|The second-largest loss of life hotel fire in U.S.
history took place 20 years ago this week at the MGM
Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. As smoke filled
the 26-story high rise, 85 people lost their lives and
hundreds of others were injured.
The Nov. 21, 1980 fire scene that day was a grim
sight, unlike anything else he has ever seen, said
Deputy Chief Ralph King of the Clark County Fire Department.
People were streaming, soot covered, out of the
smoke-filled stairwells. Terrified guests trapped
on the upper floors were breaking windows, waving
towels, and tying bed sheets together.
One woman died of a massive skull fracture after
trying to climb a rope from a window washing unit
down the outside of the building.
The hotel, which opened in 1973, was approximately
2,000,000 square feet. The ground floor casino and
showroom encompassed an open area larger than a football
The fire started that morning in the Deli, a restaurant
in an unsprinklered area on the casino level.
"Within 6 minutes of the time of discovery,
the total casino area was involved in fire, at a burning
rate of to the official investigation report.
The fire originated in a wall soffit in the Deli
due to an electrical ground fault, King said. Uninsulated
wires, belonging to a refrigeration unit for a little
pie display, were being stretched and rubbed by the
gentle vibration of the unit.
"It took a long long time for the fault to
generateenough heat to generate a fire," King
Once the fire ignited it quickly traveled into the
ceiling and the giant air return system above the
casino, where heat and vapors had been collecting
for years, King said.
"There was a time factor of approximately six
years this didn’t just happen overnight,"
Once it got into the casino area the fire was fueled
by the flammable furnishings, including wall coverings,
PVC piping, glue, fixtures, and even the mirrors on
the walls, which were actually plastic, King said.
There were about 5,000 people, including guests
and staff, occupying the hotel at the time of the
In addition to the 85 fatalities, 650 people were
taken to local hospitals.
King recalled finding the bodies of those who tried
to escape in the inoperable elevators. In one he found
four individuals who had started out in a standing
position. "The elevator was so full of smoke
and soot, when they went into a slump
position they left a trail on the wall," King
said. Fourteen firefighters were also hospitalized,
most from smoke inhalation, King
said. One had to get stitches after being hit by the
falling glass. Over 300 firefighters showed signs
of smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation but were not
treated. Three have experienced psychological problems
after the event, King said.
The timing of the fire, at a little after 7 a.m.,
was actually somewhat fortunate because of the changing
of the shifts at the fire department, King said. Those
getting ready to leave were held over, and those coming
in for the next shift were also available.
"Because of the timing of the event we had
almost a duplicate force, and there were very few
people in the casino itself," King said.
Immediate assistance was also rendered by five other
local fire departments through mutual aid agreements.
"I was getting ready to get offshift at 7:15,"
said Ken Riddle of Las Vegas Fire and Rescue. "I
saw smoke, went to the dispatch center and heard reports
about a major fire," he said.
Instead of driving home Riddle drove to the fire
scene. As he arrived he saw a big column of black
smoke and fire coming out of the entrance. Glass was
falling on someone trying to set up a ladder.
"You didn’t want to look up because you’d
see everybody screaming on the balconies," Riddle
There were few responders on the scene at that time.
"My guess is the initial assignment and a couple
other engines," he said. "I knew they would
need a lot of paramedics so I reported to the first
guy that looked like he was in charge."
Riddle and his partner went up to the 19th floor
to evacuate people.
Even this high up, the smoke had gotten intense.
Two seismic joints that ran vertically between the
three sections of the building acted as ducts for
the smoke, King said.
In addition, when some of the elevator lines snapped
and they dropped, "That added more smoke and
fire to the already grim situation because those became
open chimneys," King said.
During their search Riddle and his partner found
one woman unconscious in her room. They used a hanger
to hold the woman’s tongue out of her airway,
and took turns giving her air.
They spent about 20 minutes trying to get a radio
reply for help. "We just couldn’t get anybody
to answer us on the radio there was too much traffic,"
So they put her on a makeshift stretcher - a long
stool with sheets tied to hold her on - and with the
help of two other rescuers, they carried her down
the stairs and out of the hotel. By that time it was
about 11 a.m.
"There were hundreds of firefighters and paramedics
and volunteers out in the street," Riddle said.
"We were surrounded and pushed out of the way
and other people took over care of the woman."
Riddle headed home at that point. "We were
tired, it looked like there were enough people, and
my vehicle was about to get towed," he said.
Jeffrey Morgan of Las Vegas Fire and Rescue, who
was supposed to have the day off, was called in and
arrived on the scene at about 8:00 a.m.
When he got outside, "The column of smoke looked
like a nuclear weapon," he said. "I was
filled with both excitement and a sense of dread,"
he said. "I had no idea what to expect. The whole
time I was driving there it filled the horizon."
He and a few others from his station hurried to
the fire scene in a pick up truck without any gear.
Morgan ended up searching the building in his work
pants and boots and someone else’s helmet and
coat, with no air pack.
He was assigned to the 21st and 22nd floors.
"There were piles of bodies around the elevator
doors," he said. "The worst thing I remember
about it was a father with his arms around his family.
If they went to the stairwell they’d have been
fine," he said.
Since he had no air pack, Morgan spent the first
hour of the search holding his breath as he went down
the halls, and then running through each room to grab
a breath of air at the window.
As searchers left each room open, the air exchange
improved breathing conditions, and he didn’t
need the air pack he eventually found.
Morgan said he was able to rescue an elderly woman
on the 22nd floor who was having a heart attack. After
carrying her up to the roof and starting an IV for
her, a helicopter transported them down.
"The most frightening thing the whole day was
the helicopter ride down," Morgan said. "The
blades were clearing the building by about two feet."
Rather than riding the helicopter back up to the top,
he opted for the stairs.
After another round of search and body count, Morgan
left at about 4 p.m. "I had no idea I’d
been in there eight or nine hours," he said.
"Anyhow it was a tough day."
As the rescue efforts went on that day, said Morgan
and Riddle, a fellow paramedic, whose sister worked
at the casino, kept asking his friends if they had
seen her. They found out later that she was one of
those caught by the fire as it tore through the casino.
King didn’t go home that night until midnight.
"Then I was back the next day - I probably spent
the next 72 hours there with my captain photographing
everything, verifying damage," he said.
One of King’s most vivid memories from that
first night, as he searched the building for bodies,
was of watching the live news coverage of the event
from inside the hotel.
"I remember about 9:00 at night the emergency
power still being on," he said. "I was able
to sit in a room and watch it on television. I could
actually see what was going on from the outside,"
Despite the tragedy that day, there were also invaluable
lessons learned and innumerable rescues performed.
"There were huge numbers of rescues - from
the upper floors, from stairwells, from military helicopters
pulling people off from the outside, from evacuations
from the rooftop…" King said.
"The majority came through the stairwells.
They were so soot covered you couldn’t recognize
them," he said.
Riddle said construction crews, who were at the
site to build additional hotel rooms, also helped
people out of the high rise through the scaffolding
set up for their construction.
King, Riddle and Morgan all agreed they never expect
to encounter another fire like this one.
"I don’t think I’ll ever see an
MGM fire again because our life safety systems are
so outstanding," King said. "I’m very
comfortable in these hotels. They’re some of
the safest buildings in the world," he said.
Modern high rises do not use flammable building
materials, King said. "Everything that was used
was flammable. You wouldn’t find that today,"
Investigators saw that the sprinklers, where they
did exist, stopped the fire from progressing into
those areas. And unlike the elevators at the MGM in
1980, modern elevators lock and drop during an emergency,
so no one can get trapped
inside them, King said.
Another problem you won’t see today is that
the doors to the smoky stairwells at the MGM automatically
locked behind people as they entered. If they couldn’t
breathe in the stairwell, they couldn’t get
back out. They could only exit at the
bottom floor, King said.
"It’s a one of a kind thing," Morgan
said of the MGM Grand fire. "It’s a historical
fire. As tragic as it was, we’re firefighters
because we want the challenge of fighting the fire."
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