The Beverly Hills Fire: A Lingering Anguish

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Place of Refuge
Place of refuge: The Rev. Melvin T. Jones, former pastor of West End's Jerriel Baptist Church, preaches two decades ago. His memories are still vivid from that May night: ''I don't think any of us knew that we'd actually get out of the building or not.'' Zoom
Fleeing ''huge flames just eating up the wall'' behind her, Maxine Ankeny stumbled a few feet from freedom.

From her stage-side Cabaret Room table, the Dayton, Ohio woman followed fellow patrons to a rear exit leading to the garden. As the blaze raced through a hallway behind her, a disoriented Mrs. Ankeny pushed through a curtain of black smoke, collapsing as she breathed the toxic air.

In that dizzying instant as she fell, the 43-year-old mother of two teen-agers prayed silently.

'' . . . I thought, Oh, God, you better have someone raise those two kids,'' recalled Mrs. Ankeny, now of Plymouth, Minn. ''I'm not done.''

Two men answered that prayer, moments after she awakened to find five people piled atop her back. Spotting Mrs. Ankeny's waving arms, the unknown rescuers pulled her from beneath the motionless bodies with such force that their handprints bruised her upper arms.

Mrs. Ankeny says she knows if it wasn't for them, she would have died.

Having survived to see her seven grandchildren born, she counts herself among the blessed.

So does the Rev. Melvin T. Jones.

Then pastor of the West End's Jerriel Baptist Church, he was dining in the second-floor Crystal Rooms among 125 guests of the Cincinnati Alumni Chorale gospel music group. He noticed smoke gathering on the ceiling minutes before 9 p.m. and rose to investigate.

''When I went to the stairwell I was met with an enormous amount of heat,'' recalled the Rev. Jones, 54, pastor at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lansing, Mich.

His voice blended with others who then sounded an alarm, sending patrons scurrying to the second-floor exit only to find the door locked. He instructed members of the party to kneel down as they crawled under the spreading smoke to a narrow servers' hall leading downstairs through the kitchen.

''The electricity went out so there were no lights,'' the Rev. Jones said. ''I don't think any of us knew that we'd actually get out of the building or not.''

Though they cleared the building in 15 minutes, ''it seemed like an eternity,'' he said, remembering the members of the party who died. ''This building was burning up in front of our eyes and there were still people inside. . . . For me, it was total shock.''

As the Crystal Rooms' lights flickered off, Ken and Terry Ganote drove away from the supper club, the last patrons permitted out of the valet lot before traffic was restricted to fire engines and ambulances.

By mistake, the Delhi Township couple arrived at the club for a co-worker's son's wedding, not realizing that the Jewish bride had set the ceremony for the following day, Sunday. Dressed formally and with their five children at home, they hoped to salvage the night out by catching John Davidson's show.

''But we only had $5 so we decided to leave,'' said Ken Ganote, 60, who saw no signs of smoke or fire as he walked out from the gift shop after getting change for the valet attendant.

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