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A story about MGM fire

THE LUCKY ONES MAY NOT HAVE REALIZED


they were dying. The casino was on fire, they might have known that. But no flames were drawing near, thick smoke wasn't pouring in through the vents or under the doors, as was happening elsewhere in the MGM Grand hotel-casino that Friday morning, November 21, 1980. Also, it was just after 7 a.m.; they might have been asleep, still groggy. They may have retained a semblance of calm, awaiting rescue. But they were doomed anyway, doomed by the very thing that made mass tourism possible in Las Vegas: air-conditioning. It filtered out the smoke but pumped deadly carbon monoxide, a silent killer, into their rooms.

The unlucky ones knew. Trapped in smoke-choked stairwells, the doors automatically locked behind them in an ironic fire-safety measure, they clawed their fingers bloody on any millimeter of purchase that might pry open a way out; news accounts mention the red handprints they left on the walls. Others stumbled through corridors, lungs filling with toxic smoke. At what moment did each of the victims understand they were going to die--that whatever wealth they'd amassed couldn't save them, nor their devout faith, nor their worldly accomplishments? Imagining those awful moments of realization can break your heart 20 years later.

 


Weary, some barely dressed, they were staggered by the event's enormity.
The truly lucky ones, of course, were those who got out alive, many injured--some badly--but gratefully alive. Some jumped or slid down ropes. Some fled to the roof and were choppered to the ground. Some were rescued by ladder. Some bashed open their windows for the fresh air, raining glass shards, televisions and hotel furniture to the ground. Some remained safe in their rooms. Some crossed that threshold of realization, knew absolutely that they were about to die, but--lucky, lucky--did not.

The enormity of it--the freakish extremity of it. That's what strikes you in hindsight, how outsize everything about the MGM fire was: the monster fireball, and the heedless ferocity of its consumption; the dramatic tower of smoke, said to be 2,000 feet high; the vast emotional panorama experienced by the victims, survivors, rescuers, onlookers; the sprawling, precedent-setting legal actions that followed; and the death toll itself, 87, making it the second-worst hotel fire in the nation's history.

Then again, maybe it's the small things that stand out. The way a seemingly innocuous decision--to stay in the room with one group of friends or go downstairs with another--would have life-or-death implications for Perry Beshoar of Western Springs, Illinois. Or the way a hundred twists of fate delivered an MGM maintenance man into a 10th-floor corridor just in time to stop Robert and Linda Boogren of Westland, Michigan, from going into a stairwell ("Don't go down those stairs! Those doors will lock behind you!"). Or the way Roger Mack of Beaumont, Texas, wracked by the agony of two broken legs after sliding down a construction rope, managed to lift his head and croak, "How is my wife?," meaning Delores, who'd gone first. (The answer would shatter his heart, too.) Or the soot trails leading up the nostrils of the dead. Or the way human memory balks and falters over some details of the event, yet randomly inscribes others so indelibly. Or the way so much devastation--a 26-story box of sheer human misery--can flare from an epicenter as small as a wire.

TOM HUME WASN'T WORRIED. HELL, PEOPLE PROBably scream in hotel hallways all the time in Vegas--it's Vegas. Particularly in one of the city's flagship hotels (today, it's Bally's). Those noisy bastards undoubtedly won a bunch or lost a lot or drank too much. "Don't pay attention to those people," the Cincinnati Reds pitcher told his wife as they drowsed in bed. "This is Las Vegas. There's nothing to be alarmed about." He and his teammate, Bill Bonham, and their wives had stopped in town on their way to Tucson to play in a March of Dimes celebrity golf tournament; they were on the 24th floor, two from the top.

"Then I went over to the window and saw smoke coming up the side of the building," he says by phone from an Indiana fishing trip.

It had started downstairs, in an attic above a kitchen that served several restaurants. Faulty wiring. It smoldered for a few hours, unsuspected by employees or guests, flaring up just after 7 a.m., quickly bursting into violent life, unchecked by sprinklers (the casino had none), propelled by its own fury, racing into the casino, killing people, scorching slot machines, singeing lives.

It didn't seem that big when the firemen of Station 11, then located across Flamingo Road, arrived shortly after the 7:19 call. No smoke or signs of fire outside. Routine grease fire, probably.

Tourist Kurt Schlueter, a firefighter with the Western Springs, Illinois, fire department, had just ordered coffee in the coffee shop downstairs with a co-worker, Dave Beshoar, and Beshoar's brother, Perry. Their friends David Potter and William Gerbosi, also firemen, were still upstairs getting dressed. Perry almost stayed in the room, opting at the last minute to come downstairs. "A security guard came up to us and said, 'We have to evacuate the restaurant, there's a small fire next door,'" Schlueter says by phone from Illinois. "We looked around the corner and we could see the fire and it didn't look that big." He and Beshoar offered their firefighting services, but the guard said the equipment was inaccessible. Instead, they helped herd other patrons out.

Some gamblers weren't ready to leave on account of a stupid kitchen fire. One blackjack dealer told reporters, "I was dealing to two middle-aged ladies and noticed the smoke first. The ladies wanted to keep playing, but I said, 'No way.' They were kind of upset when I told them they had to leave." Entering the casino, the firemen from Station 11 still thought it was nothing out of the ordinary. Then, with a terrible swiftness the firefighters would later compare to high-speed photography, a ball of fire raged from The Deli restaurant, whooshing along the combustible casino ceiling, consuming everything in its way. Someone said, "Get the drop boxes!" A dealer shouted back, "Screw the boxes, get yourself out of here!" In the kitchen, two cooks ducked into a freezer. The smoke and heat pushed Schlueter and his friends out the door. Standing outside, watching the flames lick out of the building as the firemen dragged their hoses into position, the three wondered what had become of Potter and Gerbosi.

The casino area was in flames, and because the MGM was built in 1973--"the golden era of plastics," one lawyer would later say--deadly fumes quickly rose through the ventilation systems and stairwells.

Up on the 24th floor, Tom Hume pulled on his pants and stepped into the hallway. Smoke everywhere. He banged on Bonham's door, then pounded warnings on other doors before hurrying to his room to get dressed. He yanked on his boots--no socks, he remembers--while his wife got into her warmup suit and they headed down the stairwell. He remained calm, he says.

"Billy and his wife were in front of us, and Billy was helping these ladies carry their suitcases down the stairs, and I was like, 'Billy, let's go!'" About 10 floors down, the smoke got to be too much and they decided to head for the roof.

On the 16th floor, Marv and Carol Schatzman were getting ready to return to St. Louis that morning; they had an 8:15 flight. Marv was heading down to check out. He paid no mind to the haze in the hallway, didn't even think about it. A bellboy ran up to him and asked in broken English to use the phone in the Schatzman's room. But the phone wasn't working and the bellboy blurted, "I think the hotel is on fire." They looked out the window saw the fire engines. They'd heard no alarm.

Again, the fortuitous twist of fate: Had Marv gotten on the elevator, it would have delivered him to the fire. Now, instead, they headed for the stairwell. Along the way, Carol pounded on doors, shouting "Smoke! Smoke!" instead of "Fire!" because she'd heard that if you shouted "Fire" and it turned out there wasn't one, you could go to jail.


Civilian, police and military choppers joined the lengthy rescue operation.
WHEN WE GOT OFF the freeway we could see flames coming out of the front lobby," recalls Metro Officer Tim Montoya, who arrived about 20 minutes after the alert. "It was just enormous." He was assigned to the perimeter, trying to keep the growing crowd of gawkers at bay. High above, MGM guests leaned from their windows, screaming. "I felt a sense of helplessness," he says. "You feared for their lives because there was no way to get them out. Most people in a fire die from the smoke, and it was obvious the smoke was traveling straight up the stairwells. You felt that the people you were looking at were not going to be alive much longer. The smoke was coming out of their rooms behind them."

Patrolman Tom Thowsen of the canine unit was there with his dog, Izzy, also on the perimeter. While the fire was still burning, word came down that there might be looters inside, scooping up chips and money. Thowsen was among those ordered to check it out. "We start up the steps going into this place, and there was a firefighter there with an air pack on. He said, 'What're you doing?' We said, 'We've been told there are looters in there.' And he said, 'It's full of toxic fumes and smoke! You won't be able to breathe!' And we realized there was probably no one in there looting."

Mel Larson, then a vice president of Circus Circus and an accomplished helicopter pilot (he and his wife owned Action Helicopter Services), had seen the smoke from his home and scrambled his pilots to help. "People were hanging out of windows, motioning for us to come get them," Larson says. No way he could swing the chopper that close, of course, so he had to look at their panicked faces and know there was nothing he could do for them. Instead, he headed for the roof, to help survivors gathered there.

Some people jumped; Kurt Schlueter would never forget that sight. One witness told the Las Vegas Sun that he'd seen a heavyset man shimmying down a rope of knotted sheets before plummeting three stories. Moments later, a woman tried the same rope, falling too. Inside, many guests simply waited in their rooms, some lying on the floor with wet towels over their heads, others smashing their windows or opening the balcony doors. A woman in one room called Las Vegas Sun reporter Mary Manning, looking for details on the fire; she was so nervous, she confessed to Manning, that she'd lit a cigarette. Roger and Delores Mack found a construction rope knotted to a balcony on the ninth floor. In a decisive moment, Delores, perhaps thinking it her only chance, went first; she'd slid just a few feet before she fell, landing on a second-story roof, crushing her head. Roger slid after her, breaking both legs.

DOWN WASN'T RIGHT. Down was, in fact, very, very wrong. So Tom Hume's party headed up the stairwell through the choking fumes, a dispiriting prospect. "I remember my wife sitting down," Hume says, "sitting on the stairs, and she said, 'I can't go any further.' And I took her warmup top and stuck it over her face and I said, 'You go until I say stop! And you don't stop until I tell you to!' And she said, 'Yeah, but there's nobody there. There's nowhere to go.' And I said, 'Let's go!'"

The Schatzmans, descending their stairwell from the 16th floor, ran into a crush of people around the ninth, some barely roused from bed and still half-dressed. "More people kept getting in and there was no air and you couldn't hardly see and you could hardly breathe," Marv says from the couple's St. Louis-area home. "They said the fire was down here and we had to go back up."

Up was hardly better. The smoke was blinding now, strangling. People were succumbing to it, flopping onto the stairs or sitting there, wheezing to catch a breath or just giving up. Others, some breathing heavily through wet towels, continued upward. The Schatzmans, nearly overcome, were reduced to crawling blindly through the fumes. "When you inhale smoke it makes your extremities very weak," Carol says. "A lot of people were sitting down because they had given up and we had to crawl over them."

There was no screaming, Carol wrote in an account of their adventures she typed up when they returned to St. Louis. No one could breathe enough to scream. There was no panic. About the 24th floor, I knew we were going to die. She had arrived at that terrible moment of realization, the sure, sudden awareness that she was going to die a grim suffocating death in a damn stairwell in Las Vegas. Still, they retained their humanity. Marv took a woman's hand, tried to pull her upward. "And in all the ... I guess ... the action," he recalls, his voice faltering, "I lost the hand. And I know she didn't get out." Along with those strong enough to continue on, the Schatzmans kept crawling toward the roof, hoisting themselves along on the handrail, unsure what would await them up top, if they ever got there. Locked door? Unlocked?


A wet towel helped ward off the fumes from burning plastic.
FIREFIGHTERS MOVED up the stairwells, fanning out to look for survivors. Engineer Bill Trelease was part of the rescue effort, busting down doors and performing CPR--when it wasn't too late. "One gal, she'd been by the elevator, pushing the button," he recalls. "She died there, and you could see her fingerprints going down the soot on the wall; her arm was still outstretched when we found her." In a stairwell, he came across several bodies piled on top of each other, as if stacked that way. Breaking through one door, he found an elderly couple, kneeling in prayer at the foot of their bed. Dead. At wrenching moments like that, a firefighter's mind constricts around a narrow cluster of priorities that amount to this: save the living.

GROPING UPWARD, THE SCHATZMANS EXPECTED TO encounter parties of people coming back down, telling them the door was locked. Carol knew she couldn't maintain hope in the face of that.

Memory is mystifying, erratic, particularly when it's forged in the literal crucible of a tragedy like the MGM fire. Was the young man who leaned over the top of the stairwell, shouting that the rooftop door was open, a shirtless 20-year-old, as Carol noted in her written account, or a 16-year-old in his underpants, as she remembers now? All that matters is that he had the guts to duck back into the smoke-filled stairway and let the others know that safety awaited. Then we saw the sky through the open door, Carol wrote. My God, it was heaven!

SOME NEWS ACCOUNTS FROM THE TIME DESCRIBE A full-tilt, fall-of-Saigon panic on the roof, with men pulling women out of rescue craft to secure themselves a seat, and a crowd surging against a helicopter, shoving it perilously close to the edge. Those up there say it wasn't quite that bad, although firefighter Bill Trelease remembers it as akin to "an LZ in Vietnam." Soot-stained and gasping, the survivors were frantic, "trying to hang on the skids, or stand on the skids" of the several choppers, Mel Larson says, and others say people were clutching up at the aircraft before they could land, sometimes impeding the pilots or coming dangerously close to the tail rotors. But for the most part, order prevailed, despite some folks' fear that the roof could collapse at any moment into what they imagined must be a roaring inferno below.

This being an earlier era of technology, the roof didn't bristle with satellite dishes, aside from a few antennae that had to be broken off to make way for the choppers. Extra helicopters--commercial, official, construction--arrived to help ferry down the evacuees. Military pilots engaged in Red Flag exercises at Nellis were dispatched to assist. All those rotors helped dispel smoke on the roof, although the jumbo military choppers had an unforeseen side effect: They pushed smoke back into the building, where firefighters were assisting people. "You'd hear them coming and you knew you were screwed," Trelease says. "Within 30 seconds the smoke would again be so thick you couldn't see your hand in front of your face." Guests whom the firemen had managed to settle down would freak again.

Safely on the roof, Tom Hume somehow managed to dump out a pocketful of change. With the eerie calm that sometimes descends on participants in a disaster, he bent down and carefully picked it all up. His wife was rattled, but he knew, he just knew, that they'd survive.

We formed lines to wait for the helicopters, Carol Schatzman wrote. I began to think we might have a chance. Women went first. A black man put his wife in a helicopter and turned away. A man was in line behind him trying to get on, and he said, "Man, we want the women to be safe, don't we?" and the man said, "Yes, forgive me." It made me cry even more.

The Schatzmans watched one man escort his wife safely to the roof, then dash back into the stairwell to find her sister, who had been right behind them. Neither came, Carol wrote.

Hume and Bonham put their wives on the choppers, then waited their turn. Hume estimates that they were among the last men off the roof, but here his memory blanks: "I don't remember getting on the helicopter and flying to the ground," he says. "I know we landed in a parking lot."

The Schatzmans were separated when Carol was choppered down with three women in nightgowns, their bare feet bleeding. Carol was a mess. "Our faces were black," she says. "I have blond hair and it was green."

Forty minutes after Carol came down, Marv followed, seemingly in bad shape. The medical personnel thought he'd had a heart attack; his lips were blue from inhaling the soot. He was taken by ambulance to Desert Springs Hospital for a battery of tests. Carol sat in the waiting room with a Mexican woman who didn't speak English. Bonded by tragedy, they said the Rosary and comforted each other. Someone asked Carol if she wanted a drink and was taken aback when she answered, "Brandy." I meant coffee or orange juice! the woman replied. "The doctor turned around and said, 'Oh, hell, I've got some Scotch in my desk,' so he went and got it. No one drank it, we just sat and looked at it, but it made us feel good to know it was there."

Survivors wound up all over the place. Some went to the Barbary Coast, where shift manager Steve Morrill closed the tables for three hours and converted the lounge into a makeshift medical area. ("When I walked in the door," Barbary Coast owner Michael Gaughan recalls, "Steve came running toward me, panicked, worried about whether or not he did the right thing. Of course, I told him he did.") The Rev. Billy Graham, in town for four days of evangelism, "walked among the dazed and crying tourists at the still burning hotel, helping comfort them," according to one newspaper. Like most evacuees, Kurt Schlueter and his companions wound up at the Convention Center, amid the dazed, haphazardly dressed multitude (one woman was in a nightgown and mink stole, all she managed to throw on before escaping). "We spent the rest of the day looking for our two buddies," he says, his voice breaking, two decades later. A friend from another hotel picked them up and, with fading hope, they checked out hospitals, the morgue. "Nobody could give us a straight answer about where they were," Schlueter says. "There were so many conflicting stories."

Until: "We finally found them in a portable morgue."


The fire burst from the kitchen in a huge cinematic fireball.
LAS VEGANS RALLIED QUICKLY. RESIDENTS BROUGHT clothing and blankets to cover the survivors. Carol Schatzman remembers several stores letting people charge clothing with only a name and address. Some who came to gawk found themselves pitching in. Hotels offered free or cut-rate rooms, sent food and supplies to the staging areas; the Landmark reportedly had security guards running to nearby pharmacies to fetch medications for the survivors. The Rev. Billy Graham declared that he'd never seen a community pull together like this.

Not everyone behaved as Graham would have wanted, however. Several people were arrested for interfering with rescue units, and, according to news reports, before the fire was even out, an MGM security guard was busted at a nearby casino for gambling with wet, burnt bills he presumably scooped from tables as he escaped.

Released from the hospital, the Schatzmans were shuttled to the Convention Center, where the living were tallied. "We were amazed at how many people were still alive, to tell you the truth," Carol says. Later, a cabbie gave them a free ride to the airport; they were still in the clothes they'd put on that morning, now soot-ruined (some people in the airport broke into sympathetic tears). At long last, they returned home. Their belongings followed a month later, rifled-through and reeking of smoke. Continue

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