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What caused the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire? Survivors skeptical of 'accident' label

The fire at Beverly Hills Supper Club in 1977 killed 165 people. Officials labeled it an accident, but former employees believe there's more to the story.

SOUTHGATE, Ky. — A nightclub fire on Memorial Day weekend 1977 killed 165 people in a small northern Kentucky town. Hundreds were injured and even more saw their lives forever changed. In the decades since the blaze, questions surrounding the case still remain — but no answers.

What caused the fire that changed the town of Southgate: faulty wires or something much more sinister? The UNSOLVED team looks into the case. 

Chapter One | "The showplace of the nation"

The night of May 28, 1977 started like any other at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate. Drinks were poured, toasts were made and huge crowds cashed in their $10 ticket for seats at the extravagant cabaret room.

"It was considered the showplace of the nation on the east coast — all of the main entertainers from Vegas," said David Brock, a busboy at the time.

As comedians took the stage in the main hall, a small fire snaked through the ceiling. Many would later say they smelled smoke but could not see anything, not believing they were in any danger.

Within seconds, hot flames roared down the halls of the nightclub.

"Two comedians were performing and another busboy went up and grabbed a mic and told the people that the room was on fire, not to panic and to leave and they laughed at him," one witness would tell television crews. "They thought it was part of the act."

Then, black smoke poured through the room, the club's lights flashing on and off. People began fearing for their lives, trying to escape the packed club.

"Split seconds meant life and death," said former journalist Peter Bronson. "We could be sitting at the same table and I made it out and you didn’t — just because you were sitting on the wrong side of the table."

Chapter Two | "Like wax coming through your fingers" 

Brock, 18 at the time of the fire, still remembers rescue efforts in disturbing detail.

"It was unbelievable," Brock said. "It was a war zone...you would grab someone by their arm, they were like wax coming through your fingers and your hands."

Wayne Dammert, another employee, said he began praying over the dozens of bodies he saw laying throughout the building.

"Bodies were laying everywhere," Dammert said. "I took [someone] back to the garden room — boom, boom, tanks and stuff are blowing up. Flames are shooting up high through the building."

In total, 2,600 people made it out alive that night. More than 200 people were injured and 165 killed.

"They had no chance, most of them," Bronson said. "It went through there so fast and the cloud of toxic smoke, the synthetic substances that were in the building materials was absolutely poisoning. It was so toxic people would walk out of that building and look perfectly fine just like you or I and fall dead within seconds because their lungs were just totally shot."

Chapter Three | "That's all a lie"

A makeshift morgue went up almost immediately as families walked through rows of bodies, searching for their loved ones. A week later, the town's mayor held a memorial for victims.

"We will never again be the same typical, American town, the nation will remember and associate Southgate, Kentucky with smoke, fire and death," the mayor said.

As people mourned those killed, suspicions started growing. State officials ruled the fire accidental early on, but former employees did not buy it.

"About two or three months after is when we started thinking this didn't happen...not that fast," Dammert said. "For a fire to start it takes time, not a lot of time, but more time than that did."

"It's not electrical fire, it's not aluminum wiring like they've been saying," Brock said. "That's all a lie, completely a lie."

Certain it was arson, they tried to push for answers but said they were met with pushback and excuses.

Brock said he saw men working on the ceiling in the room where the fire started earlier that day. Almost directly after the fire, the room was destroyed by excavators cleaning up debris.

Weeks later, Brock said he asked the property owner about the work done.

"I said they were working in the ceiling for two hours," Brock said. "He goes, 'Well we had no contract of work that day.' He said, 'What did they say they were working on?' I said the air conditioning system. He goes, 'Well they lied to you...there was no AC in that room at all.'"

Chapter Four | "The mob shut everything down"

Decades later, Bronson — a former columnist at the Cincinnati Enquirer — was hoping to piece the clues together and find out what happened the night of the fire.

Knowing the history of northern Kentucky, he linked the fire to the Cleveland mafia. The mob ran the area at the time, and law enforcement often stayed out of their way.

"The mob shut everything down in the city," Brock said. "It's all about greed and money."

Brock said they were told there were no records or photos of the fire despite knowing police took photos. He said he believes the cover-up went all the way up to the governor at the time. Bronson said the connection between the mob and the fire makes sense.

"You can go back through the 70s and every year a major nightclub, casino, strip joint, or restaurant is burned down, by arson, by the mob," Bronson said. "And then all the sudden here we go — 70, 71, 72 all the way up to 77 and what do you know? There's the Beverly Hills Supper Club — the biggest, most spectacular of them all."

In his book "Forbidden Fruit: Sin City's Underworld and the Supper Club Inferno," Bronson details the nightclub fire and the mob's time in Kentucky through FBI files and stories of survivors — finding not only a link between the mob and the fire, but the attempts to rid places like Newport of crime and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Chapter Five | "It's never been the same" 

The fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club is the third deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. Forty-four years later, pictures mark where the building once stood on now overgrown grounds.

"They destroyed this whole town — Southgate suffered, the state of Kentucky suffered, it’s never been the same," Brock said.

Less than 10 years after the fire, a lawyer known for litigating successful class action lawsuits built a case around claims of faulty wiring. After a lengthy court battle, including a mistrial and appeal, the defendants were awarded millions in damage.

More than four decades later, officials announced plans for a $65 million residential development on the site of the fire. According to Cincinnati affiliate WCPO, Memorial Point will include luxury apartments, single-family homes and an assisted living center.

The development will also have a memorial for the 165 people killed in the fire.

As the city attempts to move on, the club's former staffers continue to search, hopeful there could be undiscovered evidence that might prove the fire was never an accident.

Brock co-wrote the book "The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky's Worst Tragedy" nearly a decade ago, giving a detailed description of what happened before and after the fire that changed his life.

"I've lived this life since I was 18," Brock said. "I’ll never forget it as long as I live."

Want an inside look at what the UNSOLVED team is investigating next? Join our Insiders group on Facebook.

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