Sunday, May 26, 2002

Wayne Twp.'s darkest night

25 years after the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire

By Cindy Schroeder,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        JACKSONBURG, Ohio — On a humid Memorial Day weekend in 1977, 36 of Ona Mae Mayfield's friends and family members made the 50-mile trek to the Beverly Hills Supper Club for a surprise retirement party for the Wayne Township Elementary School teacher.

        Only 24 in the party, including the guest of honor, would survive the evening.

[photo] Lois Conrad, 72, and her husband, James, were supposed to attend a retirement dinner the night of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.
(Patrick Reddy photos)
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        Mrs. Mayfield's only child, Clark Mayfield, would not. Witnesses later recalled how the former University of Kentucky football player literally tossed his wife and young son through a smoke-filled exit to safety.

        Tuesday marks 25 years since that May 28, 1977, night of horror and heroism, when every Northern Kentucky emergency services department scrambled after reports of a fire at the glittery Southgate, Ky., nightspot, where singer John Davidson was to perform.

        The cloud of thick black smoke and toxic fumes ultimately killed 165 and injured scores more. While dozens of Tristate communities were touched by the region's worst tragedy, few were as personally devastated as Wayne Township in Butler County.

        Especially hard-hit was the little burg of Jacksonburg (pop. 52). Ohio's smallest incorporated village and the surrounding Wayne Township lost 13 residents, including one-third of the staff of Wayne Elementary School, which closed a decade after the fire.

        Wayne Township is in a still-rural area of booming Butler County, west of Middletown and north of Hamilton. The victims could have been a cross-section of Any Town, USA. They included a volunteer firefighter and township trustee, a long-time high school counselor, the superintendent's wife, and three couples who left behind nine orphaned children.

        Average age of the victims was 43.

        “It was such a shock,” said longtime Wayne Township resident Lois Conrad, 72, as the retired rural carrier choked back tears.

        “It's like the tragedy that happened at the World Trade Center. Those people will learn to live with it, but they'll never get over it.”

        Norma Fall, 51, lost her mother-in-law, Grace Fall, a Wayne Elementary secretary and bus driver, in the fire.

[photo] A plaque in Wayne Township commemorates Jacksonburg, Ohio, residents who died in the fire.
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        “When you lose that many people in a small community like ours, everyone feels the repercussions,” Mrs. Fall said.

        Some fire survivors, such as retired Wayne Elementary teacher Mildred Abner, say they won't stay in a motel to this day because of fears about fire safety.

        “It hits you in a way that you don't forget,” said Ron Kash, a former principal of Seven Mile School in Wayne Township.

        “After the fire, when we would have get-togethers in the schools, people would automatically look for the exits. And when you'd go out socially, there was a new awareness of how to get out of the building.”

Community response

        Like many Wayne Township residents, former Edgewood school board member Dr. John D. Burley spent the days after the fire juggling funeral services and visitations.

        “Sometimes there would be two or three funerals on the same day, so we would go to the visitation for one person and the funeral for another,” the 68-year-old Trenton dentist recalled.

        Dr. Burley, who was on an out-of-town camping trip the night of the fire, returned home the next day when he learned many of his friends were among the dead. He later would provide dental X-rays to identify some of them.

[photo] The Beverly Hills Supper Club burns May 28, 1977.
(Enquirer photo)
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        Other residents of the close-knit community helped by taking food to survivors' homes, or by baby-sitting the fire victims' children. Some even temporarily ran Ed Fall's dairy farm after his wife, Grace, died in the fire.

        “The community just stepped in and took over the farming without our asking,” Norma Fall said. “The outpouring of support was just amazing. For quite some time, there wasn't a need that the community didn't take care of.”

        Two years after the fire, emotional objections from dozens of Butler County residents prompted the Richard Schilling family to drop plans to build a supper club near the community that had experienced so many losses.

        “I didn't care if the Schillings built another supper club,” Mrs. Fall said. “But I didn't want them to build it in our backyard. They had no clue of the losses we'd experienced.”

Stayed home to work

        In the week before the fire, friends had repeatedly begged the Conrads to join them at the Beverly Hills Supper Club for Mrs. Mayfield's retirement party. But Jim Conrad — a Wayne Elementary school bus driver who often aggravated his wife when he refused to close Jacksonburg's only gas station and service garage so the couple could enjoy an evening out — refused to close early on the holiday weekend.

        On the afternoon of the fire, Mrs. Conrad reluctantly turned down a final invitation from Dorothy Koontz. Like the Conrads, Mrs. Koontz and her husband, Donnie, were Jacksonburg natives who had attended Wayne Elementary together and worshiped at Jacksonburg United Methodist Church. The two families often vacationed together and Mr. Koontz and Mr. Conrad were best friends.

Fleeing the club

        The night of the fire, as many as 2,800 guests and employees packed the Beverly Hills Supper Club, authorities later determined. Of those, an estimated 1,300, including the Mayfield party, sat at tiny tables jammed into the Cabaret Room — nearly triple the number of occupants the room could safely accommodate.

        Seated in the back of the Cabaret Room, the Mayfield party didn't know anything was amiss when busboy Walter Bailey took the stage a few minutes after 9 p.m. to announce that there was a fire in the building and point out the exits.

        Although the closest exit was less than a dozen feet away, Mrs. Abner could not reach it in the crush of shoulder-to-shoulder humanity.

        “Someone ahead of us said the door was locked, so we turned around and headed the other way,” she recalled.

        Minutes later, the lights went out, and the smoke and fire burst into the Cabaret Room, Mrs. Abner recalled. Many in the crowd began pushing and shoving. Others threw aside chairs blocking their exit, “and jumped from table to table.”

        “You couldn't breathe and you couldn't see,” Mrs. Abner said. “I held my breath and pulled my dress up around my nose and mouth.”

Awaiting news

        Back in Wayne Township, the first bulletins on the fire had just been broadcast.

    Beverly Hills victims from the Ona Mae Mayfield retirement party
    Mabel Marie Barker, 54, Trenton, Wayne School secretary.
    Martin Herschel Barker, 60, Trenton, machinist, Armco Steel Corp.
    Carol Ann Cottongim, 32, Hamilton, teacher.
    Robert Douglas Cottongim, 34, Hamilton, supervisor, Mercy Hospital.
    Grace Louise Fall, 48, Jacksonburg, Ohio, Wayne School secretary.
    Mary “Billie” Louise Ittel, 58, Hamilton, Ohio, homemaker.
    Lucy Mae King, 57, Hamilton, guidance counselor, Edgewood High School.
    Donald Eugene Koontz, 48, Hamilton, agent McCoy Oil Co., volunteer fireman and Wayne Township trustee.
    Dorothy Maxine Koontz, 46, Hamilton, instructional aide at Edgewood High School.
    Herman Clark Mayfield, 35, Jacksonville, Ala., football coach at Jacksonville State University.
    Gloria Sue Duncil, 36, Hamilton, school teacher.
    Russell Oscar Gray, 23, Cincinnati, science teacher, Miami Elementary School.
    Ann Louise Beer, 23, Hamilton, Trenton schools librarian.
    Source: Ohio death certificates and survivor interviews
        Mrs. Abner's husband, Dan, who was at a family gathering, learned of the fire from a TV report and rushed home.

        At the Koontz household, Dorothy and Donald's six children waited anxiously by the phones.

        “The phone rang all night, and people would say, "So-and-so got out,'” recalled Jane Koontz Prushing, then 17. “But no one could tell us anything about our parents.”

        A former principal of Wayne Elementary would later tell the Koontz children that the last time he saw their parents they were comforting an older couple, as their group stumbled through the darkness in search of an exit.

        “Going out of the building, there was a left and a right turn,” Mrs. Abner said. “The people who got pushed to the right didn't make it. Somehow, I got pushed to the left.”

        For two agonizing days, the Koontz children waited for word of their parents' fate. On Memorial Day, 1977, as Randy Koontz was delivering his parents' dental records to a temporary Northern Kentucky morgue set up for fire victims, Jane spotted her parents' names in the list of fire victims scrolled across a TV screen.

        “I could relate to the people looking for (loved ones) on Sept. 11,” Mrs. Prushing said. “I know very much what that was like, the not knowing.”

Rebuilding, sadly

        Unlike many children orphaned by the fire, the Koontz siblings were not scattered among various relatives. Oldest brother Randy, a newlywed, moved back home, and with the help of his grandmother, kept his siblings together. Mr. Koontz also took over his father's fuel-oil distribution business, which he runs to this day.

        At Wayne Elementary School, the teachers voted to finish the remaining week of the school year, with substitutes filling in for those who didn't return. The school itself closed in 1987, the victim of declining enrollment.

        The late Ona Mae Mayfield and her husband retired to Tennessee after the fire, but friends say she was never the same after the loss of her heroic son.

        “She was devastated,” Mrs. Abner said. “What should have been one of the happiest days of her life turned out to be one of the saddest.”

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