This Month in Fire History - May 2024

May 21, 2024
May brings us the tragic Beverly Hills Supper Club fire and the devastating loss of five Houston firefighters at the Southwest Inn fire.

May 2, 1972, Kellogg, ID—Sunshine Mine fire

At 11:40 a.m. on May 2, 1972, 173 miners were working underground at the Sunshine Silver mine when a fire erupted. Smoke and toxic gases quickly spread through the mine’s ventilation system. While 80 miners were able to escape that first day (and two others were rescued eight days later), 91 miners were killed via smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide positioning. It is still one of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history.


May 28, 1977, Southgate, KY—Beverly Hills Supper Club

The Beverly Hills Supper Club was an upscale venue that attracted nationally known talent to its performance rooms. On the night of May 28, 1977, the popular singer John Davidson was scheduled to perform in the Cabaret Room. The room, which had a capacity of around 600, was filled overflowing that night with estimates ranging from 900 to 1,300 people in attendance. In total, there were approximately 3,000 people in the various rooms of the Supper Club that evening, more than double the maximum occupancy allowed by fire code at the time.

Beverly Hills employees discovered fire in the Zebra Room around 9 p.m. While employees tried to douse the flames with fire extinguishers, the fire department was alerted and headed to the scene. By the time fire crews arrived, the fast-moving fire was already pumping smoke through the eaves.

There were no fire alarms in the expansive complex, meaning many patrons in more distant rooms were unaware of the blaze for several minutes. Fire had blocked some exits, forcing patrons in the packed Cabaret Room to funnel through a single exit. Many began to panic.

In total, 165 people were killed and more than 200 were injured.

The late Hal Bruno covered the incident in the August 1977 issue of Firehouse, and in his closing remarks, he wrote these telling words: “It didn’t have to happen; the loss of life could have been prevented. The ultimate tragedy is that it will happen again as long as fire safety laws continue to be watered down and exceptions are made for existing buildings.”

Curt Varone shared insights from “The Beverly Hills Supper Club, The Untold Story Behind Kentucky’s Worst Tragedy,” by Robert D. Webster with David Brock and Tom McConaughy, which was published in 2012 by Saratoga Press LLC.

On the 40th anniversary of the fire, then Firehouse Editor Timothy Sendelbach interviewed Richard Riesenberg—the fire chief on that fateful day.


May 31, 2013, Houston, TX—Southwest Inn Fire

At 12:09 p.m. on May 31, 2013, fire broke out in the Bhojan Indian restaurant, which was attached to the Southwest Inn motel in Houston. It quickly spread to the motel. As Houston Fire Department firefighters from Stations 51 and 68 rushed to put out the fire and the roof collapsed 12 minutes after the first fire crew entered the building.

Four firefighters died, and a rescue team that was sent in was trapped by a second roof collapse. Many of the firefighters were injured during an extensive effort to rescue and extract their trapped colleagues.

Robert Bebee, Robert Garner, Mathew Renaud, and Anne Sullivan were the four firefighters who died just minutes after arriving. Another firefighter, Capt. William "Iron Bill" Dowling, succumbed in 2017 due to injuries he sustained that day.


Other Notable May Fires

May 5, 1988, Norco, LA—Petroleum refinery fire; loss worth $513 million

May 6, 1937, Lakehurst, NJ—Hindenburg zeppelin fire kills 36

May 14, 1947, Rome, NY—Minerva Film Company fire kills 23

May 19, 1928, Mather, PA—Coal mine explosion kills 195

May 23, 1964, San Francisco—All Hallows Church Parish Hall fire kills 17

About the Author

Steven Shaw | Managing Editor,

Steven Shaw is the managing editor of Shaw served as editorial director of the James H. Neal Award-winning “WTC: In Their Own Words” and “Hot Shots: Spectacular Fire Photos.” He previously served as editor-in-chief of Industrial Photography, The Commercial Image and Studio Photography and Design.

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