At least 159 persons were known dead today following a fast-spreading Saturday night fire that destroyed one of the Midwest's largest and poshest supper clubs. And rescuers picking through the ruins feared many more victims might be hidden there.
Using a 50-ton construction crane and blowtorches to lift fallen walls, roof and steel I beams, firemen and National Guardsmen sifted through debris all day at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in nearby northern Kentucky. By late today, 90 of the 159 bodies recovered had been identified, authorities said.
Anywhere from 50 to 250 bodies may yet be found in the rubble, coroner Dr. Fred Stine said earlier in the day. He based his estimate on a report from his chief deputy coroner that "bodies are stacked all over the place."
Late, however, officials were optimistics after talking to families and relatives of people who are missing and believed to have been at the club Saturday night. These officials said they believed the majority of those trapped and killed in the blaze have probably been recovered.
Some of the bodies recovered were still seated in circles, apparently overcome without warning by billowing smoke.
There is no chance that anyone could still be alive in the rubble, fire officials reported.
The Beverly Hills Supper Club, located on a hill in Southgate. Ky., a few miles across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, has featured top name performers for years.
On Saturday night the star in the Cabaret Room, where most of the deaths apparently occurred, was singer John Davidson. A comedy act was performing when the fire was discovered. Although Davidson escaped from his dressing room without injury, his conductor died in the inferno.
When smoke swirled as flames shot from the basement through the second-floor roof, the crowd panicked, Stine said. "A lot stampeded and were killed in the rush," the coroner added, although most of those whose bodies were recovered apparently suffered smoke inhalation.
The deaths toll at the Beverly Hills makes it one of the worst fire disasters in the United States. The nation's worst nightclub fire, at Boston's Cocoanut Grove, killed 491 people on Nov. 28, 1942. And the highest number of deaths recorded in a blaze in a U.S. building was on Dec. 30, 1903, when 602 people died at Chicago's Iroquois Theater.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known but Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll, who arrived at the scene at 2 a.M. and is directing an investigation of the disaster, blamed it on two explosions.
Oil stored in the basement apparently exploded and engulfed the area with flames immediately, Carroll theorized from reports he received. At the same time, he said, butane in the kitchen exploded.
The fire's spread was rapid as the club's overstuffed chairs, curtains and furnishings with their low-flash points quickly added to the blaze.
"Apparently the fire was roaring uncontrolled" when people in the Cabaret Room were first told of it, Carroll said.
Carroll said that the Beverly Hills had no sprinkler system. He noted that though current law requires all new public buildings to have such systems, "in the past there was opposition to insisting on the installation of sprinkler systems in existing buildings." The opposition stemmed from the expense of shutting down a business and renovating to intall sprinklers. He suggested that making the law retroactive should be considered for places where a large number of people congregate. He said he had no reason to believe that the local businessmen who own the club had violated any laws.
In the past, when Newport, K.y., was "wide open" and laws against gambling weren't enforced, the Beverly Hills, in neigboring Southgate, was a favorite casino.
When a reform group cleaned up Newport in 1959, the club continued to offer name entertainment. Damaged by fire in the late 1960s, it was rebuilt and the lavish center reopened in the early 1970s.
It could accomodate about 4,000 people and was packed with holiday partygoers Saturday night. Apart from the Cabaret Room, the Beverly Hills had a large restaurant, several bars and lounges, banquet and meeting rooms and a separate chapel for weddings.
When the fire was first noticed at about 9 p.m. Saturday, busboy Walter Bailey grabbed the microphone in the Cabaret Room and calmly told the nearly 1,200 people there to leave.
Many in the audience thought that warning was part of a comedy routine and remained seated, Bailey said.
Patrons were scattered in dozens of rooms and alcoves. Many guests were finishing their dinner and preparing to talk to the Cabaret Room for Davidson's show.
Several waitresses in one dining area tried unsuccessfully to put the fire out with portable extinguishers.
Word spread quickly for guests to leave, but thick black smoke spread even faster through the corridors.
Matt Valentine, who has the parking concession, was standing by the main entrance of the club when the fire broke out. "At first it didn't look to bad," he said. "There was a little smoke and few people were coming out and then there was a big rush with people jumping over others to get out as smoke billowed." He said that suddenly the whole club seemed engulfed.
Davidson, who flew to Los Angeles today, said he was in his dressing room when his drummer rushed in and told him the building was on fire. "We very slowly filed out and then the filing got faster and faster," he told the Associated Press. "Just seconds after we got out, the door we came through was engulfed with smoke and flames."
After he got out of the building, Davidson said, he helped hold doors open to let others escape. "The people were jamming the doors, and there was such a panic. I estimate there was 1,000 people in the one room I was in, just jammed in."
Fire trucks had difficulty reaching the scene because the clubs sits on an isolated, 17-acre site atop a high bluff, reachable for the last quarter of a mile only by a narrow, two-lane road, which became the site of a massive traffic jam.
Deputy coroner Morris Garrett, describing the panic inside the club, told AP many of the dead were found in areas of the building where they had "headed for what they thought were exits."
In the confusion, Carroll said, "it appeared that super-club attendants led a large group to a curtained wall," thinking that it was an exit or a window, and "instead they were trapped."
"There were whole groups of people just fused together," Southgate Mayor Ken Paul told AP.
When firemen arrived, the put their energies into helping patrons escape rather than trying to douse the flames. The fire was brought under control about 1 a.m. today.
Area hospitals reported that 97 people were treated for burns and smoke inhalation; 57 of them were admitted for treatment.
Using the crane today, workers carefully moved out the rubble to allow firemen and National Guardsmen to search for additional victims. Thirty-two bodies, most of them badly charred, were found almost immediately in what had been the Cabaret Room.
Rescue work was hampered in late afternoon when a violent thunderstorm hit the area.
While relatives and friends anxiously sought to learn news of their loved ones, the FBI sent an identification team to help identify the bodies. A clergy-police team, with members of Cincinnati General Hospital's psychiatric team, accompanied friends and relatives who attempted to identify the dead at a makeshift ward at the Ft. Thomas, Ky. armory. Identification was complicated because many of the club guests had come from at least 30 miles away.
Excavation of the rubble stopped at dusk today and is to continue Monday.