Rhythm Night Club commemorated, survivors honored

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 26, 2009

NATCHEZ — Gathered on the original slab of the Rhythm Night Club, family members of those who died in the blaze and even two survivors gathered Saturday to remember the fire that changed Natchez.

Ella Russell was in the club the night the fire that killed 209 people erupted.

“It was horrible,” Russell said. “People were screaming. And there was one door that everyone tried to get out of.”

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Russell said she escaped through a broken window.

Now in her 90s, Russell’s daughter aids her in telling her story.

Russell’s daughter, Mamie Oliver, said in the past, her mother said she was helped out of the window, and spoke of the fire often.

Looking back on that night 69 years ago this month, Russell said the band had not even started playing before the fire started.

Eugenia Perry was 10 at the time of the fire, and she lost an aunt and three cousins.

“It was a terrible time for our family,” Perry said. “And it was a terrible time for the city too.”

Recalling the day after the fire, the city’s residents, still in shock, stood weeping and screaming in the streets.

“It was on every block,” Perry said of the mourners. “Everybody lost somebody that night.”

Perry said the local funeral homes were overwhelmed by the number of bodies from the fire and needed assistance from other funeral homes to handle the load.

“You could see the bodies from the windows,” she said of funeral homes.

And while Perry was not in the fire, she said she still looks for the exit signs any time she’s in a crowded room.

NAPAC Director Darrell White said while the fire was a tragic event in the city’s history, the entire nation eventually came to realize a benefit.

White said fire codes, both in Mississippi and across the country were changed, or put in place, as a result of the Rhythm fire.

“We are all safer now in public places because of the sacrifices they made,” White said.