“There is a fire,” the busboy says. “You have to leave. Go across the hall. Go across the Empire Room.”
Five seconds before, John Hoyle was just waiting for dessert. He was one of a couple dozen diners at his table at the Beverly Hills Supper Club.
May 28, 1977, is no longer a Saturday out with his medical staff from St. Luke Hospital and his wife, Janet.
The 34-year-old is the chief executive officer at St. Luke.
He knows what to do. He’s trained for this.
He gets up from his seat.
Bill Klingenberg pounds pavement.
The 13-year-old chases the last light. He is walking home in Fort Thomas.
It’s darker than it should be at around 9:30 p.m. this time of year.
The sky is almost black when he stops, not too far from the Beverly Hills Supper Club driveway. Others will say it’s as if a thick, sticky oil spilled across the sky.
Where are the stars?
He passes a pedestrian.
This is smoke, he’s told. The supper club is burning.
Bill walks up the grassy ridge, a place he calls the reservoir.
If the club is burning, he knows he can see it from there.
Julian Carroll, 46, twists chalks on his pool cue. Lee Majors lines up another shot.
The phone buzzes at the Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort.
The knock on the door comes quickly.
It’s Terry McBrayer, Carroll’s chief executive officer.
“There’s been a fire at Beverly Hills,” McBrayer says. “Several hundred people might be dead. We have to go.”
“Close the doors!” Hoyle yells.
The waiter and the waitress both stand on the landing into the next room.
They are facing a smoke that is heavy and hot.
It’s sickening. It’s sour. There is something unnatural in the air.
People will say later it smelled like a hundred tires burst into flames.
The smoke is now just 3 feet off the floor. The blaze, Hoyle learns later, started in the walls of the Zebra Room steps away.
Strands of smoke tear away past the club staff and slither across the ceiling toward the crystal chandelier above Hoyle’s head. They’ve got to contain it, he thinks.
“Close the doors!”
The crowd still drifts toward the kitchen, pulled by the promise of an exit to the garden. It looks like calm.
It is not.
One of those hundreds will describe it hours later to a reporter as “a strange, controlled state of frenzy.”
Hoyle breaks free from the crowd. He turns left and slams the doors shut.
“You can’t go that way,” he tells the stunned waiter and waitress. The fire is that way.
He turns toward the kitchen on the other side of the Empire Room.
The servers follow.
Hoyle grabs linen napkins crumpled atop the tables on his way to rejoin his group. He dumps water from abandoned glasses on each.
He hands them out to those around him.
They clutch the napkins over their mouths.
“This will at least filter a little bit,” Hoyle says.
With each breath, their lungs swell, but it feels like they are shrinking. A cough punctuates every poisoned inhale.
As any doctor knows, they are, in fact, drowning in toxic air.
The lights from the police escort cut through the night. Gov. Carroll is in the back of his speeding limousine.
It is 82 miles to Southgate.
t is dark out but Carroll can see the mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, the friends and the colleagues that must be at Beverly Hills on a Saturday night.
Maybe they are there for a wedding. Maybe they are there for an anniversary. A retirement party.
He sees the faces of the people he knows are there. Right now.
“Lord, give me strength and guidance to get through this,” he prays.
The maître d’hôtel stands on the food preparation table.
“Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving,” he says. “There’s an exit here. Keep moving.”
Hoyle is in the kitchen. A wall of smoke is at his back.
The maître d’ can’t stop coughing. He jumps off the stainless steel table. He joins Hoyle in the line of people.
They walk toward the door to the garden, now just steps away.
A woman takes one step and tumbles right in front of them.
She is on the hard floor. She is not moving.
“I just had back surgery six weeks ago,” she says.
“If we get on either side of you, could we assist you to get you back on your feet?” Hoyle asks.
“I think I could,” she replies.
She wraps her arm around Hoyle and a St. Luke physician. They walk, together, through the door, down the few steps into the garden.
Hoyle turns back toward the supper club, toward the windows of the garden rooms.
Flames lick the glass. Smoke pounds on the panes.
An air conditioner unit explodes.
Bill watches the fire from a ridge. He is about 500 yards away.
He sees the front wall of the Beverly Hills Supper Club cave in, succumbing to what will be reported as a 100-foot blaze, raging with a 1,000-degree heat.
He sees firefighters, still grasping water hoses, slide down the embankment.
Hoyle rushes around the burning building to the front entrance, to the parking lot.
He grabs a radio from a firetruck positioned there.
St. Luke has a transmitter in the emergency room. It is on the same frequency as the fire department.
”This is Hoyle,” he says into the radio. “I’m at Beverly Hills. There is a large fire. Unknown number of casualities. Activate the disaster plan.”
The firefighter turns to Hoyle.
“They are piled up like cordwood,” he says. Hoyle can see what the firefighter describes.
There are people wedged into the exits from the Cabaret Room, the theater a thousand people packed for the John Davidson concert.
They are stacked maybe five, six people high. It is hard to count because it is hard to tell where one person begins and another ends.
Rescuers tug on protruding shirt sleeves. They grasp clawing hands.
A firefighter pulls free one of those hands from the doorway.
It belongs to a woman in a yellow jumpsuit. She is covered in oil and soot. She is not breathing.
Hoyle can’t see the pandemonium inside.
He will learn about it later in the newspaper.
Reporters will write about how the patrons first leisurely filed toward the exits after a busboy took the stage and announced there was a fire.
Some didn’t even get up from their seats. They thought that the busboy was part of the opening act’s comedy routine, they will tell reporters.
But when the Cabaret Room doors opened, that thick, black smoke shrouded the red velvet decor in a flash.
That’s the moment the group’s saunter became a stampede.
A man in a dinner jacket scampered to one of the two exits. He tripped.
The woman behind him then stumbled over his body. And then the person behind her tumbled.
They are piling up. There is a wall of people at one end of the hallway, blocking the exit. And the wall of smoke is closing in.
One woman, her gown ablaze, jumped from table to table. Another loses consciousness before she can leave her chair, witnesses will say.
People pass out as they try to push through the exits.
Outstretched hands stop clawing from the doorway.
That is what Hoyle can see from the garden.
In time, he will know most of the dead died from smoke inhalation and acute carbon monoxide intoxication.
He will know that most of the dead will be discovered in those heaps, right next to the exits.
A Fort Thomas police car speeds up the driveway. The St. Luke disaster kit has arrived.
It is an emergency room in a bright orange box.
Hoyle will carry the flashlights, IV bags and medications to the doctors and nurses aiding survivors at the top of the hill.
When a doctor treats a survivor, Hoyle is right next to the physician.
He writes notes with a tube of red lipstick on the patient’s forehead.
He scrawls “Demerol” and “100 milligrams.”
Each is a message for the nurses and doctors waiting in the emergency room at St. Luke.
The firefighter doesn’t notice Channel 12’s Nick Clooney (Father of future star George Clooney) standing right next to him.
The firefighter cries. He speaks between sobs, but not to Clooney.
His stare suddenly snaps. He then looks at the reporter and anchor, like he’s been talking to him this whole time.
“She was pregnant,” the firefighter says. “Was that one? Or two?”
He is trying to count casualties.
The lights are still on at the Beverly Hills chapel behind the supper club.
Some of Hoyle’s colleagues are inside the chapel. They lift a pew from those neat rows that hosted three weddings just hours before.
In their hands, the pew is a stretcher.
The doctors carry it past rescuers who are gently laying a victim on the wheat-stubbled grass.
The coroner approaches each victim. He searches for signs of life.
There are none.
A white tablecloth is placed over the victim’s face.
Priests, gripping flashlights, crawl on hands and knees outside of the chapel. They offer last rites.
The coroner will ask Hoyle to help count the bodies.
Gov. Carroll’s limousine pulls up to the bottom of the driveway.
Firefighter Bruce Rath will remember years later that he is right there when Carroll arrived that night.
Rath sits on a wall. He wipes vomit from his face. He is crying.
“You all right, son?,” Carroll says.
That’s all Carroll can do. He can only ask the questions. He doesn’t have any answers tonight.
Carroll walks up the hill, toward the flames.
He will not leave until all the dead are recovered.
Bill, the 13-year-old watching from the hill across from Beverly Hills Supper Club, walks home. It’s about 11:30 p.m.
He’s been mesmerized by the flames for a while.
He joins his parents in the living room. They are watching the television news.
The anchor reports the mounting death toll from the fire just over the ridge.
Those who escaped watch flames devour the sprawling supper club.
One man, with tears in his eyes, mutters. He calls himself “the living dead,” a reporter writes the next day.
It’s now 12:07 a.m. The tin roof over the Cabaret Room collapses.
The firefighters, still pulling people from the jammed exits, scatter.
“Bodies are strewn all over the inside,” the firefighter says to a reporter. “They’ll find them in the morning, but all they will find are bones.”
About a dozen bodies arrive at the Fort Thomas Armory just after midnight.
National Guard Army trucks take them there from the fire, just a mile away.
This is part of the disaster plan, this make-shift morgue on the basketball courts of the armory, just behind the Veterans Administration Nursing Home.
This will be where, in just a few hours, relatives will be asked to recognize the dead.
Many of the women lost purses – and any identification inside – to the panic hours earlier.
Others, the coroner will tell reporters, are burned beyond recognition.
Hoyle is in the armory later that morning.
So are three teams of nurses from St. Luke. They are all there to protect the procedure put in place to help relatives and officials to identify the dead.
It is designed to ensure dignity for the lost and those who are losing.
It will look like bodies are lined up in rows below the hoops.
One will be for women. One for men.
They will be covered in white plastic.
Bill pedals on the pavement.
He cycles past the ambulances and firetrucks and hearses and a news station truck with a satellite.
He’d never seen that, a news truck with a satellite. And the ambulances? He thinks they look like the Batmobile.
Bill is biking toward his father’s hardware store in Fort Thomas, just across the street from the armory.
The hardware store is as good a destination as any this Sunday morning.
He is curious. He feels a different energy, a new energy in the humid air hovering in Fort Thomas.
Vehicles swarm. That buzzing is loudest here, right next to the armory.
He skids to a stop. Someone asks him to direct traffic.
He parks his bike on the cannons.
He now stands in the middle of Fort Thomas Avenue.
He points at the driver of a sedan to go that way. A truck to stop here.
It’s about 11 a.m.
A throng of reporters surrounds Gov. Carroll.
With microphones in his face, he answers questions in front of the blackened rubble, the mangled metal that was the Beverly Hills Supper Club.
“Why are you here, Governor?” a reporter asks.
“I’m here to see, my God, that it doesn’t happen again,” he says.
Bill’s striped shirt sticks to his sweaty back.
It’s been hours since he stepped into the hard sun, into the middle of the road, in front of the line of traffic.
He spots a tent in the parking lot, right next to the doors into the armory. There is shade there.
It is a tent for the volunteers.
He sits in that shade now. He sips from a can of Coke. He takes bites of a hamburger.
He talks to a friend from school.
A truck pulls up.
Come help, his friend says. They each grab a wooden end of the olive green stretcher from the back.
Bill carries a body bag through the doors, up the stairs.
He places the stretcher on the basketball court. The line grows by one.
Again and again and again.
John Hoyle greets Gov. Carroll in the armory.
He explains what the doctors and the nurses and the coroner and the volunteers are doing there.
Hoyle still has the white napkin from the supper club table around his neck, the one he doused in water and clutched over his mouth as he escaped hours before.
He has changed from his suit into scrubs. He wears his St. Luke name tag.
Today, he can’t remember exactly what he said in the exchange with Carroll.
He does know what they all did that day.
A reporter recorded it.
He describes how a nurse kneels next to a man’s body.
She dips cotton washcloths into a pail of soapy water. She squeezes the cloth once and pulls back the plastic sheet from the dead man’s face.
His eyes are closed. His cheeks are red. His chest is bloated. His teeth are clenched.
She gently wipes the soot from his face. She strokes his hair silver-black three times with the cloth. She puts his hair back in place, just like she imagines he combed it earlier that night.
She memorizes his features.
She might later join his relatives, a Red Cross volunteer and a member of the clergy as they walk down the line.
She will ask them about his hair, his height, what he was wearing. She will take the family only to the bodies that best match their memories.
Carroll watches this grim routine.
He waits for the family to find who they are missing.
This will happen at least a hundred times. One hundred and sixty-five people died that night.
And as each of the dead are named, a family member will collapse into sobs. Some will thrash, flail, scream.
Some are quiet. They stand. They don’t move.
Carroll will then approach those families, those whose grief hits as a hush.
“I’m Gov. Carroll,” he says.
He will ask if they want to pray with him.
“Lord, give them the strength to endure what has happened because they do not have the strength innately themselves to handle these circumstances,” he will say. “Give them strength.”
Once a victim is identified, the body will move to another section of the floor.
Hoyle and his team have to make room for the bodies that boys like Bill still carry through the door.
Bill will pass by an FBI agent crouching next to a body. Bill notices the plastic sheet has been pulled back.
He sees charred fists, raised as if for protection, he will say years later.
The FBI agent removes a finger with wirecutters. He will use it for print analysis. He is looking for a name to match and a person to call.
“There is no blood,” Bill will say to himself. “That’s weird.”
Nick Clooney will walk into the armory. The newsman is still working. He will work for days.
He notices one of the sheets on the court does not cover a pair of silver shoes and the bottom of a chiffon evening gown.
Clooney thinks about what was going through that woman’s mind the previous evening.
“What she was thinking about when she slipped on those silver shoes?,” he thinks.”Was it going to be a big night, maybe with her husband? Maybe with her family?” he thinks.
When Bill takes a break, he won’t really think about what he’s been doing for a long time.
He sits in the back of the refrigerated truck.
The air is rancid and thick inside the armory.
It is cool, refreshing there, of course. Kroger has lent these refrigerated trucks to the recovery efforts.
Bill sits next to body bags.
Forty years later, Bill does not know exactly when he sat in the truck, when he left it and how long he moved bodies that day.
Maybe he was there until 5 p.m., he’ll say.
That’s the same for Gov. Julian Carroll and Nick Clooney and John Hoyle.
They all entered another dimension in those late hours of May 28, 1977.
It is one that still blurs time and space. A smoke that obscures the faces of the living and the dead.
It is one that they will never quite leave behind.
Sources: This story is based on 2017 interviews with John Hoyle, now state Sen. Julian Carroll, Bill Klingenberg and Nick Clooney. Other information comes from The Enquirer archives, as well as the Cincinnati Museum Center’s collection.