''We took people from inside the club to the chapel out back, where the Red Cross or somebody put a heart monitor on them just in case,'' he said.
''But they were all dead. So then we carried them out into the yard. It was like an assembly line. It was terrible.''
''We were young,'' said Capt. Herman, ''and had not seen things like this. I remember I handled it OK that night, but a few days later I was sitting down to eat a sandwich and that image of 100 dead bodies lined up along the ground, dressed like they were going to a party, hit me and I just burst into tears.''
Capt. John Beatsch knows the community appreciates the department's efforts. He remembers the memorial mass held a few days later at St. Therese Church.
''All the firemen were sitting together in the front, and when we marched out the audience, our friends and families, started clapping. It made us feel so good,'' he said.
''There wasn't a dry firemen's eye as we walked out of that church,'' Capt. Beatsch said as he wiped a tear from his cheek.
''I think about it and it still gets me.''