Deadly Nightclub Fire Kills 24...
@ Gulliver'sPort Chester, NY
"Terror Stricken Throng Rushes for Narrow Stairway to Exit"
New York Times - 07/01/74"
Port Chester, NY - June 30
Suffocating smoke from a flash-fire trapped and killed 24 panic-stricken young patrons and employees of a singles bar astride the New York-Connecticut border early today. About 200 men and women in their late teens or early 20's were in the bar, part of a regular Saturday night migration from such Connecticut and Westchester towns as Greenwich, Westport, White Plains and Ardsley to the numerous night spots here.
The young people were dancing to the soul-rock music of [CREATION] at Gulliver's on the outskirts of this city when the leader stopped the music to announce that there was a small fire. Within minutes, the sunken dance floor, called 'The Pit,' was a turmoil of thick black smoke and screaming, terror-stricken people. The narrow stairway to the exit was suddenly packed with people clawing at one another for air.
Most of the 24 bodies were found piled up at the foot of the stairs leading from the dance floor to the exit. Others, charred, were scattered around the dance floor, among the twisted instruments of the rock band. In addition to those who were killed, there were 19 patrons and 13 firefighters injured.
'This is one of the worst tragedies in the history of this county,' said Alfred Del Bello, the Westchester County Executive.
Inside the bar and restaurant, in the few moments that saw a good-time crowd turned to people gagging and gasping for air through the smoke and flames, there was intense panic and touches of heroism.
'Everybody started rushing toward the stairs', said Judy Grella, an 18-year-old from Bridgeport. 'We couldn't see anything, we had to crawl up. I don't know how we got out alive.
'Gulliver's occupies most of the front of a low, one-story building 100 yards from the Boston Post Road. To the west of the building is the murky Bryam River, to the south, Hillside Avenue, to the east a large parking lot, and to the north, in back of the building, a vacant lot and woods. The enterance to the bar, under a sign reading 'Gulliver's Fine Food n' Drink', is from the parking lot. There are also two small shops - a barber shop and a discount clothing store - which extend part way into the building. The entire rear of the building is occupied by a bowling alley.
Estimates vary on how many patrons there were Saturday night, scattered through the bar, the lounge and the dance floor. The lawyer for the operators said it was about 200, other patrons said 300 or even more.
The band playing last night, [Creation], was formerly called Salt and Pepper because it has both black and white [members]. Patrons said it was a good-humored night, not quite as crowded as usual.
Joe Parsons Jr., a 20-year-old mason's helper who worked as a prt-time bouncer, remembered that the first hint of trouble came when the band stopped playing. It was shortly before 1:00am.
'We were told to give an announcement that there was a fire nearby and not to get excited,' said John Henderson, the band leader. 'We told them there was no danger and to leave clamly.' Mayor Joseph Dzaluk of Port Chester said later accounts indicated that when the first wisps of smoke appeared the band leader gave a warning that was not heeded because there was no apparent danger. 'Then the bandleader repeated his warning,' the Mayor said. 'Please leave, there's a fire.' About 15 seconds later, dense smoke enveloped the dance floor.
Authorities were not sure where the fire started, but said it appeared that the flash point was somewhere near the wall seperating the bar and the bowling alley, under the bandstand. It appeared that the air conditioner carried the first wisps of smoke [into the club.]
Two Greenwich policemen investigating a burglary at a store across the parking lot saw the smoke and called in an alarm. The Greenwich Fire Department received the alarm at 1:01am and after the first truck arrived, relayed it to the Port Chester Fire Department, which recieived an alarm at 1:15am. The enterance of Gulliver's is in Connecticut, but most of the building is in Westchester County.
Those inside recalled that patrons started moving calmly toward the exit leading to the parking lot, but progress was slow because at most they could go up only three abreast.
Judy Grella, 18, of Bridgeport, was near the stairs. 'All of a sudden the lights went out and everybody started caughing and going to the exit.' The lawyer for the [club] operators said that 'the electricity was in operation and stayed on after the fire started,' but several other patrons remembered a blackout.
'People were about halfway up the stairs when the lights went out, and there was lots of smoke,' said PAUL CARAVELLO, the drummer in the band. 'That's when the panic started.
'In the turmoil on the dance floor beyond the stairs, Damon [DeFreis], the organist for Creation, and George [Chase], the lead singer, were trying to quiet the crowd. They are still missing.
Chief Rathgeb said it had taken 90 minutes to get the fire under control. Then firemen went in through the smoking ruins and tangled joists to find the bodies. Most of them were in the service area near the stairs,' the Chief said. 'Then there were some on the dance floor.'
The line up of the band CREATION, on the night of the fire, consisted of:Paul Caravello (Drums)
Sarita Henderson (Vocals)
John Henderson (Vocals/Guitar)
George D. Chase (Vocals)
Damon DeFreis (Keyboards/Organs)
Bart ?? (Bass)
Creation drummer Paul Caravello grabbed the hand of vocalist Sarita Henderson, pulling her out the exit to safety. They were two of the last people to escape the building. Band members George D. Chase and Damon DeFreis, tragically, were killed in the fire. Later in the summer of 1974, the remaining band members decided to continue on, adding new members, and changing their name to 'Mother Nature/Father Time'. The band would gig around the NY area through the late 1970's.
The story of the fire was heavily covered in the press, including several stories in the New York Times on July 1, 2, and 3, 1974. On Television, on Monday, July 1, the CBS Morning News reported on the fire. Included in their report was a brief interview with fire-survivor, Creation drummer Paul Caravello. A grainy copy of this broadcast can be seen briefly on the VHS/DVD 'Inside the Tale of the Fox: The Eric Carr Story', the source being Eric's Mother and Father's home video recording of the original broadcast. The video is of high interest to KISS fans, as this is some of the earliest known footage of the drummer who would later, in the summer of 1980, become 'The Fox', assuming drum duties for Kiss after the departure of Peter Criss.
"Bar Where 24 Died Had No Fire Detection System"
New York Times - 07/02/74"Port Chester, NY - July 1
The lack of an emergency fire detection system and a physical layout that caused scores of patrons to flee a single exit were cited by investigators today as the major reasons why 24 people died and 32 were injured when a fire flashed through Gulliver's night club here early Sunday.
In nearby Valhalla, a team of five dentists and eight doctors worked through the day at Grasslands Hospital, trying to identify the bodies of the victims. By nightfall, the names of 15 persons killed in the fire had been released.
Investigators said the fire appeared to have started in or near a child care center in a basement adjascent to the popular discotheque. The makeshift nursery was used by mothers who left their children with a baby sitter while they bowled in an alley next to the night club.
As the beat of a rock band called [Creation] shook the room, and young people danced, smoke from the cellar fire began to rise through vacant areas in the walls into a false ceiling above the two-story high dance floor. Then it appears, investigators said, that air-conditioners began to send some of the smoke into the dancing area, called 'The Pit.'
Among the rubble of chairs and tables, bottles and broken glasses, were darkened brass cymbals and the empty steel rims of the rock band's drums.
Although the building met local fire code restrictions, it had no smoke or heat detection system, nor any water sprinkler system that might have been effective in dousing the fire in it's earliest stages.
The building's air conditioners were beleived to be a major factor in spreading the smoke from the fire, and probably hastened the incapacitation of some of the victims.
LIST OF THOSE KILLED
Robert Amico (19)
Alexander Blazinski (21)
Thomas Jr. Burke (N/A)
George D. Chase (??) (Vocals - Creation)
Damon DeFries (19) (Keyboards - Creation)
Denise DiMauro (21)
Linda Edwards (20)
Michael Gauruder (21)
Virginia Guannat (19)
Janet Haehl (20)
Jonetta Horsey (27)
Paul Kulikowski (24)
Michael McManus (22)
Phillip Memoli (34)
Eugene O'Connell (20)
Betty Ann Polver (19)
Timothy Scaia (19)
Robin Seeley (18)
Tracey Thomas (19)
Mark Thompson (21)
Dale Ward (26)
Lynn Wojciechowski (22)
Susan Zizzi (23)
"25 Tears Later, Disco Fire Haunts It's Survivors"
New York Times - 07/01/99
"The fire at Gulliver's was the deadliest dance club fire in the United States in more than a generation--the Coconut Grove fire in Boston in 1942 had killed 491, and the Happy Land fire in the Bronx in 1990 was to kill 87--and it called attention to the dangers of herding young people into windowless underground rooms without smoke alarms, sprinklers, fire resistant walls or limits on occupancy.
John Henderson [lead guitarist with Creation] said that Mr. Chase was so blase when he made his announcement that the band members trook the time to pack away their instruments. Mr. Henderson trook his prized Gibson SG guitar and headed off the stage with his girfriend. 'One minute it was nothing and the next minute it was smoke everywhere,' he said. 'When it got real crazy in there, I had to let the guitar go. You couldn't see anything. I tripped over somebody. The young lady I was with fell and she kind of pulled me down. When you hit the floor, you could breathe. I got up and followed the wall and I got to the cigarette machine and it was right near the door and I heard people saying 'This way out', which was really cool.'
In the parking lot outside, firefighters were arriving as survivors madly scanned the crowd and tried to make their way back inside to find freinds. Mr. Henderson looked around for his fellow musicians and found all but two. One was Mr. Chase, who had been his classmate at Benjamin Franklin High School in Manhattan and had lingered at the microphone to guide people to safety. The other was the keyboard player, Damon Defeis, 19, whom he had last seen covering up the organ he had been playing. 'We kind of knew,' said Mr. Henderson, who is still a musician. 'But you don't want to beleive. We just kept waiting and finally we went home.
'The authorities arrested a 22 year-old Greenwich laborer, Peter Leonard, and charged him with setting the fire to conceal his burglary of cigarette machines in the bowling alley behind Gulliver's. Two guilty verdicts for murder were overturned because Mr. Leonard's confession was first found to be coerced and then found to have been made without the presence of his lawyer. In 1986, though, he pleaded guilty to reckless manslaughter and was sentenced to the time he had already served--about 12 years.
Countless lives changed forever.
...For some spare change stolen from a few cigarette machines.
And so went the final evening of June, 1974 in Port Chester, NY.
A sad night of tragedy in the History of Rock and Roll.