It was fitting for Southgate to unveil the Beverly Hills Supper Club memorial on Memorial Day weekend, already a time for tribute and reflection. On Sunday afternoon, which was the 46th anniversary of a fire that took 165 lives, an estimated 300 people finally got to see the top-secret two marble slabs, located in what’s known as Memorial Pointe, at 525 Alexandria Pike. The memorial is now a park maintained by the city.
“We come together today to recognize your loss, to remember those who did not return home that night,” Southgate mayor Jim Hamberg told the crowd filled with survivors, those who lost loved ones, first responders, former mayors, and former Supper Club employees. It’s estimated 2,600 people were in attendance that night.
“For those of us who were not there and who did not lose anyone that night, we, too, share in your grief, sorrow, and your pain,” he said. “We will never know what you’ve gone through over the last 46 years.”
On the night of the fire, John Beatsch was a 21-year-old volunteer firefighter. Today, he’s Southgate’s fire chief.
“I think I can speak for the firefighters who were there when I say that May 28, 1977 was the worst day of our firefighting career,” he said in a speech. More than 500 firefighters showed up that night. “But I believe that it was also our finest hour. I say that because no one ran or hid from the danger. Every firefighter who was there either risked their life or were willing to risk their life.”
Speakers David Brock and Wayne Dammert were busboys at the Supper Club and also helped save lives along with then 18-year-old busboy Walter Bailey, who courageously went onstage in the Cabaret Room and calmly announced to a crowd of hundreds to exit the room.
Jeff Ruby, who was in the Cabaret Room on the tragic night and who was in attendance at the dedication, praised Bailey’s heroics. He stated he and his family and possibly 500 other people wouldn’t be alive today if not for Bailey.
Gov. Andy Beshear wasn’t able to attend the event, but Dennis Keene, commissioner of the department for local government, said Beshear sent his prayers and condolences.
Campbell County Judge/Executive Steve Pendery gave a moving speech about the “where-were-you-then moment,” and how no one died in vain.
“Now and for the future, we will remember and we will honor those that we’ve lost by continuing to build a community worthy of their memory,” he said.
Once the hour-long dedication ended, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” while officials uncloaked the memorial. Surrounded by granite blocks of the 165 victims who died in the May 28, 1977 conflagration, the two-sided memorial exhibits photos of the club, a “Through the Eyes of a Firefighter” history of that night, and the etched names of more than 50 Kentucky and Ohio fire departments that battled the blaze. One side explains the history of the club, which opened in 1935 as the Beverly Hills Club. Another section entitled “The Positive Impact of the Tragedy” lists the lessons learned in the wake of fatal night.
“The magnitude of the tragedy increased public awareness of fire prevention in general, resulting in an increase of smoke detectors in homes,” the memorial reads. “In the years after the tragedy, the fire served as a case study to gain professional insights into fire behavior and crowd behavior. It helped redefine psychological treatment of trauma victims through subsequent studies of survivors.”
Three of the victims with blocks are Carol Ann Cottongim; her husband, Robert Cottongim; and their four-month-old unborn baby, one of four babies to die. The block chillingly reads: “Carol Ann Cottongim and Baby.
After the fire, Carol Ann’s nieces, sisters Mary Smith and Susan Crecelius, took in their aunt and uncle’s six-year-old daughter.
“It’s just been a tragedy on her family,” Smith said. “We’re thankful for this and all the work that all us that have been doing. We’ve met people through the years that made it out, and it’s a miracle that many people got out.”
Crecelius and Smith live 90-minutes away in Shelby County. Crecelius said the memorial was “lovely.” “We didn’t want to miss this. It’s been long and coming.”
Forty-six years on, the event continues to affect survivors. Anonymously, one said they have survivor’s guilt and have to touch their walls before they go to bed at night to make sure it’s not hot. Others “were never the same” after having to identify the burned bodies of family members. But with the slabs, flagpole, flowers and shrubbery in place, the area represents a September 11-type of gathering place to remember — and to heal.
“We will never forget,” Hamberg closed his speech. “I pray this memorial will give the families, friends, and coworkers peace in a place to come and remember those who we lost 46 years ago.”
Click through the gallery below to see photos from the memorial.