'Showplace' pulled them in
Since 1971, the Beverly Hills Supper Club had been a magnet.
People came from hundreds of miles around to sample the
good food, fine wine and national entertainment in the dining
rooms, receptions rooms and showrooms.
'It will be with me until the day I die'
As a banquet captain, Wayne Dammert was responsible for
220 people on the second floor of the nightclub 20 years
ago on May 28. He led most of his charges to safety down
a rear stairway. But Dammert, now 60, still aches for the
victims he couldn't reach.
Patrons complained about the heat, but Wayne Dammert noticed
only cigarette smoke.
Twenty-five minutes later, the Beverly Hills Supper Club
''There are few days when I don't think about the fire,''
Dammert said. ''It will be with me until the day I die.''
As a banquet captain, Dammert was responsible for 220 people
on the second floor of the nightclub 20 years ago on May
He led most of his charges to safety down a rear stairway.
But Dammert, now 60, still aches for the victims he couldn't
reach and for one woman - Sharlene Matthews, who booked
a room for the Cincinnati Choral union - who died after
trying to warn others.
''She was a hero to me,'' Dammert said. ''She did what
I was unable to do.''
Dammert has compiled his memories into a book, ''Inside
the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire,'' co-written by Ron
He has organized many reunions of survivors and expects
a large turnout for the 20th anniversary on Wednesday at
St. Mary's Catholic Church in Alexandria.
''Most of the people who were there loved working there;
we loved the people who came there,'' Dammert said of his
Beverly Hills colleagues.
Dammert, who has lived in Alexandria for 34 years, spent
two stints working at the supper club, once called the ''Showplace
of the Nation.''
His first job as a card dealer ran from 1957 through 1961.
Although gambling wasn't legal then - or now - government
officials winked at the practice, Dammert said. Later, a
push by a reform-minded sheriff and citizens against gambling
temporarily shut down Beverly Hills and other Newport clubs.
Dammert's second tour of duty was as
a banquet captain from 1972 until the fire in 1977.
The club was packed with more than 2,400 patrons
during the Memorial Day show with John Davidson.
At 8:35 p.m., a co-worker asked Dammert to approve
a customer's check in the first-floor Zebra Room.
The room felt slightly warm.
''There were complaints of heat, but I didn't notice
anything,'' he said. ''There wasn't anything other
than cigarette smoke.'' He went back upstairs.
By 9 p.m., a waitress told him there was a fire in
the Zebra Room.
He ran down ''to see what I could do to help,'' Dammert
said recently, sitting at his kitchen table.
''We saw a wall of black smoke, and a waitress asked me
what to do. I said, "Stand here and direct the people
Dammert ran back upstairs and told people to leave through
a rear service entrance and the club kitchen. The front
spiral staircase was already full of smoke.
Dammert tried to reach patrons in the second-floor dressing
rooms but couldn't make it. Dammert, an engineer by day,
knew the layout of the club; he knew there were doors leading
to the roof and
asked several customers to break them down.
But those doors were locked and didn't give in. As the
smoke and heat intensified, Dammert gave up his search for
''A picture of my wife and my children flashed through
my eyes. I thought, "I have to get out of here,' ''
Outside the club, Dammert grabbed an ax, climbed a ladder
and tried to break down the roof doors. ''But the smoke
hit us in the face,'' Dammert said. He climbed down and
went to the rear of the club.
''I saw two busboys and one was crying. They said it was
terrible in the back. I could hear people yell for oxygen.''
Dammert spent the next few hours covering the dead with
coats and praying for their souls.
Amid heroics by patrons, firefighters and staff, Dammert
also saw some ghoulish acts: Three men were charged with
stealing from the dead.
His wife and four children had spent the night watching
television news, not knowing his fate. Later that night,
Dammert hitched a ride to the Newport police station and
finally called home.
''I could hear the kids cheering,'' he said. ''They thought
I had died.''
Toxic materials added to the toll
Cincinnati lawyer Stan Chesley uses a seat cushion from
the Beverly Hills Supper Club to demonstrate how toxins
from the pillow contributed to the deaths of 165 people
nearly 20 years ago.
Faulty wiring focus of blame
The official investigations into what caused the fire at
the Beverly Hills Supper Club were inconclusive, but the
factor most often cited is aluminum wiring.