My story of the Montreux casino fire started way back in 1968 when a young enthusiastic RICHARD BRANSON (of Virgin fame) came into our makeshift dormitory in the sanitarium of STOWE Public School (we were waiting for our new house LYTTLETON to be completed) with a copy of FRANK ZAPPA & THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION’S first album: FREAK OUT. He put it onto the record player and we all heard the amazing sounds of Zappa and his band for the very first time. I must say that Richard had a good ear for new bands and good music!
Many years later I jumped at the chance of seeing Frank Zappa playing a live show at the famous Montreux casino on the edge of the lake of Geneva in the French speaking part of Switzerland. There were a set of incredible coincidences that made that day so infamous and saved the lives of hundreds of people whom otherwise would have been burnt to death in the fierce flames. One of them was that the concert was held MID AFTERNOON and NOT at nighttime! Usually all concerts at the casino, before and since are held at night, maybe at 8pm or 9 pm but this one started at 2 pm (?) So when the fire started IT WAS STILL DAYLIGHT and the audience could see where they were going when they exited the building. It was a beautiful Swiss winter day, cold but no rain. Another amazing coincidence is that on the day of the concert THERE WERE NO CHAIRS INSIDE THE AUDITORIUM. All the chairs had been removed. I had been to the auditorium several times before, and usually there were chairs with numbered seating. Seeing as there were NO CHAIRS, when the fire started each and every person could head straight for the nearest exit without having to stumble over hundreds of chairs and thus causing valuable loss of time. In a fire, every second counts. As if that was not enough, another event happened that also saved precious lives: The drummer Ansley Dunbar’s drum set BROKE DOWN and Frank Zappa stopped the concert for several minutes whilst the drums where being fixed. Seeing as this happened well into the show, a good hour at least, many people at the back of the auditorium took this as a chance to HAVE A BREAK and EXITED THE BUILDING, so they were outside or just coming back in when the fire started. People pushing to get out pushed the people back who were trying to get in!!
I was sitting very close to the front, on a cushion on the floor, around the 4th or 5th row with my English girlfriend Cecily and a Swiss friend. Although there were no seats all the Swiss sat in nice rows starting in front of the stage. The fire started WITHIN THE AUDORORIUM. It was December 4th 1971 and the Swiss were preparing for Christmas. There were Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling and lots of colorful paper mache. The fire was started by a young man from Eastern Europe (who fled the very next day back home). I do NOT think that it was started by a flare gun as it says in the song, but by the boy throwing lighted matches in the air, and one of them got stuck on the very low ceiling. Remember that it was a very old building first built in 1881 and practically all made of timber and thus highly inflammable. So the fire started right above where the boy was sitting on the low lying ceiling beams. It spread very quickly…
I was heavily engrossed in the concert. Frank Zappa was playing again as the drum set had been fixed, and he had written a song about Switzerland, Swiss cheese and all that. Also, he had a large head of a bunny rabbit near the front of the stage (made of plastic or something similar) which in my mind kept on changing into a scary monster. I had taken a strong dose of an illicit drug and was totally engrossed by the show. A few seconds after the fire started my girlfriend said to me ´Peter, there’s a fire’ and I remember looking behind me and seeing a large ball of flame. Because I was very stoned it LOOKED BEAUTIFUL, perfectly circular and with flames and sparks flying in all directions. I could only see the beauty and not feel the danger! I actually thought that the fire was part of the show!! (Because Frank had such a crazy reputation, I and many other fans too, thought that anything could happen at one of his shows!). Frank Zappa continued playing for a few more seconds and then changed to the song ‘FIRE’ by Arthur Brown, which had been a big hit in the late 60’s. They just played a few bars from that song, and then dropped their instruments and quickly made their way off the stage down a small staircase without having to go into the audience. I seem to remember somebody at the microphone saying ‘Don’t panic’. In fact nobody did panic because nearly everybody was so stoned that fear didn’t kick in and the audience exited in a more or less orderly fashion (like sheep, one following the other)!
When the music stopped people got up in a daze and started to make their way out of the building. After the fire was over hundreds of coats were NOT collected from the cloakroom where you leave your winter coats (it gets very cold in Switzerland in December), and a few days later, when they were looking for name tags inside the coat pockets to see who the owners were, they found drugs in all the garments! Obviously the owners never went to collect them! By the way the security people managed to get all the coats out of the building before the fire consumed them.
The fire spread so quickly that all the people in the front were trapped. There was a large door on the right hand side as you face the stage but I do not know if it was open or cIosed. I stood up and my girlfriend said to me ‘We are going to die’ and at that moment something deep inside me clicked and I felt and saw the fear in her eyes, and I too became frightened. She ran off and left me standing there, so I stood behind the crowd who were trying to get out through the LARGE GLASS WINDOWS which covered the whole of the front of the building from one side to the other. I owe my life to a SWISS FIREMAN who came in with a huge axe and started to break the windows one by one, starting from the left towards the stage. People were trying to break them with their fists and their shoes but the glass was thick and would not break so easily. The glass smashed to the ground, and all the people in the front started to jump out. The building was on the second floor, or at least half a floor up, so it was quite a jump. Before the glass was broken it was getting difficult to breathe, the oxygen in the room was rapidly being consumed by the flames. Once the windows were broken the air came in and the flames jumped up and headed straight towards us. I WAS THE LAST PERSON OUT. Everybody else had already jumped, and I looked around one more time: The centre beam holding the roof up had already crashed to the floor and was engulfed in flames. The fire was consuming the whole of the ceiling first, before spreading to other parts of the building. As I jumped the flames came SHOOTING OUT OF THE WINDOW right above my head, and we all had to run like hell to get as far away as possible. People outside were taking photos of the building instead of helping us poor souls who had just escaped in the nick of time…
Later, from our hotel room on the side of the mountain, the whole city was lit up with a giant wall of fire. The casino burnt down, the concert hall, the discotheque, the offices, EVERYTHING. A national emergency was announced and police, firemen, medical staff, came from all over the area. Besides a few broken bones, and small injuries it was a MIRACLE that nobody had been burnt alive. We all knew the famous organizer CLAUDE NOBS as he always introduced the bands at Montreux. I heard later that he had helped saved many lives. God bless him! Deep Purple members were all in the audience and were shocked enough to write their world wide hit: SMOKE ON THE WATER and recorded the album MACHINE HEAD in a building close to where the fire started. The rest is history.
Many years later I met Eddie (the big guy of Flo & Eddie from The Turtles) after a concert in Florida. He was the co-lead singer the night of the fire. He told me that when the fire started, right in front of the band, that they all stopped playing and climbed down a small staircase in the stage area, and fled to safety. They lost ALL THEIR EQUIPMENT and very very upset, and shocked as was everybody else.
Peter E. Schneider, Lima, Peru, May 17, 2009
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(Please feel free to edit my article as you see fit, thank you)
A letter from Loesje Shema to Peter:
Dear Mr. Schneider,
I just came across your article and wanted to thank you for writing down your memories about that Frank Zappa concert.
I was there too, sitting on the floor. I was probably about five rows from the stage, (may have seen you) and we were all up close and personal sitting between the legs of the person seated behind us. I was not into drugs and probably could not have obtained any since I was a student at the Monte Rosa school and had no access to enough money anyhow.
I remember the band stopping to repair the drums, then heard someone call out about the fire. It was over in the left corner, people were starting to move out and I thought, “Oh, they will put it out with some fire extinguishers and I will get to move up closer to the stage.”
Then a burning part of the suspended ceiling fell to the ground, and I thought, “Okay, this is real – this is serious!” I saw people heading for the windows in front and saw they were not opening, so I turned around to go out the front door. The dense smoke had filled the room and stopped at a level about three feet from the floor; below that the air was just sort of gray, but you could still see a bit. I thought “This is what they mean about staying low when getting away from a fire.” There were firemen pushing me and grabbing me, and broken glass. I got out and turned around to look at the building as huge flames blast out the door I had just exited.
Then I got hysterical and went to a pub about half a block away where some of my friends were hanging out. They did not believe me when I said the Casino was burning down, so we went back and watched it collapse and burn. One of my buddies said Frank Zappa was standing outside saying, “My guitar! My guitar!”
Anyhow, it was great to read about the experiences of someone else who was there. You supplied a lot of details and brought it back to me.