Cautionary Tales – Fire At The Beverly Hills Supper Club

12th June, 2020

Why did audience members fail to flee a deadly fire… despite being told to escape?

Flames are spreading through a Cincinnati hotel. The staff know it, the fire department is coming, and the people in the packed cabaret bar have been told to evacuate… and yet people hesitate to move. Why don’t we react to some warnings until it’s too late?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Pete Naughton. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

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Further reading and listening

I first found out about the Supper Club Fire from The Ostrich Paradox by Howard Kunreuther and Robert Keyer. The fullest account I could find is in Amanda Ripley’s book The Unthinkable, including an interview with Walter Bailey.

Another source on the fire was Drue Johnston and Norris Johnson “Role Extension in Disaster: Employee Behavior at the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire.” Sociological Focus, vol. 22, no. 1, 1989, pp. 39–51.,

For the details on the Torrey Canyon spill, the two key sources are Oil and Water by Edward Cowan, and The Black Tide by Richard Petrow.

For a more contemporary discussion of plan continuation bias I recommend Meltdown by Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcik.

On ambiguous threats see Michael Roberto, Richard Bohmer and Amy Edmondson, ‘Facing Ambiguous Threats’ Harvard Business Review November 2006

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