Caution: this story contains some graphic imagery.
By Jennifer Summer
Since being diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in February 2017, I feel as though I lock eyes directly with mortality each day. And on every one of those days, I am able to stare him down until he relents. Some days it takes more strength than others, but I find that I can prevail.
On a late afternoon in early October, we had an eye to eye battle and I was unable to look away.
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My son, Dakota Summer, along with three other classmates are doing a documentary project for his 10th grade film class at Highlands and they chose to document the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire. As a writer and artist myself, I chose to document the students doing the project, as I find that each new generation is compelled to learn more about this tragedy. If you’re local, you know this story. If you’re not, I encourage you to pause your reading here and look it up, as you need a glimpse into the history to understand this story.
Most natives to our community either knew someone who perished, nearly escaped, or was supposed to be there that night, through some degree of separation or another. My uncle delivered propane gas to the club, and my parents entertained having their wedding reception there. This would turn out to be one of the largest fires in the country, taking 165 lives.
To assist the students in their project, we were able to come into contact with a man who was working the night of the fire, Mr. Wayne Dammert, a person who had already dedicated his life to defending his country. On the night of the fire, he says he saved the lives of two hundred people by putting himself in the direct path of the fire in order to do so. Now in now in his 80s, he has lived a life of experiences that are unmatched by any person I’ve ever known, and he was eager to share them with us.
We met him over lunch and he generously agreed to help with the project and to go with us up to the site of the fire so the students could film his timeline of that tragic night. The plan was to meet there, do the filming, and then we would go to the library for a quiet, sit down interview, and then we would take him to dinner.
My aunt Deb had expressed concern with our plan, as the heat that day was a balmy 95 degrees and the path to the site is a very, very steep roadway that was used to enter the club. We would have to walk, as it is barricaded with a gate and cars are not allowed access, and neither are pedestrians. Deb was concerned primarily about me, with my health issues and the fact that I was less than a week post-surgery to have a new port-a-cath placed in my chest. I was not supposed to excessively stretch my right arm or lift anything over five pounds for the next couple weeks, and even then, I needed to not overextend or lift anything excessively heavy with that arm.
She was also concerned about Wayne, and even though he is in good health, he is still a man in his eighties. However, all of us were committed to this project. The night before, Deb called me with a plan. She would meet us in the parking lot at the base of the road, and bring her garden wagon for the filming gear, a jug of water and cups, bottles of water, electrolyte packs to put in them, towels for our necks that we could get wet, and wrist band ice packs to keep our temperature down.
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Once the path finally leveled out and we were at the top, a breeze started to blow and the temperature dropped to about 80 due to the shade from the trees. The boys set up the filming gear and Wayne walked us through the path while the boys filmed him and captured the audio via a microphone they attached to his shirt. I followed silently behind them and documented them with photos I took on my iPhone as Dakota was using my Canon to take the video.
When we had first met Wayne, he expressed that his main concern was that the flag that was placed at the top of the hill was crooked and he wanted to straighten it out. He asked Dakota if he would help him do so, and of course, Dakota agreed. Wayne was the most instrumental part of the memorial pieces that are at the top of the hill on 471.
And now here we were, at the top of the hill. The sun shot through the clearing and revealed a field of wild flowers and tall, wheat colored grass. We were standing by the white statue of Jesus that faces 471. This was my third time visiting the site. I came once with my best friend and we encountered a coyote that sent us running back down the hill. I came a second time with another one of my best friends, her daughter, and Dakota. And, well...you know what they say about things in threes.
But I had never been to the very top before.
There was a huge collection of pieces from that night that had been organized into one spot; light bulbs, broken pieces of china, forks, dishes, liquor bottles. On my previous visits I had seen a few things lying about but only took photos, never items. I was taking photos of the items and Wayne said, “If you see something that connects with you, take it.” I told him that I was afraid of being disrespectful, of disturbing the sacredness of the ashy remains of those who did not escape. He insisted that I take what I felt drawn to, and show it reverence, so I looked at them all and went with my gut, choosing a light bulb, and a few pieces of broken china.
Around this time, Wayne had started to walk toward the flag pole. The large sign that recently announced that the property was for sale had blown down. Wayne said, “You know who knocked that sign down? God did.” The boys were setting up for the shot of him straightening the pole. I left them alone and walked back down the hill about 15 feet away to take some photos of the wildflowers.
I turned back and got some photos: the flag dancing on the wind, Wayne’s arms outstretched, looking up. The boys watching him, getting him in the shot. I turned back to the flowers.
And then I heard the screams.
I heard Wayne first and whipped my head around and then I heard Dakota screaming for me.
Hell! He fell over the side!
I have not run since 2016. I am still able to be active, I can still walk at a decent clip, but I have not run in nearly four years.
I bolted up on the side of the hill faster than I have ever moved, even in my healthiest days. At the end of the hill is an embankment that goes straight down to the highway 471. I was screaming as I ran, can you see him, can you see him?!
When I got to the edge of the hill, I saw him. He was on his back, the only thing preventing him from rolling straight down a spiny, jagged bush. And his face was drenched in blood.
What happened next is a blur, but I was looking right at him again. Death. Only I didn’t know who he had come for; him or me.
I slid partially down the hill. I was wearing my slick, Birkenstock sandals because I couldn’t find my gym shoes and we were running late. I reached out and caught his hand. As I grabbed him, my foot slipped further. I have never had upper body strength; my legs were always my workhorses from ballet and dance and my arms were useless feathery things that were just used as props.
My left hand wasn’t cutting it. His hand slid out of mine as I started to slide down the hill with him. The boys each grabbed one of his legs. Wayne whispered, “Please get me out of here.” I locked eyes with him through the blood that pulsated from the middle of his forehead. “I’ve got you,” I told him. His hand slid out of mine over and over, each time causing the dry, tiny bush to splinter further.
I don’t know how but I managed to grab both of his hands while keeping my balance on the hill. I can’t even walk down my own staircase without my balance being thrown off now and then due to the radiation I received. I’ve come close to falling in my house before, but have always managed to catch myself. We were now in the position of all four of us going straight down the hill and onto the highway.
As we pulled, the tiny bush that was keeping him from rolling down to the highway was cracking and buckling. I have no idea how I managed to pull him up, a considerably larger person than myself, and not fall over and down myself. The boys had a grip on his legs and we were able to get him back up on the level ground. Directly behind the statue of Jesus was a bench, and we sat him on it.
I was wearing a white camisole under a white tee shirt. I had taken off my tee shirt before the incident, so I could make a tied bag for the glass items I had chosen to take with me. I had the boys run and get my shirt and I held it against his head, as it pulsed and covered the shirt, my arms, my chest, my hands, with blood.
I called Deb and she called 911. The boys ran back to our wagon and got the towels Deb had put in there, along with bottles of water. We swapped out my shirt for towel after towel. We sat there for what felt like an eternity. The boys ran down to Deb. I stayed with Wayne and kept him talking so he wouldn’t lose consciousness. I asked him if he could tell me the date, his name, where he was. He asked me to call his wife and I did repeatedly, but she didn’t answer. He was able to tell me that she was with his great-grandson at swim practice. At the YMCA, I asked him? No, he said, it’s this big place in Wilder. It has a pool and a baseball field. Town and Country! I yelled. The gym where Dakota had swimming lessons. I called them directly and had his wife paged and told her what happened and that I would stay in constant contact with her.
The boys came back. And, suddenly, there was Deb.
If you know Aunt Deb, you know the condition of her knees. She needs the bannister to even get up my three porch steps without her knees buckling or locking. She walked straight up that hill with nothing to hold onto. I come from a long line of very strong women.
She sat on the bench with Wayne, monitored his pulse, and did a neurological check. Once she was there, I fell onto the ground at his side and sobbed myself breathless. I held his hand and he said, “Honey, it’s okay. We’re okay.”
And then Deb said to me, keep taking photos. This man has documented his entire life. He has told all of his stories without reservation.
So, I did what I do. I took photos.
I took photos of him. I took photos of the EMTs. I took photos of them wrapping up the fallen flag into a triangle. I took photos of his blood-stained hat that had fallen off on the hill and the EMT was able to retrieve, somehow.
And then I looked down at myself. I was covered in blood. My arms, my hands, under my nails. My phone itself was soaked in blood.
I didn’t see Wayne fall, but the boys did. Wayne had wrapped a rope around the flag pole and was attempting to pull it back into a straight position. As he pulled, the pole snapped and went directly into his forehead, puncturing through and knocking him over the embankment.
My son lifted that 25 foot pole off of him and threw it to the side. My fifteen year-old incredible, amazing, son.
The boys gathered up all of our stuff and took it down to the car while Deb and I stayed with Wayne and the EMTs got him onto a stretcher. One of them held onto me, one held onto Deb, and the rest of them carried Wayne in the stretcher. By this time, we had managed to stop the bleeding with the constant pressure and the EMTs had wrapped his head. The wound was not large in width but extremely large in depth. You could see right into it.
At the hospital, Wayne’s wife, son, and daughter-in-law arrived. I told them everything that happened and they were the most kind and loving people I’ve encountered recently. They told me that Wayne was planning to go up there before we even met him, just so he could fix the flag. If he wouldn’t have gone with us, he was going to go alone. And I am sure he would have taken the same approach with a much different outcome.
They did CT scans and tests to make sure he didn’t have any internal bleeding. All those were clear, but he did need stitches in his head.
I wouldn’t leave until I saw him so the nurse allowed me back with his wife. He was flat on the stretcher and I leaned down to put my head against his and told him that even though we had only met once before this night, I loved him and he was family now. He said, “I love you, too, honey.”
Deb went in after me and he told her to make sure that I didn’t blame myself for anything because I had been saying the whole time how sorry I was and how it was my responsibility and we were why he was there. He told Deb, “That girl is going to be okay. She has the aura.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but it doesn’t matter. I only know that we are now connected by the wispy thread of life and near-misses. He promised me he would never again visit the top of that hill, having almost died there twice, forty years apart.
The last thing we talked about before the boys started filming was how the sun made the tips of the tallest tree look like it was coated in diamonds. You see that? he said to me. Yes, I said. I ALWAYS see that. I always see. Good, he said. Make sure you do.
Please watch the students’ amazing film at: https://youtu.be/KaIiWxjBB8E