Lessons from the Past: MGM Grand Fire

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...

From the reports and the events timeline, a third alarm was called at 7:22 a.m. and units from the CCFD and the City of Las Vegas Fire Department (LVFD) responded promptly. By 7:25 a.m., the entire casino and porte-cochere on the west side of the building were fully involved. At 7:30 a.m., a Metro Police helicopter pilot requested all available helicopters to the scene. At 7:50 a.m., the fire was controlled on the east sector. And by 8:30 a.m. the main casino fire was controlled. As a result of the firefighters' quick knockdown, fire damage was limited to the ground floor casino and adjacent restaurants and did not extend to the high-rise hotel.

Reports indicate that the cause of fire was determined as an electrical ground fault inside a wall in the restaurant known as "The Deli." In the casino area, the presence of combustible furnishing and interior finishes, foam padding and moldings, air supply and a very large undivided area allowed for an extremely rapid fire spread and heavy smoke production.

At the time of the fire, approximately 5,000 people were in the hotel. Some of the occupants were able to exit the building without assistance. Many were rescued by firefighters. And there were many construction workers and the passersby who came to assist with the evacuation. According to newspaper articles, more than 300 people were evacuated from the roof top by the helicopters who responded to the police pilot's call for assistance. There were also many guests who were trapped in their rooms where they awaited rescue. The total evacuation of the building took nearly four hours.

The fire killed 85 people, and sent 650 to the hospital, including guests, employees, and 14 firefighters. Out of the 85 fatalities, four died of as a result of the burns, one jumped out of the building, and 80 died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide. Eighteen of the victims were located on the casino floor, and the remaining 67 were on floors 16 through 26.

While the fire primarily damaged the ground floor casino and adjacent restaurants, most of the deaths were caused by smoke inhalation on the upper floors of the hotel. Impaired smoke dampers and other HVAC components, openings in the vertical shafts, stairways, elevator hoistways, and the seismic joints allowed the toxic smoke to spread throughout the building all the way to the top floor.

Later newspaper articles indicated that there were 83 building code violations, design flaws, installation errors and materials that were identified afterward that contributed to the magnitude of the fire and smoke spread. They indicated that as a result, there were 1,327 lawsuits against 118 companies. Money from all the companies went into a $223 million settlement fund that was promptly distributed to the victims within three years of the fire. MGM's $105 million settlement was the largest and with the settlement no negligence was admitted.

To get the full economical impact of that fire, one must include the estimated $300 million reconstruction cost, and the hundreds of millions of dollars of downtime and the business interruptions. And to that add the hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenues from gaming and tourism that all of the businesses in the entire Southern Nevada community had to endure (for many years after) as a result of the devastating images on the national TV and sent all across the globe.

Billions of dollars lost as a direct result of a poor decision to save $192,000 by not installing full fire sprinkler protection throughout the building. And that was a fact that the elected officials and the public administrators in Nevada recognized promptly. Being astute in recognizing the risks and probabilities, they did not want to gamble on the possibilities of such tragic events in the future. A world-renowned tourist destination, could not afford its image to be tarnished by infernos, deaths and destructions.

That being said, out of sheer cost/benefit analysis and economic reasons, and not merely for the altruistic and humanistic purposes, they decided to focus on improving fire prevention and life safety and make Las Vegas the safest tourist destination in the world.

As a result, not more than three months after the fire, the state's building and fire codes were revised to have the most stringent fire sprinkler and life safety requirements in the country. All hotels taller than 55 feet were required to be retrofitted with fire sprinkler systems. And all future buildings three stories or more were required to be sprinklered also.