Wednesday, April 04, 2001

Beverly Hills

Memory calls out for dignity

        In the first years after a tragedy, we can still hear the cries of the dying. Our tears mingle with theirs. We promise to remember.

        Then time passes and the promise recedes. We come to a crossroads: Respect for the dead must be balanced against the reality of the marketplace.

        Twenty-four years ago, the Beverly Hills Supper Club went up in flames, killing 165 people. The vacant site occupies prime land in Southgate. A non-profit company just announced plans to build a retirement home there.

        This was going to happen someday. Now comes the question: How should the fire be commemorated? Is it right to do so where the living will tread?

        For insight, I researched other such places around the country. I found a variety of responses — some beautiful, some woefully inadequate.

MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas

        A 1980 fire killed 84 people. The building was later purchased by Bally, which runs a casino and hotel there.

        Nothing — not even a plaque — recalls the fire. A spokeswoman for MGM Grand, now located elsewhere in Vegas, curtly referred my questions to Bally.

        Bally spokesman Andy Maiden said MGM has “washed its hands” of the tragedy. Bally hasn't marked the site because it has no responsibility in the matter, he said.

        “It was their fire and their people, but we purchased the property,” Mr. Maiden said. “If someone's house caught on fire and you purchase it 10 years later, you wouldn't comment on it because it didn't affect you.”

        True but coldhearted. Shame on both companies for treating the victims like dirty secrets.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, New York

        In 1911, a fire trapped garment workers, killing 146. The tragedy galvanized the labor and immigrant movements and led to government protections for workers.

        The site is now a New York University science building. Two plaques mention the fire, and every year, VIPs attend a memorial service there.

        Firefighters symbolically raise a ladder. Children and retired garment workers read the names of the dead.

        This moving event is successful partly for political reasons: It helps make the case for unions. Also, the building is owned by NYU, which appreciates history in a way clearly lost on Vegas casino operators.

Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City

        This memorial, constructed only five years after the terrorist attack that killed 168, occupies two city blocks. A reflecting pool and 168 sculpted chairs are arranged where the building stood. Heartbreakingly, 19 of the chairs are small, to represent the child victims.

        Perhaps this is the best time to commemorate the dead — when memories are still fresh and survivors groping for closure.

Interstate 71, Carrollton

       We already have one of the country's most elegant memorials: A simple sign along westbound I-71. Eleven years ago, 27 adults and children perished there, on a trip home from Kings Island.

        “Site of fatal bus crash, May 14, 1988,” the sign says.

        Its understatement is riveting. If the new owners of the Beverly Hills site take a similar approach, we can say a graceful goodbye at last.

       Karen Samples can be reached at 859-578-5584 or


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