Saturday, February 22, 2003

It shouldn't have happened again, say veterans of 1977 tragedy


Looking back: Beverly Hills Supper Club

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

People who escaped the devastating Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977 relived that night when they saw video of people trying to escape a crowded nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. In both tragedies, flames quickly engulfed clubs that lacked sprinkler systems. Many patrons were overcome by smoke. Others were trampled as they rushed toward an exit.

BEVERLY HILLS FIRE
Special Section: Remembering the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.
On May 28, 1977, Wayne Dammert was the banquet captain of the Beverly Hills Supper Club when the popular Southgate nightspot burned, killing 165.

"When I saw that picture on CNN of people piling up at the door (in Rhode Island), that's exactly what happened at Beverly Hills," the 66-year-old Alexandria man recalled. "It brought back a lot of memories."

Just as many patrons at the Rhode Island nightspot thought the flames were part of a rock band's act, some in the packed Cabaret showroom at the Beverly Hills initially hesitated when a busboy interrupted a comedy performance to warn of a fire, Dammert said. They thought it was part of the show.

"It's something you never forget," said Jim Burkart, 71, of Fort Thomas, who was one of the first firefighters on the scene. "Today, when I go to a restaurant or a hotel, the first thing I do is look for the exits."

Burkart, then with the Newport Fire Department, led patrons out of the smoke-filled Cabaret Room and grabbed body after body.

"One person tripped, and others started piling up in front of a service door to the bar area," the retired fire captain said.

Dale Cruze, 44, then with the Wilder Volunteer Fire Department, reached the fire scene about 10 minutes after the initial alarm.

"You had to clear a pile (of bodies) away from the door before you could go in and search anywhere else," he said.

When he heard about the Rhode Island fire, Cruze said he was struck by the similarities between the two tragedies, especially the people piling up at the doors.

"You think, `We already went through that once,' " he said. "How could that happen again?"

Watching the video of the Rhode Island fire, Ernie Pretot, a former Southgate police officer, also was struck by the similarities.

"They didn't follow the rules. It was overcrowded. The lights went out and people couldn't get out the exits. You wonder, when are these people going to learn?"

Today, the 68-year-old Southgate resident tells people that the capacity signs in public buildings "are courtesy of Beverly Hills."

"When you see something like the Rhode Island fire, you can relate to those people and their families," Pretot said. "The one thing that sticks out in my mind from Beverly Hills was seeing a very obviously pregnant woman who'd died in the fire. Her husband was holding her in his arms behind the building, rocking her back and forth. I've often thought about that unborn child. He would be 25 now, maybe starting a family of his own."

E-mail cschroeder@enquirer.com




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