Anniversary of Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire

Early Saturday night on May 28, 1977, a fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. left 165 dead and 70 injured. The Memorial Day weekend fire, which occurred 30 years ago, is still one of the deadliest fires in the history of the United States.


Early Saturday night on May 28, 1977, a fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. left 165 dead and 70 injured. The Memorial Day weekend fire, which occurred 30 years ago, is still one of the deadliest fires in the history of the United States.

“Poor building design was a major contributing factor to the significant number of deaths and injuries,” said Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager with the Bethesda, Md.-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers . “Additionally, many lives were lost because the fire burned out of control for a considerable amount of time before the occupants were notified that an emergency existed in the building.”

At the time of the fire, the Beverly Hills Supper Club was known as the “Showplace of the Stars.” The building was a multi-function restaurant/nightclub and entertainment facility. The structure was mostly one-story high and occupied almost 1.5 acres.

Fire investigators believed the cause of the fire to be electrical failure. The fire started in a combustible concealed space in an unoccupied room, where it burned unnoticed for a significant amount of time. Once the fire was discovered by staff, instead of notifying the occupants to exit the facility, the staff unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish the fire. Soon after the fire was first observed, the fire spread quickly throughout the building via the main corridors.

More than 2,400 people occupied the building at the time of the fire. Over 1,200 were in the club’s largest room, waiting to hear entertainer John Davidson perform. Following the fire, it was determined that this room did not have a sufficient number of exits.

By the time the occupants of the largest room were told to exit, heavy black smoke was observed in the room. The majority of the fire deaths occurred in this room.

In addition, the building was not equipped with a sprinkler system or a fire alarm/detection system.

“Because of the delay in notification, the lack of fire protection systems and an insufficient number of fire exits, the occupants just didn’t have enough time to get out alive,” said Jelenewicz.

Most of the deaths were due to the inhalation of smoke or toxic gases. Many of the dead were reported to be piled on top of each other. Others were left sitting dead at their tables.

Additional contributing factors to the number of deaths and injuries included combustible interior finishes, a delay in calling the fire department and the lack of an evacuation plan.

As a result of this fire, many building requirements were enhanced to make night clubs and other buildings with large populations safer from fire. Some of these requirements included provisions for improved exiting systems, safer interior finishes, emergency planning and the installation of fire alarm and automatic fire suppression systems.

Moreover, the fire provided new insight for the fire protection engineering community on how humans behave in fires. For example, in the Beverly Hills fire, it was observed that the wait staff assisted in the evacuation of the patrons. These types of observations showed how the roles and responsibilities of building occupants influence decisions made during a fire.

“The Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire reminds us of the threat that is posed by fire and the importance of designing buildings that that keep people safe from fire,” said Jelenewicz.

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