Tragedy in history: Dale's Penthouse fire | Public Spaces
Most of my writing at this point in my life is about the spiritual world, ghostly encounters and hauntings that are typical, and some not so typical. The event that I am now writing about haunts many Montgomery people to this day, including those who lived it, and those like me who were not born at that time but have heard stories about this event from family members..
It was a cold wintry night February 7, 1967, when twenty-six lives were lost as a fire swept through the upscale restaurant atop what was then Walter Bragg Smith Apartments. For many years it had been a favorite restaurant and watering hole for politicians, business executives, and high society of Montgomery.
The fire had started in a coat room on the cold February night. Through the years there have been several theories and even some conspiracies on what caused the fire but it was presumed but never confirmed that a lighted pipe left in one of the coats started the blaze.
Tragically the coat room was next to the stairwell and the elevator so when the fire started it effectively blocked the only exits out of the restaurant. One of the victims was Ed Pepper and his wife. He was widely prominent in state politics, having served as assistant state finance director and later as a member of the Alabama Public Service Commission.
The story that was told to me by my grandmother and mother was that during the time of the fire there was a lot of things going on in Alabama Politics with teamsters and unions was all in town. If I remember the story correctly, Pepper had just been indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of extortion. Also there that night, and another fatal victim, was a Sidney Zagri from Washington, D.C. He was the chief lobbyist for James Hoffa’s Teamster Unions. So news was a buzz in the Capitol City.
My grandfather owned a local car lot at that time and he was tied to a lot of the political people and he was good friends with Ed Pepper. The night of the fire my Grandfather was at Dale’s Penthouse with Ed Pepper and his party. The fire started about 11:00 p.m. and my grandfather just left before the fire started. My mother remembered the phone ringing and my Grandmother answering and the sound that something was wrong. My grandmother got my mother out bed and told her to get dressed that a man just called and said Dale’s Penthouse was on fire and Grandfather was there. As my mother and Grandmother made their way out the door to their relief there stood my grandfather. He knew something was wrong when he saw the relief in my mothers and grandmother face they told him the Dale’s Penthouse was on Fire. So they decide to go like so many others who have heard about the fire see it for themselves.
My mother described it when they arrived at the scene as unlike anything they could imagine. She said it could be best described as a horror movie unfolding but unfortunately it was not movie. People stood on ledges screaming for help as glass burst from the top, either from the fire or by the people who trapped in the inferno trying to get out. My mother said the whole scene still torments her to this day. My grandmother and mother often talked about that tragic event, but my grandfather never mentioned it. We all deal with events and moments in our life that haunt us and some of us talk about it, while others write about it, and others deal with it in their silence.
This tragedy in Montgomery history haunts us today in so many ways and deserves to be never be forgotten.