November 21, 2010, marks the 30th anniversary of the MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas. Most of our senior peers from that era certainly remember the MGM tragedy. But even our young rookies back then have now reached the retirement age and have limited knowledge of the event. And certainly our youngest members now would not know much about it since they were not even born then.
It was even before my time in the fire service, as I was still in college. So my knowledge of that event is also second-hand and is only limited to reading the various reports and the accounts of the events described in the newspaper articles from the time. I believe that learning from the past could be our guiding light for future. And with that in mind, taking a very brief look at the MGM Grand fire could provide valuable lessons for our younger generation of firefighters that could hopefully prevent similar tragedies in future.
Construction of the 26-story MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (currently Bally's) started in 1972 and it opened in December of 1973. There were 2,078 rooms at the hotel and the total area of the hotel and casino was approximately two million square feet. Fire sprinkler systems were not installed in the high-rise hotel, the casino (approximately 380 by 1200 feet, or 450,000 square feet), and the restaurant areas. Only partial fire sprinkler protection was provided for limited areas (arcade, showrooms and convention areas) on the ground level.
According to the local newspaper articles of the time, despite pressure from the fire marshal during the construction (and even after the building occupancy), the owners fought installing the fire sprinklers. The articles indicate that, despite receiving a recommendation letter from one of their own consultants, Orvin Engineering Company indicated "the liability of all the unsprinklered areas in this building should be a concern to your corporation." Fred Benninger (MGM chairman at the time) decided against installing the fire sprinklers.
The total construction cost of the hotel was $106 million and apparently the owners deemed the $192,000 cost for the sprinkler installation not to be feasible. So they sought relief from the Clark County Building Department. The building director at that time, John Pisciotta, sided with the ownership and rendered a decision that the fire sprinkler requirements in their codes did not apply to the hotel and casino.
NFPA's 1981 Investigation Report on the MGM Grand Hotel Fire indicated that "The County Office of Building and Safety had primary responsibility for code enforcement during the construction phase of projects. The fire department did not have any building code enforcing authority. Reportedly, a system of on-site resident inspectors was used for the code enforcement procedure during the building process. These inspectors were hired by the Clark County Office of Building and Safety which, in turn, was reimbursed by the Hotel."
Despite the fire marshal's insistence that fire sprinklers should be installed throughout the building, as a result of the building official's favorable ruling, life safety and fire protection took a backseat to the owner's cost concerns, and they didn't install the fire sprinkler systems. According to the newspapers reports, NFPA's Fire Investigation Manager, David Demers, concluded that "with sprinklers, it would have been a one or two sprinkler fire, and we would never have heard about it."
A brief summary of the events posted on Clark County Fire Department's (CCFD) website indicate that, around 7:05 a,m,, an employee first noticed the fire and notified MGM security. CCFD received a call reporting the fire at 7:17 a.m., and County's first engine arrived two minutes later at 7:19 a.m.. Within six minutes of the time of discovery, the entire casino area (450,000 square feet) was involved in fire, at a burning rate of 15 to 19 feet per second. The crews were only 40 feet into the hotel when a huge fireball burst out and rolled into the casino, forcing the crews out of the building as the flames rolled out of the front entrance.