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A story about MGM fire


lived! "When the firemen finally got down there, they opened up the freezer and they were surprised to find these two fellas in there," says Will Kemp, a plaintiffs' lawyer in the massive legal case that would follow. "They didn't suffer any burns or anything." In the midst of the second-largest hotel fire in the nation's history, the two men were freezing cold.

THE STATUE HAD NO face. It had melted right off. That's what Tom Thowsen's memory latches on to when he thinks back to his walk through the casino's roasted guts. He initially thought the decorative statue was a human body. Then he came to a bank of elevators. "The doors were opened and there were bodies piled there, people either trying to get in or get out and the heat or the smoke did them in."

Newspaper photos of the fire's aftermath are chilling: The casino looks bombed out, the heat-blasted slot machines lined up like tombstones. Parts of the 140-yard-long casino floor were three-feet deep in water from the firefighting effort, and here and there body parts jutted up, "just feet, hands and heads," one newsman reported at the time. "There was no hair on those heads. They were just little black balls."

"I don't know if you've ever smelled charred human flesh," Tim Montoya says. "It's a horrific smell, along with the plastic and the chips and everything else that burned."

Kurt Schlueter says he was allowed to walk through the casino floor afterward. "Everything was just melted and burned and you could see remnants of bodies just burnt right on the stools. And the smell--it was just terrible. You learn to breathe through your mouth, not your nose."

The bodies of David Potter and William Gerbosi were found in a security guard's office; they died of smoke inhalation. Kurt Schlueter has pieced together what he thinks happened. "There were a whole bunch of fire hoses stretched out and nobody by them. They couldn't explain how they got that way. It was probably my two buddies that were doing it, and two security guards. It was probably getting too hot and they ducked into the security guard's office or whatever room it was and that's where they found them."

Lawyer Will Kemp was in the hotel a few days after the blaze, conducting an onsite investigation on behalf of the plaintiffs who'd engaged his firm. "We were walking through this hotel and seeing things like people writing on mirrors, 'Help me, I'm dying,' or you found a couple of handwritten wills in magazines, last letters to children. You've got to remember that these people were trapped. The fire was discovered at 7 in the morning. They woke up to a fire and were trapped."

The state's fire-safety laws were strengthened as a result of the blaze.
THE DEATH TOLL WAS far greater than we anticipated," one fire captain told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1990. But what surprises you in going over the news accounts and in debriefing eyewitnesses, listening to their memories of piled bodies and body-strewn corridors and crawling over bodies in stairwells, is that the dead numbered 87 instead of 300. Fear and trauma tamper with memories at the terrible instant they're forged, and passing time blurs their distinctions, but the aggregate impression is of a hotel filled with the dead.

Most of the victims--about 60--were found between the 19th and 26th floors, where the deadly smoke gathered. Three died in the casino, trying in vain to outrun the fireball. According to news reports, nine of the dead were Las Vegans. Reporter Mary Manning counted the bodies for the Las Vegas Sun. "I missed one," she said. It had been caught in the flames. "It was just a torso with no limbs. I thought it was a rolled-up rug."

Saturday afternoon, the day after the blaze, firemen looking for bodies found one--a live one this time, a little old lady huddled fearfully in her room, afraid to venture out even after the smoke had cleared.

THE EVIDENCE STUNK. THAT STILL STICKS WITH District Court Judge Michael Cherry. How the Highland Avenue warehouse full of twisted, melted, scorched items salvaged from the scene reeked of that killer smoke. In late 1981, Cherry, a private lawyer, was appointed special trial master coordinating all pre-trial discovery actions in the massive legal case that followed.

"Someone once described the MGM case--well, you've heard of two ships passing in the night? Someone described this as two navies passing in the night."

There were 2,000 plaintiffs--so many that a plaintiff's committee was formed, a small clutch of lawyers representing all the other lawyers. There were several hundred defendants, from the MGM to a host of suppliers, vendors, architects, engineers, elevator companies, chemical companies (of particular interest were the makers of the adhesive used for the ceiling tiles, which "burned like a fuse," Cherry says), cabinet makers, plastics manufacturers, electrical companies, makers of insulation. There were hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements.

The proceedings lasted seven grueling years. Las Vegas attorney Louis Weiner, appointed by Judge Louis C. Bechtle of Philadelphia to determine whether to press criminal charges against the MGM, decided after much deliberation not to. To hash out settlements, Cherry coordinated hundreds of depositions, many here, some as far away as Mexico, where many of the MGM's guests were from.

"It was the largest case in the history of Nevada," Will Kemp says. "It's still the largest case in the history of Nevada." Its effects were far-reaching. For many, Cherry included, the long process of pinning blame and reaching settlements was a career-maker. "It was the 'lawyers and accountants' relief act,'" he says of the case. "A lot of the people who are here now came here because of that."

The case--and the subsequent trial in which MGM sued its insurers for retroactive coverage (it required the construction of a special courtroom at the Thomas & Mack)--had huge legal ramifications. Cherry credits it as the template for the massive consumer trials of the last few years, cases involving tobacco, IUDs and breast implants. "They all have their basis in the MGM case."

For Las Vegas, the incident's most lasting legal impact was the stiffening of fire-safety laws, the mandating of sprinkler systems that occurred in the wake of the MGM fire and the 1981 Hilton fire, which killed 10. "Nowadays," Cherry says, "if there's a fire, you've got a better chance of drowning from the sprinkler system."

"I like telling this anecdote," Kemp says. "There was a big fire at the Riviera when they were building the new section, and they were hosting a spina bifida convention that week. They had 2,000 people in wheelchairs. A fire started in the new addition, spread to the old addition. The old addition had been sprinklered because of the retrofit law and it put the fire out immediately. Whereas if the MGM hadn't happened, we might have had an even bigger disaster on our hands."

The lucky ones were within reach of help; most of the dead were higher.
TWENTY YEARS. THERE'S PERSPECTIVE IN THAT, AND a soothing distance. The Schatzmans can talk about their experiences with a certain detachment, two decades removed from the horror of the choking smoke and fear of immolation. But, while they were able to scrub away the soot, a residue from the experience remains. "We insist that all of our friends and family never go above the seventh floor in a hotel," Carol says, "because that's as high as many cities' ladders go in the fire department." The couple also lobbied Missouri lawmakers to strengthen smoke-alarm laws. Carol's had heart attacks and bypass surgeries that Marv blames on the acrid smoke of November 21, 1980. "I really feel in my mind that all the smoke and everything had a lot to do with it. I could be wrong ..."

Kurt Schlueter dreams about the fire a couple of times a year, his subconscious replaying the beginning of the ordeal. Just because he's a firefighter doesn't mean he can process it any easier. It was so different than anything he's experienced fighting fires in Western Springs, Illinois, where there are no 26-story high-rises. To say nothing of his lost friends. Like everyone who was there, he has lasting images: "People jumping out of windows. Stone figures burning. Palm trees burning. I try not to think about it.

"My wife and I went back there about five years ago, and I got a lump in my throat the minute we got off the plane," he says. "It was something I had to do." They walked through the hotel that is now Bally's, laying his memories like transparent sheets over the newer features of the casino. "I showed my wife where everything happened--it was strange." They spent an hour and a half there, all he could stand. "Would I go back to Vegas? Yeah, I'll go back. When? I don't know. I really don't."

For all that it boosted their careers, many of the lawyers involved paid a heavy personal price. For Cherry, the case was all-consuming. "It got to the point where I was doing nothing but this," he says. "There was a tremendous amount of stress, trying to resolve all these disputes. I paid no attention to family matters--that's all there was." How did he handle the stress? "I didn't do a good job," he admits. His marriage cracked up in the '90s, in part, he thinks, because of the stress fractures caused by the MGM case. "It took a toll on my marriage and a toll on a lot of other marriages. You talk to a lot of the other attorneys and they're divorced, too."

Just last year, the final $450,000 left unclaimed in the settlement trust fund was donated to United Way.

Tom Hume, the ballplayer, doesn't dwell on the experience anymore. Maybe he flashes on it when someone mentions a fire, but he bounced back quickly--hell, the day after the blaze, he flew to Tucson and played his charity golf. His wife was leery for a while, though. Once, during a road game in 1981, he was on the phone with her when the hotel fire alarm rang, and "she just about went crazy" (it was a false alarm). The Humes have never returned to Las Vegas. "She just has no desire to go back," he says.

The day after the fire, a friend with pull got him into the MGM so he could retrieve his luggage. His memory plays no tricks on him here: "We walked all the way up 24 flights of stairs and got our luggage and hauled it down 24 flights of stairs. It was spooky. All the doors were bashed in. It was an eerie feeling. There was nothing but dead silence. We went in there and we couldn't believe that we made it out."

IS THERE A WORSE WAY to die than by burning? Imagine gagging on the smoke as the flames draw near, the searing heat already unbearable before the fire gets to you. Try to imagine the roiling, incalculable panic--what must it be like at the very second you are engulfed? The mind blanks at the unimaginable ferocity of the pain, and you're left picturing one of those movie scenes where the inflamed victim lurches to his knees, his features melting.

Burning has to be one of a human being's most visceral fears--what lengths would you go to to avoid it? Never mind that the fire is 20 stories down and the flames won't come near you; you can't know that. All you know is that there's a big fire, and all you can see is that mental picture. Would you jump? From how high? From high enough to kill you on impact--would that be preferable to burning? Would you shimmy down a rope? What would you write to your children? Would you fight for a seat on the rescue helicopter? Would you? Or would you rush back into the stairwell to help others? Brave the smoke to be that one random factor ensuring someone else's survival? Wait your turn for safe passage?

You can't answer, of course, not now, not sitting there reading this. Those are questions posed and answered in awful, decisive moments of pressing mortality, in incidents like the MGM fire--or never, if you are lucky.

You must stay on a fully sprinklered hotel for your safety

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