THE LUCKY ONES MAY NOT HAVE REALIZED
REMEMBER THE COOKS IN THE FREEZER? THEY
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
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
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
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
"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
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,
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,"
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.
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