MGM Grand fire
|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), located on the Las Vegas Strip in Paradise, Nevada. The fire killed 85 people, most through smoke inhalation. The fire began from a refrigerated pastry display case in one of the restaurants, located on the first floor. Fire engulfed the resort's casino, and smoke travelled into the hotel tower.
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 1986 Dupont Plaza Hotel fire in Puerto Rico that killed 97. The incident led to the reformation of fire safety guidelines and codes in the state.
At the time of the fire, about 5,000 people were in the MGM Grand, a casino and 26-story hotel with more than 2,000 hotel rooms, opened in 1973. 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 (CCFD) 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 from across the street 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 west 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, facing the Las Vegas Strip. From the time the fire was noticed, it took six minutes for the entire casino floor 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 fire was limited to the first floor, although the burning material created toxic fumes and smoke, which ascended throughout the hotel tower via vertical shafts (elevators and stairwells) and seismic joints, causing 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. The Las Vegas fire department operated separately from the county fire department; the latter served the Las Vegas Strip, so city firefighters were unfamiliar with the MGM's layout, including fire escape routes. This hindered the rescue effort.
Proper evacuation of the hotel guests was also 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. Some hotel guests tied bedsheets together and hung them on balconies to alert first responders. Some tried using the bedsheets to descend the hotel's exterior. Fire ladders were only able to reach the ninth-floor exterior. One man escaped the hotel tower by lowering himself down a rope.
Some people, trapped in their hotel rooms, broke open their windows to get fresh air, although this allowed thicker smoke from outside to come into the rooms. People below had to dodge shards of glass falling from the broken hotel windows. An expansion of the MGM was underway at the time of the fire, and a construction worker used a scaffolding platform to lower guests to the ground, after they had escaped through their hotel room windows. The Barbary Coast casino across the street was set up as an evacuation center for MGM guests.
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. One young couple 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. Two refrigerated semi-trailers were set up as temporary morgues to hold the bodies of victims until they could be identified.
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. The county's fire chief had been concerned that such a fire could occur, as older hotels built prior to 1979 were not required to have certain fire safety features. Nevada governor Robert List said, "You can't force people to bring hotels up to codes that didn't exist when they were built." For years after its opening, the resort had declined orders to install a second fire hose in one of its showrooms. As of June 1980, only 20 percent of fire safety violations – discovered two months earlier by inspectors – had been corrected.
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. Galvanic corrosion occurred, in which the copper refrigerant pipes were in physical contact with the aluminum electrical conduit, causing the conduit to erode over time. Galvanic corrosion and vibration – as well as jagged edges and stretched wires resulting from poor workmanship during the installation – eventually resulted in the electrical wires inside the conduit missing chunks of their plastic insulation. 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 continued operation of the resort's ventilation system contributed to the fire's harmful effect. On the casino floor, there was no outlet for the smoke, which was spread into the hotel tower by the ventilation system. Smoke rapidly filled the resort's telephone switchboard room, and operators there only had enough time to warn people on the casino floor. Hotel guests were not notified of the fire, as the switchboard operators had to evacuate. The elevator shafts were located above the restaurant and casino, which also helped the smoke to spread. Guests, who earlier had found that the fire doors in some stairwells locked automatically, had propped them open for convenience. However, this allowed more smoke to spread.
Sprinkler rule exceptions
Sprinklers were located on the first two floors and the top floor of the resort. The casino and restaurants were not protected by a fire sprinkler system because they were exempt from rules requiring 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; it was closed at the time of the fire. Although some sprinklers were in the resort, they were not located anywhere near the fire. A full sprinkler system would have cost $192,000. Because of the cost, MGM only installed the minimum number of sprinklers as required, during the resort's construction.
The resort was temporarily closed because of the fire. Much of the damage occurred in the casino, which was charred by the fire. The hotel hallways and stairwells were stained by soot and smoke. Shortly after the fire, some people looted jewelry and blackened money from the resort. State gaming revenues were hurt by the MGM's closure, as the resort was one of the largest tax contributors to the local gaming industry. The county lost an estimated $1.7 million because of the closure, and it was estimated that MGM Grand Hotels could face a $1 billion loss because of the fire.
After the fire, the MGM Grand was rebuilt over the next eight months, at a cost of $50 million. It reopened in July 1981, with numerous fire safety features now in place, including the addition of fire sprinklers and an automatic fire alarm system throughout the property. A two-unit computer – one of them a backup – was provided by Johnson Controls to monitor hundreds of locations throughout the MGM, helping to prevent another fire. A similar computer had also been installed at another MGM Grand hotel in Reno, Nevada. The Las Vegas MGM now had more than 30,000 sprinklers, including four in most hotel rooms. The hotel also had 8,000 speakers, including one in each room, allowing for fire safety instructions to be provided to guests in the event of a fire.
The air-conditioning system was heavily modified to prevent smoke from entering hotel rooms, and large exhaust fans were installed, with the capability to rid the hotel of fumes in 10 minutes. Plastic pipes and wires, which contributed to the fire, were removed. A five-minute fire safety program, hosted by Gene Kelly in both English and Spanish, was played on televisions in hotel rooms. Resort officials believed that the MGM was now the safest hotel in the world. A minor incident occurred two weeks after the reopening, and the new safety features worked as planned. Insulation material had begun to smolder because of a welder's torch, and this set off automatic alarms.
Hundreds of lawsuits had been filed against MGM, seeking more than $2 billion in damages. One attorney, representing three local couples against MGM, expressed upset feelings about the reopening, saying that the resort still had defects which could prove harmful in the event of another fire. MGM made numerous settlement deals with the victims in 1983, and a $76 million settlement between MGM and insurance companies was made in 1985. In 1998, there was $440,000 left over in the MGM victim settlement. The remaining money was donated to people in Clark County who were victims of fires and burns.
The original hotel tower, where most of the deaths occurred, continues to operate. A second tower opened in 1981. The MGM Grand was sold in 1986 to Bally Manufacturing, which changed the name to Bally's Las Vegas. A new MGM Grand was opened in Las Vegas in 1993, at the northeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue, south of the original MGM.
Within a week of the fire, Governor List formed a commission to determine whether older hotels in the state should be required to adopt newer fire safety rules. On February 10, 1981, just 81 days after the MGM fire, another fire broke out at the Las Vegas Hilton, killing eight 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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