Sunday, May 26, 2002

Beverly Hills blaze still resonates

By Cindy Schroeder,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Twenty-five years later, the statistics still numb the mind: 165 killed and 164 injured in the May 28, 1977, blaze at the Beverly Hills Supper Club.

        Not since the Coconut Grove burned in Boston in 1948, killing 492, had so many died in a nightclub fire. “Because of lessons learned from tragedies like the Beverly Hills fire, commercial buildings are much safer today,” said Steven Grover, vice president of health and safety and regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association.

[photo] The ruins of the Beverly Hills Supper Club, May 1977
([name of photographer] photo)
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        “The Beverly Hills disaster and the (1980) MGM Grand Hotel fire (where 87 people died in Las Vegas) were a couple of horrific incidents that formed the basis for our current thinking when it comes to fire protection in public facilities.”

        One example is sprinkler systems, now regarded as a common fail-safe in public buildings.

        “(Sprinkler systems) were around in 1977, but they were used primarily in large, warehouse-type facilities,” said architect Gene Weber of Hub and Weber Architects in Covington.

        The catastrophe at the Southgate, Ky., nightspot known for its big-name entertainment set national precedent for a host of lawsuits modeled after the Beverly Hills litigation.

        Cincinnati attorney Stanley Chesley not only sued the Richard Schilling family that owned the club (which had about $1.3 million in insurance and personal assets), he sued a number of 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 poisonous gases when they burned.

        “Beverly Hills was the first time there was a class action, or a procedural tool where you put all the cases together,” Mr. Chesley said of the lawsuit type that he pioneered and is now a well-known legal device for group claims.

        “It lets the defendants know that they have to deal with all the cases at once. Most defendants protract litigation by going one case at a time, but they can't do that in a case dealing with 165 (victims).”

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

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

        • The manufacture 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 buildings 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.

        • Improved community response plans for disasters and improved counseling for rescue workers and other emergency personnel responding to catastrophic events.

        Throughout the Tristate, people still remember where they were when they learned of the region's worst disaster.

        Those who assisted in the rescue, recovery and aftermath of the blaze and the identification of so many dead that bodies were laid on the grassy hills by the dozens will never forget.

        “What happened in our community in 1977 was exactly how the United States felt when the World Trade Center collapsed, and all those people were killed,” Mr. Chesley said.

        Mr. Chesley's handling of the Beverly Hills litigation was the first of many class-action cases that ultimately would earn him the nickname, “master of disaster.”

        Although criticized in the media for filing suit within days of the tragedy, Mr. Chesley said that was the only way he could obtain a federal court order preventing the state from immediately tearing down the supper club, and destroying valuable evidence on deficient wiring, toxic furnishings and faulty inspections.

        Ultimately, Mr. Chesley's strategy earned the 281 plaintiffs a $50 million award.

        “At the 20th anniversary observance (of the fire), a young woman told me that she and her five brothers and sisters were able to go through college and keep the family together as a result of the awards in the Beverly Hills case,” Mr. Chesley said. “That meant a lot to me.”


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