E second-floor banquet rooms. Unable to use the club’s main staircase, more than 200 diners and a dozen waitstaff worked their way through a short hallway in the back of the room, down a steep staircase to the kitchen below, and then to an exit. Kay Barksdale was a singer in the Choral Union. She lives in Amberley Village and is the head receptionist for WCPO Channel 9.We had just started getting our salads when a lot of us noticed how hot it was getting. Someone finally called out for them to turn up the air conditioning. One of the waiters, said, “We’ll see about getting that done, but let’s get the food out first.” They were really rushing.

But it was hot. You could see the butter starting to melt. Wayne Dammert: First it was just a little gray puff of smoke coming around the corner and then before you knew it, it was solid black, thick smoke. I ran back into the room where the Afghan Hound Club was and started shouting as loud as I could for them to get up. Kay Barksdale: A few of us started to get up when we saw some smoke, which was gray and kind of wispy. But one of the choral members said it was nothing and that the staff would take care it, that we should just relax. So we did. But then this black smoke started billowing into our room and we heard this voice from the corridor yelling, “Get out now, this place is on fire!”Wayne Dammert: I opened up a set of double doors by the dressing rooms near the top of the spiral staircase [in a room adjacent to where the Choral Union was seated]. Just a little.

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It was like a blast furnace. There was no way I could get to the other side. Kay Barksdale: I’d never seen smoke like that in my whole life. The people that were going to the stairwell were disappearing.

I actually blurted out, “The steps are on fire!” That caused pandemonium. Another lady had been knocked to the floor. She was getting trampled and screaming out, “Help me!” Somebody yelled back, “Help yourself!


”Kay Barksdale: I [went] back to get my purse and couldn’t see anything. I’m going, “Oh Lord, please have mercy on me.” Then this man stood before me and said, “Hit the floor.” He told me to breathe and cough, breathe and cough. He had pure white hair like I’ve never seen before on anybody and this beautiful blue suit. But what I noticed was that he wasn’t breathing like he was telling me. He told me to follow him down the corridor.

Wayne Dammert: I remembered there was a doorway that opened up to this flat area of the roof. The door was just a piece of plywood with a lock and a hinge. So I asked a couple of the bigger guys from the Choral Union to break it down. They tried ramming it with their shoulders, but it didn’t work. Wayne Dammert: Smoke is really starting to come in and then the lights go out. When that happened I saw this complete picture of my family in front of me. They were in a meadow, my wife and my kids. At that point, I know what the deal is: I’m at the end of the line. Then, all of a sudden, people started pouring down those stairs. Kay Barksdale: I got to the loading dock, looked down, and it was too far for me to jump. I didn’t want to do it. And then my mind just went blank. The next thing I remember is standing in front of some other choir members and they’re all crying, hugging me, saying they’re so glad I made it out. After hauling in extra chairs, serving food, and delivering drink orders earlier in the evening, Walter Bailey had asked Ron Schilling if he could stick around to catch a little of the comedy act opening for John Davidson (ventriloquist Jim Teter and his banjo-playing partner Jim McDonald).


He watched for a few minutes, then headed out of the showroom and down the hallway, where he learned about the fire in the Zebra Room. After convincing the patrons in the main bar to evacuate, he ran back to the Cabaret Room, where nearly 1,000 people were still enjoying the show. Walter Bailey: I got up to Charlie Coslit, who was working the podium outside the Cabaret Room. There was a long felt rope that divided the corridor and on one side of the hall about 70 people in line, waiting to get in. I got real close to Charlie, and whispered, “There is a fire in the Zebra Room and we have to clear the room.” He looked at me like I was pulling his leg. Didn’t say a word, just stared at me. I’ll never forget that. So I turned to find the Schillings—I probably took 10 steps—and the thought went into my mind: I can’t go looking for the Schillings like that waitress did. I’ve got to clear this room. I went back and told him again that we needed to clear the room. Finally he said, “OK, watch the line,” and he headed down the hallway to, I assume, open these three doors up to the garden. Then he came back and headed through a set of curtains into the Cabaret Room [and] toward the northeast corner exit. There were two doors there that led you to a service bar. As he was in the service bar area the thought ran through my head: If people start coming out of the room, this line will be in the way because they’re blocking one of the exits. So I decided to move the podium and the ropes and then lead this line of people down the hallway and out into the garden area. It was a miracle because they did exactly as I told them. I had complete authority and I don’t know how. Then I came back inside and waited by the curtain, thinking, OK, at any moment people are going to be coming through those doors. There’s going to be a big announcement.

But nothing happened. The show was still going. I didn’t like it, so I decided to make an announcement.


I moved with a pretty quick pace—not running or trotting, just walking fairly fast. The whole time I’m thinking, What should I say? Should I leave the information about the fire until the end of my announcement so that nobody panics? I headed down into the pit area and then got right up on the stage. When I got there I reached out and one of the comedians just handed me the microphone.

It was all very smooth, which contributed, I think, to some of the rumors that I was part of the act. I faced the audience and said, “I want you to look to my right, there’s an exit in the corner of the room. I want you to look behind you, there’s an exit on the back wall. And I want you to look to my left because there’s an exit in that corner. There’s a fire at the front of the building and I’d like everyone to leave the room.” And that was it. I handed the mic back to the comedian and got off the stage. Bailey’s announcement, which came at 9:06 p. m., was initially met with a calm, almost blasé response by the audience.


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The club had overbooked the Cabaret Room that evening, and every available space, including the ramps that separated the room’s four levels—the pit area containing the stage, a slightly smaller second tier of seats, a third section that ran along the side walls, and a fourth level along the back—was packed. That calm did not last long. Jim Teter: When Walter came right up those steps the thought that went through my head was, We have a disgruntled employee and he’s come to make a complaint about the management.

Then he took the microphone from my partner and makes his announcement. For a kid that young to show such poise and risk his job, that was ballsy.

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Susan Gitlin attended the show with friends, including Jeff Ruby, her boyfriend at the time. She is now a residential real estate broker in Los Angeles. He was so calm we thought, Oh, this is part of the act. They’re gonna bring out seltzer bottles and squirt everybody.

Then he just walked off the stage. So we’re waiting [but] nothing happened. We stood up—here’s how relaxed it was—and said, “Well, should we take our drinks?


Should we just sit here and wait?” You’re thinking, It’s a little kitchen fire. Jim Teter: I finally said to the audience, “Well, folks, I don’t know what’s going on, but I guess we need to get out of this room. And after we go outside and they give us the OK, we’ll come back inside and start this show over again.” Some guy yelled out, “Do I have to listen to the same jokes again?” I said, “No, we’ve got enough of this miserable material that we can change everything.”Janice Popp was enjoying a girls’ night out with three close friends (two of whom perished in the fire). She lives in Covington and works as a senior administrative assistant.

We had just ordered our drinks when the busboy made the announcement. We got up but the tables and chairs were so close together that you basically had to wait for the people next to you to leave before you could move. Donny Hammond was a cocktail server in the Cabaret Room. He now lives in San Francisco, where he works as a hotel waiter.

I was back at one of the service bars when Walter made the announcement. If there was smoke coming in, you couldn’t tell. People smoked back then and that room was always filled with smoke, plus there were candles burning.

I just stood at my station and helped get people into a single file. I was going to follow them—I actually went up a tier to get out of the way. Then it got a little crazy. Unbeknownst to the audience, the fire was already roaring through the 150-foot hallway that led from the Zebra Room to the Cabaret Room, consuming the wood paneling, carpeting, wiring, and drop ceiling tile, and pushing a thick, noxious cloud of black smoke ahead of the flames. Walter Bailey: I finally get to those triple doors at the end of the hallway and one is locked.

I try to bang my shoulder against it a few times but it doesn’t o

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