About nine o'clock on the evening of May 28, 1977, a fire broke out in one of the many rooms of the maze-like Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky. Within minutes, the fire ravaged the entire establishment, killing 164 people, many of whom became jammed in exit doors as they tried to escape.
Lise Bohannon, a cocktail waitress in the club who got out with seconds to spare, tells her story of that terrifying night.
With its high death toll, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire
is considered among the worst such disasters in U.S. history.
What were you doing at the Beverly Hills Supper Club back in May of 1977?
Bohannon: I was working as a cocktail waitress, and I was assigned to the Cabaret Room.
And it was an evening like any other?
Bohannon: Not necessarily. It was an extremely busy afternoon and evening. A lot of people were in there that day, more than usual probably. There were a lot of things going on at the club that day—a wedding reception, retirement parties—and it was a holiday weekend.
When did you realize that there was a fire?
Bohannon: Well, about 8:30 p.m., I got into the Cabaret Room. A show was scheduled to start at 9 o'clock. I had a lot of work to do, making sure my tables were set up in time. Therefore I wasn't really tuned in to everything that was going on, because I was trying to handle my business. About 9 o'clock, I was really hustling, trying to get a first round of drinks out. I had gone back to the bar, which conveniently was right beside an exit doorway. And I was going through the procedure: filling up my glasses with ice and preparing them to run through the bartender's line.
There was nobody in the bar, which I thought was a little strange, but still early in the evening with all that was going on. I figured that somebody was either working somewhere else or chit-chatting somewhere, that they would probably be back any minute. As I was setting up my glasses, I could hear people in what was an employee hallway which ran alongside the bar. I could hear what was obviously customers, which was unusual. Customers were never back there. Some of the hallways you would expect maybe to see customers in, because the club was like a maze, so it wasn't unusual for someone to be looking for a bathroom and end up in other hallways. But not in this one.
I overheard someone somewhat casually saying, "I don't know, somebody said it was a fire. I think we better get out of here." Again, I say casually, because there was no alarm in the voice. I thought to myself, "What's going on?" I was not alarmed by any means, and I started to turn around and go on with my business. Then I thought to myself, "No, I'll just walk out the door for a second. If nothing's wrong, I'll be back in just a moment."
So I reached and picked up my purse, which was in an area right by the door where the waitresses kept their purses. Then I just turned and walked right out the door. It was literally seconds after when all hell broke loose. There were maybe 30 people ahead of me going down an outside metal stairway that led down to the ground from this doorway.
My first recollection was black smoke just pouring over my head, and I think I was only about one or two steps down from the platform. Smoke just billowing over my shoulders. That led to somewhat of a rush of people trying to get down the stairs. And I remember that before I was even all the way down the stairs, this huge burst of flame that was so forceful, and smoke and so forth, just shot out of that doorway. People began to scramble to get out.
How many more people do you think got out after you?
Bohannon: I'm not sure. My guess would be maybe only another 20 or 30. I've read a report that said that only maybe 60 got out that door, but I don't know about the reliability of that. There weren't too many more that got out. There were a lot of people still in the doorway who were trying to exit, but it became such a mess there, people were becoming entangled with one another. From what I recall, there was a metal section in the middle of that doorway, and one individual had his legs trapped around that. So it became very chaotic right there at that exit. A lot of people were there but could not get out, because the fire spread so rapidly. People were becoming overcome with smoke and hung up with each other. Some people were pulled from the exit, but I remember just watching a lot of them die right there in the doorway.
It sounds like it was within seconds from when you overheard someone casually say, "I think there's a fire," to when you got out and it was completely out of control. Do you have a sense of how long it really took for that to happen?
Bohannon: I can't honestly say that I have a true grasp on what the amount of time was. But I know it was a very, very short period of time. If not seconds, literally a few minutes. That was one of the devastating things about that entire incident—it was just so quick it was hard to believe. Seconds can make such a major difference. Like I said, I had no idea whatsoever when I walked out that door.
The fire raged through most of the night. The following day, the club was but a charred skeleton.
Did you lose anyone close to you in the fire?
Bohannon: Yes, I lost three friends, two women who were also cocktail waitresses in the Cabaret Room, and a male bartender. Within that next week, or week and a half, I guess I attended ten funerals, one right after another. It was very hard. And my father married that day and was in there that evening. He and his new bride were sitting in my station. I expected them to come out the same doorway, but they were escorted out the other side of the building. It was probably three hours before we found each other. It was a very horrible thing for both of us to have to go through. I spent most of the evening walking around to the different entrances and closely examining all of the bodies trying to find him.
How did you react during the fire? Did you panic?
Bohannon: I was very calm when I exited the building. I was even pretty calm as I got to the bottom of the steps and realized that people were starting to get stuck in that doorway. However, once I began to think of my father, that's when panic developed, because I could see that people were not able to get out of this doorway. A moment came when I just completely lost it, and I tried to go back into the building. One of the waitresses grabbed me and punched me so hard that she literally knocked me to the ground.
To this day, I'm very thankful she did that. If she hadn't, there's no telling what kind of stupid, foolish thing I might have done. It knocked some sense into me, and all of a sudden I realized, "No, you can't do this." Fortunately, several hours later my father and I did find each other. A very happy moment, I might add.
Did you as employees ever have fire drills or any instructions on how to handle a fire?
Bohannon: Not when I was there. I had no knowledge of anything like that ever taking place. The club was quite large, it was like a maze. It wasn't unusual for customers to get lost, just trying to find a rest room. Even as a new employee, it took me a long time to learn my way around; there were just so many hallways. I'm sure that that greatly contributed to a lot of the deaths. I know that people in the fire did back into a lot of hallways and closets not knowing where they were going, especially when the lights went out.
How did you recover emotionally?
Bohannon: It took me, I would say, an entire decade to really overcome every way that it affected me. A lot of the individuals who were affected never discussed it with their family members. I've talked to a lot of people over the years, and it's just amazing how many of them just closed up; they didn't talk to anyone about it. I think that really harmed a lot of these people. I had a close group of friends who also went through it, and we stuck together very closely for quite awhile. We saw each other, tried to hold each other up. We all went through some bad times, some of us very depressed, alcoholic, suicidal, just a combination of everything trying to cope with it.
Seven of us that were still remaining did something that turned into a positive experience, however. Two of our friends who passed away, Terry and Rose, had eight children between them. Both were divorced and had no income coming in, so we got together and organized a benefit concert and some benefit dinners and so forth. And we ended up raising quite a bit of money, which we turned into this huge trust fund. It eventually involved some 200 children that lost one or both parents in the fire. This helped pull us out of the low spots and keep our minds occupied. We kept in close touch for a long time.
Having somebody to talk with about the experience made a big difference. You could talk to a psychologist all day long, but if that person had not actually experienced something like that, they just couldn't understand. It's not something that most individuals have encountered in their lifetime, fortunately. All the nice words in the world just don't make as much difference as one person truly understanding.
What advice would you offer for people who find themselves in a fire?
Bohannon: Don't hesitate. I mean, we get tornado sirens going off here occasionally. I can remember the day when I would just say, "Ah, it'll be over in a minute." Now, if I hear a fire alarm or a tornado siren, if I hear any sort of warning whatsoever, I react so quickly I don't even think about it. I don't run, and I don't panic, but I just instantly exit the building or whatever I have to do. I know what it can mean if you ignore it or even delay doing something like that.
I would also strongly recommend that you be aware of your environment. Try to at least pay some attention to things such as exit signs or doorways or whatever. I have an office at the university that is on the 10th floor, and our elevators always used to break down, so I developed a preference for the stairway. I'd take those stairs with my eyes closed, and I'd count as I was holding onto the railing. I know somebody might say that I'm a little off the deep end, but I just felt like this is one extra tool on my belt should I ever need it. It doesn't hurt to develop those little tools.
So when you go into a public building now, you look for the escapes? Do you think about how you would get out?
Bohannon: I have to be honest, the farther the fire gets from my mind, the easier it gets to not focus on things like that. But I still do it to a great extent, try to consciously remind myself, whether I'm in an airplane, a building, or whatever, to at least have some idea of how to get out. And whenever I travel I always carry a flashlight with me—one in my carry-on bag on the airplane, one in my suitcase—just to help you get down steps if the power goes out, for instance. Even a little thing like an electrical problem without the risk of a great fire could still cause a lot of damage and a lot of injuries, just because of the way people tend to react.
Are you careful about fire safety in your home today?
Bohannon: I have to kick myself, because I sleep on the second floor of a two-story home, and I haven't properly done what I should do about escaping from the second floor. I know I should find some kind of ladder to throw out the window, but I've never done that. And sadly enough, we have smoke alarms that sometimes get a little crazy, and we take the battery out and forget to put it back in. I think it's unavoidable, you know. No matter how much people try, it's very hard to keep it at the forefront of your mind all the time.
What are you doing now?
Bohannon: I'm in graduate school, in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. I've become very interested in sociology. One thing that I walked away with after experiencing the fire is that I feel strongly that researchers need to do more research on that sort of thing. I'm very interested in the social forces affect groups as opposed to individuals. We put so much emphasis on the individual, on the individual's psychological state of mind, but I know from talking over the years to so many people that went through fires, it's amazing the change that occurs within small groups such as families, how their social ties become drastically changed—you know, a victim being blamed by a family member because he or she survived, for example. It seems to me that there has not been enough attention given to that level of treatment.
Any advice to people who haven't gone through such an experience?
Bohannon: I would have to strongly recommend that people—well, that you appreciate your life, the fact that you're walking on this Earth. I used to be not very ambitious, but I really have a zest for life now, because this fire gave me a true appreciation of how precious life is. And it gave me motivation to do something with it. Unfortunately, I don't think we have to go through something like that to discover we can be appreciative of life.