Sunday, March 9, 2003

Beverly Hills lessons not forgotten

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kentucky authorities say lessons from the Beverly Hills Supper Club blaze nearly 26 years ago have not been forgotten by fire inspectors required to check nightclubs or other businesses once a year.

"The memory of Beverly Hills Supper Club is still very vivid in the memory of our employees and citizens of the state," said Ken Meredith, spokesman for state fire marshal's office. "We are constantly reviewing our fire prevention and inspection procedures."

One of the many steps taken in direct response to the tragedy was the establishment of the Department of Housing, Buildings & Construction to oversee the state fire marshal's office in Frankfort. That office conducts fire inspections unless the local fire agency has been certified to carry out the inspections.

One such local agency is the Covington Fire Department, the third-largest professional fire department in Kentucky. It inspects clubs and bars on Kentucky's 61 criteria in seven areas:

Exits and doors, signs and lighting, fire protection equipment, general, electrical, hazardous areas and planning/preparedness.

Covington Fire Chief Joe Heringhaus said businesses have learned he does not tolerate fire-code violations. He called inspections of night spots a priority for his staff.

Of the thousands of addresses in Covington, a random selection of three nightspots in the city show either no violations or minimal violations brought quickly into compliance.

• Pachinko A Club, 424 W. Sixth St., had no violations in a July inspection; was asked to protect spliced wiring in an April inspection, had no violations in two other inspections in 2001 and 2000 and corrected several violations in another 2000 inspection.

• Yucatan Liquor Stand, 1 Madison Ave., had no fire inspection violations in December 2001 and June 2000. But the Covington riverfront nightspot was cited for not keeping exits available for immediate use at all times in a November 2001 inspection.

• Cosmo's, 604 Main St., was cited for four violations in Oct. 9, 2001, including failure to have an operational fire alarm. Inspections told them to address "fire alarm ASAP." The club was in compliance by Oct. 26.

In neighboring Newport, Fire Chief Larry Atwell said local inspectors also visit nightspots at least once a year. Spot checks of three popular nightspots there show the businesses were visited by inspectors within the last four months. And when citations were issued for violations, they were generally addressed quickly.

In spring 2002, Southgate House, 24 E. Third St., got four citations and was told to repair emergency lighting, replace missing outlet covers, protect wiring from possible damage and replace missing ceiling tiles. In August, it was cited again for emergency lighting, but the other three had been corrected. Three months later, its Nov. 19 inspection was clean.

The Syndicate, 18 E. Fifth St., Newport, was found in compliance with all fire codes on Aug. 6. On Dec. 6, however, fire officials received a complaint some exits were blocked at the facility. Records show the violation was corrected on the spot.

Cincinnati lawyer Stan Chesley, who led the class-action suit for Beverly Hills fire victims, has said that he is advising lawyers handling litigation in the Rhode Island fire.

"I've been asked to lend assistance and put together a team so experts can find out what happened and who would be responsible," Chesley said, who appeared on 60 Minutes II to talk about fire codes.

As in the Rhode Island fire, the crowd at Beverly Hills on the night of the May 28, 1977, blaze exceeded the capacity of the Southgate supper club. Patrons of the unsprinklered Northern Kentucky establishment fled the fast-moving fire and toxic black smoke, jamming the exits with their bodies.

Chesley pioneered class-action cases in disasters when he sued the Richard Schilling family that owned Beverly Hills, and 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 as they burned.

Some of the other safety and emergency response legacies of the Beverly Hills disaster included:

• Better fire suppression systems and the inclusion of sprinkler systems in virtually all public buildings.

• The manufacturing and use of more fire-resistant materials and furnishings in commercial and residential construction.

• More competent inspectors and stricter enforcement of building codes and occupancy limits.

• Better design of public building with more emergency signs and lighting, and wider aisles near exits of public buildings to accommodate panicked crowds in emergency situations.

• Reorganization of the state fire marshal's office; Kentucky officials overhauled their building codes.


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