Saturday, February 22, 2003

No sprinklers 'footprint' in club disasters

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Twenty-six years later, the statistics from the Tristate's deadliest blaze still stagger the imagination: 165 killed and 164 injured in the May 28, 1977, fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club.

It was a tragedy that brought then-Gov. Julian Carroll to his knees at the scene and which resonates throughout the Tristate. Time is marked "before Beverly Hills" and "after Beverly Hills" in Northern Kentucky.

As news of the Rhode Island fire unfolded, Cincinnati attorney Stan Chesley recalled the Beverly Hills disaster and other major fires.

"It's dj vu," the attorney who led the class-action suit for Beverly Hills victims said. "Here we have an unsprinkled building which is a place of public access, particularly for young people. It's brain dead to suggest that a building should have pyrotechnics."

The Rhode Island tragedy was eerily similar to the Beverly Hills blaze, the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas in 1980 and the San Juan Dupont Plaza Hotel blaze Dec. 31, 1986. Each claimed scores of lives.

"They all have the same footprint," Chesley said. "We have not lost lives in any sprinkled building in the last 40 to 50 years. The key to eliminating the spread of fire and flames and smoke is early detection and early (extinguishment) which can only be accomplished by sprinklers."

Chesley pioneered class-action cases in such disasters when he not only sued the Richard Schilling family that owned Beverly Hills, he also sued industries and services. The 1,200 defendants included insurance companies; the companies that made the club's faulty aluminum wiring; and the manufacturers of the furnishings, carpeting, and other materials that gave off the poisonous gases when they burned.

The Kentucky state fire code was overhauled and national fire safety experts cite the Beverly Hills fire as a turning point for public fire safety.

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