The Beverly Hills Fire: A Desperate Rescue

Where Horror and Heroism Prevailed (continued...)

Bruce has been a volunteer firefighter since 1960, when he finally heeded the childhood call of those big, red engines like generations of other Fort Thomas men. His speech abounds with the imagery of his calling:

Searching for Causes
Searching for causes: Firefighters search remains of the Zebra Room with state investigators several days after most of it was incinerated. A room for small occasions, its paper-veneered paneling looked like shiny rosewood. Investigators determined that the room became a furnace when flashover (simultaneous ignition of all combustible materials) occurred. Zoom
I just got burnt out.

His face was red as fire.

I'll tell you what sets me on fire: people parkin' in fire lanes at the mall.

This fire, though: Nothing compares. Nobody's face. Nobody's temper. It's hell.

Years later, when Bruce thinks back on this bright Saturday, he will remember how forgettable it seemed right up till the end. ''It was just a day of all days,'' he will say.

This morning, Fireman 51 and the other volunteers went about their weekend routine. They hosed down the engine-room. They washed the trucks. They took the big engines out for a run.

This afternoon, Bruce and his wife went grocery shopping; a car wreck snarled traffic at U.S. 27 and Temple Place; and a woman in labor checked into St. Luke Hospital East.

She is there, still, that woman, as flames shoot out of the supper club two miles away. Everywhere lives hang in the balance. What of Karen Prugh, lying outside the blazing Cabaret Room? Bruce Rath, his lungs aching, takes a deep breath for her . . .

Weekend Escape

The Prughs of Dayton, Ohio, are supposed to be steeled against life's dark possibilities. All the men are police officers, all the women braced for the worst.

But this . . .

This weekend wasn't supposed to test their mettle.

This was supposed to be a great escape: Karen's first time at Beverly; Terry's, too.

The couple were wed 13 months ago. It's Terry's second marriage, Karen's third. You might say she's unlucky in love. A preacher named Bliss -- the Rev. Bliss B. Cartwright -- officiated at Karen's first wedding. It was cruel irony. The marriage, to a factory worker named William Gay, was rocky and short-lived, ending four years later. He got the '67 Chevy. She got the '64 Corvair.

Karen's second marriage, to a Montgomery County, Ohio, sheriff's deputy named Nels E. Munson, lasted 4 1/2 years. She filed for divorce in July 1975, asking the court to restore her maiden name: Leonard.

Karen started spending time with Terry, a co-worker at the Dayton police department. He's a detective; she enters records into the computer. Terry had just gone through a divorce, too. He and Karen dated only a short time before he asked her to marry him. It was Christmas Eve 1975. His proposal surprised her, coming on the heels of her divorce. ''I can't do this,'' she said.

Three months later, they were standing in front of a judge. Karen, who had broken her leg in a car wreck, recited her wedding vows on crutches.

Tenacity Learned Early

Lives converge in the strangest ways, and nothing's the same forever. One night when Bruce Rath was young and his hair a brighter red, a girl named Nancy Edwards stood him up. That moment would translate into 20 years of marriage to another.

Standing alone in the Highlands High School canteen, his eyes wandered to a girl leaning against the corner booth. She had blue eyes and long, blond hair, and he couldn't stop looking at her. Bruce Rath -- linebacker, running back, little-bit-of-everything -- was lost forever.

This was who he would marry.

''Would you like to dance?'' he asked.