In the Wake of Tragedy

In the days after the horrendous event of 1 October, someone asked your Native if anything similar had struck Las Vegas before. The sole thing that came to mind was the MGM Grand fire of November 1980, in which 85 people—78 guests and 7 employees—were killed. An additional 588 guests, 25 employees and 14 firefighters were injured.

At the time of the fire, I was a student at Hyde Park Junior High School, and I remember leaving band class to see a massive cloud rising over the Strip. A child of the Cold War with a father who had worked at the Nevada Test Site, my mind immediately turned to nuclear war. By the time I reached my next class, the terrible truth—one much more imaginable—was unfolding on the TV my teacher had rolled out.

1980 MGM Grand Fire. Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections.

During and after such unpredictable events, we struggle to make sense of it all. We react with pain, sorrow and anger. We investigate and dig for answers. We remember those who died and those who still suffer. And we do what we can to positively impact the future. Still, though the numbers may seem similar, the human experience dictates a considerable emotional gap between a horrible accident and the deliberately horrendous actions of another person.

After the MGM fire, Clark County revised its high-rise fire codes, making them the standard setter for the nation. We’ll never know how many small hotel tower fires in the 37 years since have been snuffed out by sprinklers long before they could kill.

What will happen now? That’s a bigger debate than can be settled here, if anywhere. And while that debate rages on, making enemies of friends and family (something unconscionably normal in the age of social media), I do what I do to make it to the other side. I help how I can. I escape the city to gain perspective. I smile and hug a lot more than a type A Virgo should. And I engage those who still visit us. I ask them how they feel, what they think and why they came. And I thank them for coming.

Like the California couple sitting next to us at the teppanyaki table at the Golden Nugget last Saturday. During our conversation, they asked me where they should go next. They were into punk rock and wanted a dive bar, so I sent them to the Double Down. Later, as we said our goodbyes, I asked them where they were going next, just to make sure they remembered. “We’re going to the Double Down!” he said, excited. “But first, we’re stopping by the Downtown memorial garden.”

Healing Garden buildout. Photo by Zoneil Maharaj.

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