Of all the sights and sounds I experienced while covering one of the worst fires in U.S. history, the most haunting came a day later.
On May 28, 1977, I was one of the first reporters at the scene of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, Ky.
Before getting the tip, I was about five miles away, across the Ohio River, finishing my solo shift in the Associated Press office inside the Cincinnati Enquirer. A retired AP technician who monitored police radios called with chilling news: fire companies and ambulances throughout northern Kentucky were being dispatched to the sprawling nightspot known as the “Showplace of the Midwest.”
My first call was to the Campbell County dispatcher, who confirmed the fire and said, “all hell is breaking loose!” They were “sending everything,” he said.
The next call was to a fellow staffer who was older and had more experience. He preferred that I head for the fire and he would drive to the office and take my dictation. One of us called AP’s hub bureau in Columbus.
Traffic was a nightmare from curiosity seekers who had heard about the fire from TV and the radio bulletins. Every minute is precious when covering an event of this magnitude. I saw a man sitting in front of his house, watching the illuminated sky a few miles away. “Can I park on your lawn for $20,” I hollered. Sure, he said.
Off I went, jogging toward the fire-lit horizon.
When I came over the final hill, the view of the fire scene was breathtaking. Most of the 3,500 people who were in the building were milling on the hillside against a backdrop of pillars of flames.
The third-worst nightclub fire in U.S. history, it claimed 165 lives, with hundreds more injured.
The first bodies I saw were outside an exit, not far from the entrance. I counted eight of them, mostly women, on grass with no one else in sight except a man, who was standing nearby. As I was counting a second time, to make sure I had the right number, I asked the man if it was “going to be worse.” He didn’t respond. I asked him again. Again, no response. Suddenly I realized in the dim light that his pants had been burned off and he was in shock and one of the victims was likely his wife or a girlfriend.
I needed to get to a phone but the nightclub was blocks away from a residential area. I decided to circle the building first, to determine if there were more fatalities, then head for a telephone.
After going around a couple corners, I came upon the epicenter of activity near the wedding chapel. There was shouting as firefighters desperately tried to knock down fire near a door, one of the main evacuation exits. On the lawn were more than two dozen more bodies.
Several firefighters were seated on the ground, coughing from smoke inhalation. I kneeled down to talk to one who had been vomiting. A young man in all white was holding a towel. “How much worse is it going to be?” I said.
He stared at me, his face contorting into anger. “Get the (expletive) away from me.”
In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten to identify myself. I felt awful having to ask questions after what he had just witnessed and gone through.
Then the young man in white asked, “Are you with the Enquirer?”
No, I said in a barely audible voice, “The Associated Press.”
He said, “It’s a lot worse.”
His name was Walter Bailey, an 18-year-old busboy. Needing more quotes for that first phone call back to the office, I asked him what he had experienced.
A lot, it turned out. He had seen the growing fire outside the main entrance to the Cabaret Room, which was packed beyond the allowable capacity that night for singer John Davidson.
Bailey said he approached the stage, where he got the attention of two comedians who were opening for Davidson. Bailey borrowed the microphone and calmly informed the crowd that there was a fire in a nearby room and pointed to exits.
Many in the crowd thought he was part of the act and there was little response. Bailey pleaded in a more urgent tone. As some left toward one of the exits (where I saw the first fatalities), Bailey waved the bulk of the crowd seated near the other exit to follow him.
Then chaos ensued when smoke and flames poured into the venue.
Bailey said he stood at the exit, pulling as many people out as he could. Because the exit door opened inwardly, it eventually narrowed to the point that caused a tragic bottleneck. Ninety-nine bodies were found at that exit, many of them stacked four feet high, with arms outstretched toward rescuers who were eventually driven away by the heat. Bailey’s class ring was pulled off during his heroic efforts, and never found.
I had the first eyewitness interview from a key figure and it was time to find a telephone. Suddenly I saw an Enquirer reporter with a walkie-talkie. He loaned it to me long enough to get a death count from the fire chief to the office. After that, more interviews and dictation over the next four hours.
I remember seeing local TV anchor Nick Clooney (yes, the father of George) on the scene, along with Enquirer sports columnist Tom Callahan, a friend and reincarnation of Ernest Hemingway. Callahan, who went on to fame as a columnist at the Washington Post, a prominent golf writer and author of numerous sports books, said, “We’ll never see anything like this again in our lives.”
But the next day was worse. I was covering the identification of bodies at the Fort Thomas Armory, where about 150 bodies were placed on the basketball court and covered with sheets.
Hour after hour, grieving relatives showed up for the grisly ritual of checking the burned corpses to identify their loved ones.
I’ll never forget the two teenaged girls who arrived, their arms tightly linked while bracing for the ultimate horror. Less than five minutes after they entered, I heard two primal screams from the Armory. Minutes later, they emerged, weeping and holding each other up. I’ve thought of them many times over the years, hoping they overcame the sad fate they were dealt.
One of the great ironies of that horrible night, that I’ve never admitted in print, was that I nearly missed it. I had started my shift early and decided to leave an hour earlier, at 9 p.m. I checked the Enquirer to see what movies were playing, found one I liked and called the theater to see if it actually started right at 9. It had. That fortunate bit of timing kept me in the office an extra few minutes. Missing that call from the AP tech would have been hard to live down.
For much of the next decade, the AP assigned me numerous major tragedies. They included the MGM Grand fire in 1980 that killed 88; the collapse of the Willow Island nuclear cooling tower in 1978 that killed 51 in what is considered to be the deadliest construction accident in U.S. history, and Hurricane Iwa that destroyed more than 2,300 homes Thanksgiving week in 1982. Along the way I covered earthquakes in California, including the 1989 World Series quake that delayed the baseball classic for 10 days.
A Las Vegas-related sidenote to the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire came to my attention recently when my brother, longtime Review-Journal photographer Jeff Scheid, took an architecture tour given by Nevada Assemblywoman Heidi Swank.
Wilbur Clark had started building the Desert Inn in 1947 but he ran out of money. Mob-connected Moe Dalitz entered the picture in 1949 and funded the majority of the project, with Clark staying on as the front man.
Clark hired a young architect by the name of Hugh Taylor who replaced the original architect. Clark and Taylor traveled to Cincinnati, Palm Springs and Southgate, Ky., to borrow ideas from other casinos and clubs.
Before his death at the age of 91 in 2015, Taylor told Swank, the executive director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation, that he and Clark met Dalitz and his associates in Cincinnati and checked out the Beverly Hills Supper Club.
According to Taylor, Swank said “it had a beautiful dining room, and shows and all, and then upstairs they had gambling. And when they would hear the sheriff was coming, they would shut down gaming completely and then go on with the dining and so forth.”
In an email, Swank said, “From what Hugh told me, it is clear that the supper club was held in high esteem by Mr. Dalitz as it was meant to be a source of Hugh’s inspiration for the Desert Inn.”
She added, “It seems that there never were any drawings of the Desert Inn. The schedule was so tight that Hugh would just talk the workmen through the design or sketch something on a 2 by 4. That was it!
“No plans were created for that building. Something that could never occur today for sure.”
Taylor finished the Desert Inn in 1950 at the age of 25 and went on to work on the Moulin Rouge casino, the original Sunrise Hospital and Country Club Towers, as well as many luxury homes in the Desert Inn Estates.
The scene and heard
From Mike Precker of Dallas: Southwest Airlines flight attendant on a Las Vegas-bound plane, cheekily asking passengers to keep the aisles clear for safety’s sake: “Don’t force us to United you.”…
Spotted by the Associated Press’ Brian Friedman: On the menu at the Hungry Bros. food truck in Cincinnati, “Vladimir Poutine.” You vill luv it!
At Drai’s Beach & Nightclub (Cromwell) over the weekend: New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., R & B star Christina Milian, model-actress Karreuche Tran, rapper-actress Chanel West Coast, Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams, Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, Terrance Williams of the Dallas Cowboys, Orlando Magic point guard C.J. Watson, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, Washington Wizards guard Kelly Oubre, Stanley Johnson of the Detroit Pistons, Frank Kaminsky of the Charlotte Hornets, Nerlens Noel of the Dallas Mavericks, Damarious Randall of the Green Bay Packers, Eddie Lacy of the Seattle Seahawks and Louis Leonard of the Denver Broncos…
Houston Rockets star James Harden, playing at the $500 blackjack table with his crew at the MGM Grand on Saturday…
At Old Homestead (Caesars Palace) on Saturday: Former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott, along with Dwight Clark, Harris Barton and singing legend Paul Anka…
Rapper Ty Dolla $ign, dining at Tao restaurant (Venetian) on Saturday…
At Tao nightclub on Saturday: Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, San Diego Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Dontari Poe, and Manchester United players Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young…
Reality TV star and model Kendra Wilkinson, at Hexx Kitchen Bar at Paris Las Vegas on Saturday after the premiere of her new show, “Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man.” She was with co-star Jai Rodriguez and other cast members. They later partied at Chateau Nightclub & Rooftop.
The punch line
“Sorry, we’re clothed” – Comedian Demetri Martin, showing Stephen Colbert a sign informing strip club patrons to come back tomorrow.