MGM Grand fire
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|Date||November 21, 1980|
|Venue||MGM Grand Hotel and Casino|
|Location||Paradise, Nevada, U.S.|
The MGM Grand fire occurred on Friday, November 21, 1980 at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (now Bally's Las Vegas) in Paradise, Nevada. The fire killed 85 people, most through smoke inhalation. The tragedy remains the deadliest disaster in Nevada history, and the third-deadliest hotel fire in modern U.S. history, after the 1946 Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta that killed 119 people and the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Dupont Plaza Hotel fire on December 31, 1986, in which 97 perished.
At the time of the fire, about 5,000 people were in the hotel and casino, a 26-story luxury resort with more than 2,000 hotel rooms. At approximately 7:07 a.m. on Friday, November 21, 1980, a fire began in a restaurant known as The Deli. The fire was discovered during an inspection of the restaurant by a tile crew. A crew supervisor noticed a flickering light, which turned out to be a wall of flames. An employee of the hotel's bakery recounted how just after 7 a.m. he saw smoke coming from the ceiling vents and the lights went out. MGM Security was immediately advised of the situation, and alerted the Clark County Fire Department which was the first agency to respond. CCFD received a call reporting the fire at 7:17 am, with the first engine arriving on site at 7:19 am. A third alarm was called at 7:22 am, and a Metro Police Helicopter pilot requested all available helicopters at 7:30 am.
Other agencies included the North Las Vegas Fire Department, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue, and the Henderson Fire Department. A massive helicopter rescue effort from Nellis Air Force Base pulled 1,000 people from the roof of the MGM Grand, involving both U.S. Air Force UH-1N (Hueys) from the 57th Wing based in Indian Springs and CH-3E (Jolly Green Giants) from the 1st Special Operations Wing based in Hurlburt Field, Florida (which were in Nevada to participate in Red Flag '80).
The fire spread to the lobby, fed by wallpaper, PVC piping, glue, and plastic mirrors, racing through the casino floor at a speed of 15–19 ft/s (4.6–5.8 m/s; 10–13 mph; 16–21 km/h) until a massive fireball blew out the main entrance along The Strip. From the time the fire was noticed, it took six minutes for the entire building to be fully engulfed. It spread across the areas of the casino in which no fire sprinklers were installed. Eighteen people died in the casino level of the hotel.
The burning material created toxic fumes and smoke, which ascended throughout the hotel tower via vertical shafts (elevators and stairwells) and seismic joints and caused the majority of the deaths. Firefighters reported having to crawl through the dark and over "mounds of stuff" trying to extinguish the fire, it was later determined that the "mounds" were deceased guests and staff near an elevator bank. Proper evacuation of the hotel guests was hindered as there was no automatic means of returning elevators to the main floor during a fire, causing 10 deceased victims to be found in an elevator. Survivors recounted how some in the hotel had tied bedsheets together and hung them on balconies in an attempt to escape upper floor rooms and alert first responders.
A total of 85 people were killed (including seven employees) and 650 injured, including guests, employees, and 14 firefighters. While the fire primarily damaged the second-floor casino and adjacent restaurants, 61 deaths were on the upper floors of the hotel (19th - 24th floors), mostly in the stairwells, where all doors except on the roof and ground floor were locked and the smoke concentration was the highest. Some guests died in their sleep.
Seventy-five people died from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning; four from smoke inhalation alone; three from burns and smoke inhalation; one from burns alone; one from massive skull trauma, caused by jumping from a high window; and one of myocarditis. The disaster led to the general publicizing of the fact that during a building fire, smoke inhalation is a more serious threat than flames.
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The fire was confined to the casino and restaurant areas. The hotel was equipped with a fire sprinkler system that performed properly by keeping the fire out of other sections of the building. The area with the most fire prevention was in the money counting area, not in individual rooms or on the casino floor.
A refrigerated pastry display case was added, after original construction of the hotel, to one of its restaurants (known as The Deli). Unlike a modern display case, which would be totally self-contained (compressor installed in bottom of display case), this unit functioned like a walk-in cooler or central air conditioning system, with a pair of copper refrigerant lines connecting its evaporator to a condensing unit located outside the building. When this set-up was installed, the copper lineset was run through the same wall soffit as a pre-existing electrical conduit and in physical contact with the conduit.
The fan-forced evaporator unit in the display case was not properly secured, and thus was able to vibrate constantly while in operation; these vibrations were carried along the copper refrigerant lines, causing the pipes to rub against the electrical conduit in the wall soffit and make them vibrate as well. Through a combination of galvanic corrosion (where the copper refrigerant pipes were in physical contact with the aluminum electrical conduit, causing the conduit to erode over time), and vibration – as well as jagged edges and stretched wires resulting from poor workmanship during the installation – the electrical wires inside the conduit ended up missing chunks of their plastic insulation, and the conduit was rendered un-grounded (there was no separate ground wire; the metal conduit itself was designed to function as the ground, so the disintegration of the conduit rendered the system un-grounded).
These now-bare electrical conductors inside the un-grounded metal conduit glowed red-hot and began arcing, which ignited the fire. The fire reportedly smoldered for hours until it found fresh oxygen and burst into a fireball that spread into the casino, and was fed by other combustibles.
Spread of smoke
Due to faulty smoke dampers within the ventilation duct network, the toxic fumes circulated throughout the hotel's air conditioning system, accelerating the spread of the poisonous gases. The elevator shafts were located above the restaurant and casino and aided the spreading of smoke, and guests who discovered fire doors in some stairwells automatically locked, propped them open allowing for more smoke to spread.
Sprinkler rule exceptions
The casino and restaurants were not protected by a fire sprinkler system because they were exempt from rules requiring fire sprinklers in areas occupied 24 hours a day. A Clark County building inspector granted the exemption—despite the opposition of fire marshals—reasoning that a fire would be quickly noticed by occupants and contained with portable fire extinguishers. When the fire started in The Deli restaurant it was no longer open 24 hours per day; in fact it was closed and unoccupied.
The hotel was sold to Bally's Entertainment, which changed the name to Bally's Las Vegas. Similar upgrades were also made to the nearly identical property (now the Grand Sierra Resort) in Reno, Nevada. The tower in which most of the deaths occurred is still operating as part of the hotel today. A second tower opened in 1981. The present MGM Grand hotel-casino was built to the south, near the northeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue.
On February 10, 1981, just 81 days after the MGM fire, another fire broke out at the Las Vegas Hilton, killing at least five people. Due to the two incidents, there was a major reformation of fire safety guidelines and codes. All buildings open to the public in Nevada were required to have fire sprinklers, smoke detectors in rooms and elevators, and exit maps in all hotel rooms. This law went into effect in 1981 and made Nevada a leader in fire safety regulation.
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- Online articles
- MGM Grand Las Vegas 11/21/1980 Fire Clark County F.D. Final Report (November 21, 1980) reports 85 deaths and "more than 700 injuries"
- Dickensheets, Scott; Schmidt, Amy (October 2000). "Burned Into Memory". Las Vegas Life. Archived from the original on March 31, 2008.
- Fitzpatrick, Tom (December 3, 1980). "Las Vegas a town of no pity or shame" (PDF). Las Vegas Journal Review (first printed in the Arizona Republic). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 13, 2012. 1980 article on the darker side of the reaction to the fire.
- Mirkah, Azarang (November 18, 2010). "Lessons from the Past: MGM Grand Fire". Firehouse.com.
- Morrison, Jane Ann (November 20, 2005). "With probe tapes safe, politicians felt heat long after MGM Grand fire". Las Vegas Review Journal. Archived from the original on October 13, 2012.
- Morrison, Jane Ann (November 20, 2005). "IN DEPTH: MGM GRAND HOTEL FIRE: 25 YEARS LATER: Incoming fire chief saw history as rookie". Las Vegas Review Journal. Archived from the original on October 13, 2012.
- Morrison, Jane Ann (November 22, 2013). "Another November event had lasting impact in Las Vegas". Las Vegas Review Journal.
- Rusin, Mark (November 20, 2005). "IN DEPTH: MGM GRAND HOTEL FIRE: 25 YEARS LATER: Officer recalls eerie scene at burned hotel". Las Vegas Review Journal. Archived from the original on October 13, 2012.
- Toplikar, Dave (November 21, 2012). "'They were absolutely heroes': The MGM Grand fire and the men who fought it". Las Vegas Sun.
- Toplikar, Dave (November 21, 2012). "Survivors, witnesses describe chaos of MGM Grand fire". Las Vegas Sun.
- Videos and audio