The Beverly Hills Fire: A Desperate Rescue

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Heroism: Fort Thomas firefighter Bruce Rath looks up into the glare of a news photographer's flash. Having pulled Karen Prugh out of the inferno, he successfully revived her and accompanied both her and her sister-in-law to the hospital. Both women survived. Zoom
On a hillside, hard by Interstate 471 in the Northern Kentucky town of Southgate, rusty sheets of pressed tin lie stacked amid the weeds. A muddy, white statue, separated from its head, lies in the brush like a slumbering ghost. Red-and-yellow fire hydrants stand as memorials to the night when they weren't nearly enough.

This is prime property. But nothing has been built here since the Beverly Hills Supper Club burned 20 years ago this Wednesday, killing 165 people. It is a hillside lost, out of use and unchanged, a hole in space and time.

Even now, it's May 28, 1977, on this quiet hill. The wind whispers: It's May 28, 1977, toward twilight, and the club's final act has begun. Comedians Teter and McDonald have been upstaged by a fire that will burn for 20 years -- first, in the rooms of the doomed supper club; later, in the chambers of a thousand hearts.

The dead and dying lie everywhere.

''I need help!'' firefighter Bruce Rath screams.

This woman sprawled near the club's wedding chapel, this Karen Prugh: She reminds Bruce of his wife. He leans into the lonely fight for her life, vowing to stay with her till she breathes again -- or till death do they part.

Lobby destroyed: The plush lobby where patrons enjoyed cocktails at the bar was reduced to a mass of tangled wiring and charred timbers. Zoom
Karen Lee Prugh came to Beverly tonight to see John Davidson. The singer never took the stage.

Instead, it was a fire that made the grand entrance, blowing open the double doors of the Cabaret Room with a theatrical bang as it burst upon the crowd in a dark cloud of smoke.

The lights went out. Some of the people panicked. A man in front of Karen leaped up and began running across tabletops like a squirrel traveling from tree to tree. Martinis and ash trays tumbled to the floor.

''Stop pushing,'' a woman shouted.

Now, as the stars come out over Southgate, black smoke billows from the doors of the supper club and rises to blot out the heavens. Many will be dead by sunrise, some still clustered around their tables as if waiting for the next act. Many others will relive this night repeatedly, incapable of fresh starts.

For them, this is the last new day.

Strange, now, to think how beautifully it began -- a gift, a grace, a bright spring morning full of promise. The world was ablaze with marigolds, begonias, impatiens, petunias. Time for the annuals to bloom.

It was warm and humid in the way of Ohio Valley days, and as Karen and Terry Prugh dressed for their big night at the Beverly Hills Supper Club, Terry neglected to button his collar.

''You're not wearing a tie?'' she asked.

''Too muggy,'' he said.

Terry, a tall, husky man, never liked dressing up. Karen finally convinced him he should put on a tie, but it took an argument.

''They won't let you in,'' she said.

Last hope: Fireman 51

Here lies Karen Prugh, in the grass out back of a burning supper club. Is this where life ends? It depends on Fireman 51.

Karen's last hope is Bruce Rath. He looks like a man in flames. His cheeks are ruddy, his arms orange with freckles. Hair the color of burnt sienna rolls back from his face like brushfire. His eyes are cinders. But it's the fire inside that makes Bruce what he is: indomitable and stubborn and tenacious and brave.