It was one of the deadliest hotel fires in American history.
Thirty years ago today, one of the deadliest hotel fires in American history happened at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. We take a look at the tragedy and its aftermath.
The MGM Grand Hotel was one of the first massive luxury megaresorts on the Vegas Strip. At a cost of $106 million dollars and boasting 26 floors and 2,084 rooms, at the time of its opening in 1973 it was the largest hotel in the world.
Nearly 5,000 guests were staying there when, just after 7 a.m. on Nov. 21, 1980, an electrical ground fault occurred near a pie display case in a 2nd floor restaurant called The Deli. The fire quickly spread to the lobby and raced through the ground floor casino at a rate of 19 feet per second, sending a wall of fire bursting through the hotel doors.
Firefighters responded and the flames were contained on the casino level of hotel, with the fire being extinguished by 8:30 a.m. But it had already produced massive amounts of highly toxic black smoke, which spread to the upper stories of the hotel via stairwells and elevator shafts. The air conditioning units on the roof were not equipped with smoke detectors, and so continued to operate, recirculating the lethal smoke back into the building.
As the smoke spread, panicked guests tried to escape, with some climbing out windows, others making their way to the roof, where they were rescued by local police and Air Force helicopters. Some guests broke out hotel windows, hoping to clear the smoke from their rooms, only to find more was pouring in from outside. Firefighter’s ladders were only able to reach to the 9th floor, leaving many on the higher floors stranded. Though the fire was contained on the 2nd floor, most deaths occurred in the upper stories of the hotel, many of them in the stairwells, which only had unlocked exits on the 1st and 26th floors.
Eighty-five people died in the fire, nearly all of them from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. More than 650 people, including 14 firefighters, were hospitalized.
The subsequent investigation showed the tragedy could have been prevented had the hotel been required to install a sprinkler system inside The Deli restaurant. Though the fire marshall had argued for their installation (as did a risk management consultancy hired by MGM), hotel executives resisted. Clark County officials eventually granted the MGM an exemption because the restaurant was to be open 24 hours a day, and thus an employee would be on hand to notice any fire, sound alarms and combat it with fire extinguishers. However, in 1980 the restaurant was no longer operating round the clock and was unoccupied when the fire broke out. The cost of the sprinkler system would have been around $190,000.
After the fire, 83 building code violations were found, but no one faced criminal charges. More than 1,300 lawsuits were filed and 118 companies involved in the construction and operation of the MGM Grand paid into a $223 million settlement fund, with MGM itself contributing nearly half that amount.
Nevada now has some of the strictest fire safety laws in the country, and the fire is cited in improving hotel safety worldwide. It also helped underscore that smoke rather than flames are the real threat in most fires, and made the public more aware of those personal safety measures that could be taken to avoid smoke inhalation, such as staying low to the ground or breathing through a wet towel.
A new MGM Grand, built in a different location on the Strip, opened in 1993, and was purchased by Bally’s in 2006.
Victims of the MGM Grand Hotel Fire
Jose Luis Mata Alvarez
Barbara E. Middleton