It was all over in a few hours, but its impact lingers 35 years on. The MGM Grand fire put an end to the idea that our hedonistic paradise would be exempt from the kind of disasters that hit other major cities. By the time the sun set on November 21, 1980, 85 people were dead and more than 700 injured, and the once-luxurious casino had been reduced to a pile of smoldering cinders and melted polyurethane.
As Las Vegas reeled from the tragedy, the city also began to take a hard look at the practical realities within our fantastical city. And major changes came—not just in Las Vegas, but all over the country; not just in casinos and hotel rooms, but in fire codes and insurance policies. “The old saying is, a major disaster is a string of items, and if you break that string at any one point, you would have avoided that disaster,” says Nevada Fire Marshal Peter Mulvihill.
No one is certain exactly when the fire started, although it was reported to MGM security at 7:05 a.m., and the Clark County Fire Department received the call at 7:17 a.m. According to the Clark County Fire Department official report, an employee who was in the area where the fire originated an hour or two before the blaze broke out saw “nothing,” but two MGM employees reported smelling smoke and seeing a “haze” around an escalator adjacent to the area on the day before the fire.
However, where the fire began is not disputed: A ground fault connection in a pastry display case in the Deli restaurant sparked and, unobserved, grew quickly as it found abundant fuel—the stacks of napkins, the tiling on the restaurant wall that functioned like an oven, cellulose ceiling tiles that burned at a rate of 5 to 10 feet per second attached with adhesive that incinerated in a cloud of black smoke. And everything in the casino, from chandeliers to chairs to craps tables, was a mixture of wood and plastic that burned quick and dirty.
The problems went deeper—and higher. “The first major issue was that the facility was not fully protected by automatic sprinklers,” Mulvihill says. “The building department overruled the fire department in the construction of the property and allowed the main casino, which was a very large portion of the property, to be unsprinklered. The fire chief at the time had wanted everything fully sprinklered.” MGM’s own consulting firm, the Orvin Engineering Company, concurred, stating in a report that “the liability of all the unsprinklered areas in this building should be a concern to your corporation.” Instead, MGM chairman Fred Benninger complained about the cost—about $190,000 for the $106 million resort—and applied for an exemption.
The majority of casualties were not from the flames on the ground floor, but from the smoke that rose into the towers. Not only did the HVAC system continue to work and circulate smoke throughout the property but, at the time, the MGM was expanding and had made certain alterations to ease the construction process. “There was a tower addition under construction, and there were cutouts into the stairwell,” explains Mulvihill, which allowed the smoke to spread even farther. The stairwells filled with toxic black smoke and, because of the self-locking doors, guests who entered them were trapped.
Then there was the issue of the alarm system. Alarms had to be set off manually, and there were no alarm boxes on the casino level. When they were finally set off, there was an automatic delay before the fire department was informed and announcements were made. Some employees questioned orders to evacuate the casino because, as they later told investigators, “No alarms were going off.” Guests slept blissfully above the burning casino, many unaware of what was going on until they heard shouts and saw fire trucks outside.
After the fire, when it became known that the hotel had splurged on marble floors but scrimped on smoke detectors, people began taking another look at Las Vegas—and not in the way city leaders would like. An editorial in the Arizona Republic called Vegas “a town without heart … a town without pity … a town without shame.” Things became even tenser when, less than three months later, a fire broke out on the 22nd floor of the Las Vegas Hilton. The fire, which turned out to have been deliberately set by a Hilton busboy, killed eight and injured more than 200.
“It had a definite impact on tourism in the state,” Mulvihill says. “Following the two hotel fires in Vegas, I was in the northern part of the state, but fire marshals there were getting calls from people with vacations booked in Nevada wanting to know if it was safe to stay here. Conference organizers were calling and wanted to know if the hotels they booked were safe.”
Political leadership in 1981 recognized the crisis and responded. New fire codes were enacted that required sprinklers in high-rises and large public areas, automatic elevator recalls and heating ventilation shutoffs, as well as extensive alarm systems and those little evacuation maps on the back of every hotel room door. Every structure in the state was required to comply—no exemptions, no grandfathering. Resorts, schools and universities grumbled at the expense but understood the necessity. As Tom Huddleston, state fire marshal at the time, told UPI, “No matter how unpopular it is, it’s still something that has to be accomplished. We don’t want to lose people.”
The MGM fire was carefully investigated, with detailed reports created by both the Clark County Fire Department and the National Fire Prevention Association. But the lessons of the disaster resonated beyond the city: It was also studied by psychologists, insurance firms, bar associations and even used in NASA presentations as a lesson in “safety standards” and “hazard controls.” It seemed that every facet of the tragedy could be dissected: You could look at the construction, materials, regulations, insurance, procedures and reactions, and find countless places where a link in the chain could have been broken and disaster could have been avoided. If only the sprinklers had been fully installed. If only the fire dampers hadn’t gotten stuck open. If only the stairwell doors didn’t automatically lock. If only …
In a way, the MGM fire was Las Vegas’ “growing up” moment, when the city realized it was not invincible, that the odds would not always be in its favor. Today resorts must adhere to high fire-safety standards. “Things have changed for the better,” Mulvihill says. “We have a solid, broad-based level of protection in place.” The city had learned its lesson. Too bad it had to be the hardest way possible.