The Nov. 21, 1980 fire scene that day was a grim sight
The second-largest loss of life hotel fire in U.S. history took place 20 years ago this week at the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. As smoke filled the 26-story high rise, 85 people lost their lives and hundreds of others were injured.
The Nov. 21, 1980 fire scene that day was a grim sight, unlike anything else he has ever seen, said Deputy Chief Ralph King of the Clark County Fire Department.
People were streaming, soot covered, out of the smoke-filled stairwells. Terrified guests trapped on the upper floors were breaking windows, waving towels, and tying bed sheets together.
One woman died of a massive skull fracture after trying to climb a rope from a window washing unit down the outside of the building.
The hotel, which opened in 1973, was approximately 2,000,000 square feet. The ground floor casino and showroom encompassed an open area larger than a football field.
The fire started that morning in the Deli, a restaurant in an unsprinklered area on the casino level.
"Within 6 minutes of the time of discovery, the total casino area was involved in fire, at a burning rate of approximately 15 to 19 feet per second," according to the official investigation report.
The fire originated in a wall soffit in the Deli due to an electrical ground fault, King said.
Uninsulated wires, belonging to a refrigeration unit for a little pie display, were being stretched and rubbed by the gentle vibration of the unit.
"It took a long long time for the fault to generate enough heat to generate a fire," King said.
Once the fire ignited it quickly traveled into the ceiling and the giant air return system above the casino, where heat and vapors had been collecting for years, King said.
"There was a time factor of approximately six years - this didn't just happen overnight," King said.
Once it got into the casino area the fire was fueled by the flammable furnishings, including wall coverings, PVC piping, glue, fixtures, and even the mirrors on the walls, which were actually plastic, King said.
There were about 5,000 people, including guests and staff, occupying the hotel at the time of the fire. In addition to the 85 fatalities, 650 people were taken to local hospitals.
King recalled finding the bodies of those who tried to escape in the inoperable elevators. In one he found four individuals who had started out in a standing position. "The elevator was so full of smoke and soot, when they went into a slump position they left a trail on the wall," King said.
Fourteen firefighters were also hospitalized, most from smoke inhalation, King said. One had to get stitches after being hit by the falling glass. Over 300 firefighters showed signs of smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation but were not treated. Three have experienced psychological problems after the event, King said.
The timing of the fire, at a little after 7 a.m., was actually somewhat fortunate because of the changing of the shifts at the fire department, King said. Those getting ready to leave were held over, and those coming in for the next shift were also available.
"Because of the timing of the event we had almost a duplicate force, and there were very few people in the casino itself," King said.
Immediate assistance was also rendered by five other local fire departments through mutual aid agreements.
"I was getting ready to get off shift at 7:15," said Ken Riddle of Las Vegas Fire and Rescue. "I saw smoke, went to the dispatch center and heard reports about a major fire," he said.
Instead of driving home Riddle drove to the fire scene. As he arrived he saw a big column of black smoke and fire coming out of the entrance. Glass was falling on someone trying to set up a ladder.
"You didn't want to look up because you'd see everybody screaming on the balconies," Riddle said.
There were few responders on the scene at that time. "My guess is the initial assignment and a couple other engines," he said. "I knew they would need a lot of paramedics so I reported to the first guy that looked like he was in charge."
Riddle and his partner went up to the 19th floor to evacuate people.
Even this high up, the smoke had gotten intense.
Two seismic joints that ran vertically between the three sections of the building acted as ducts for the smoke, King said.
In addition, when some of the elevator lines snapped and they dropped, "That added more smoke and fire to the already grim situation because those became open chimneys," King said.
During their search Riddle and his partner found one woman unconscious in her room. They used a hanger to hold the woman's tongue out of her airway, and took turns giving her air.
They spent about 20 minutes trying to get a radio reply for help. "We just couldn't get anybody to answer us on the radio - there was too much traffic," he said.
So they put her on a makeshift stretcher - a long stool with sheets tied to hold her on - and with the help of two other rescuers, they carried her down the stairs and out of the hotel. By that time it was about 11 a.m.
"There were hundreds of firefighters and paramedics and volunteers out in the street," Riddle said. "We were surrounded and pushed out of the way and other people took over care of the woman."
Riddle headed home at that point. "We were tired, it looked like there were enough people, and my vehicle was about to get towed," he said.
Jeffrey Morgan of Las Vegas Fire and Rescue, who was supposed to have the day off, was called in and arrived on the scene at about 8:00 a.m.
When he got outside, "The column of smoke looked like a nuclear weapon," he said. "I was filled with both excitement and a sense of dread," he said. "I had no idea what to expect. The whole time I was driving there it filled the horizon."
He and a few others from his station hurried to the fire scene in a pick up truck without any gear. Morgan ended up searching the building in his work pants and boots and someone else's helmet and coat, with no air pack.
He was assigned to the 21st and 22nd floors.
"There were piles of bodies around the elevator doors," he said. "The worst thing I remember about it was a father with his arms around his family. If they went to the stairwell they'd have been fine," he said.
Since he had no air pack, Morgan spent the first hour of the search holding his breath as he went down the halls, and then running through each room to grab a breath of air at the window.
As searchers left each room open, the air exchange improved breathing conditions, and he didn't need the air pack he eventually found.
Morgan said he was able to rescue an elderly woman on the 22nd floor who was having a heart attack. After carrying her up to the roof and starting an IV for her, a helicopter transported them down.
"The most frightening thing the whole day was the helicopter ride down," Morgan said. "The blades were clearing the building by about two feet." Rather than riding the helicopter back up to the top, he opted for the stairs.
After another round of search and body count, Morgan left at about 4 p.m. "I had no idea I'd been in there eight or nine hours," he said. "Anyhow it was a tough day."
As the rescue efforts went on that day, said Morgan and Riddle, a fellow paramedic, whose sister worked at the casino, kept asking his friends if they had seen her. They found out later that she was one of those caught by the fire as it tore through the casino.
King didn't go home that night until midnight. "Then I was back the next day - I probably spent the next 72 hours there with my captain photographing everything, verifying damage," he said.
One of King's most vivid memories from that first night, as he searched the building for bodies, was of watching the live news coverage of the event from inside the hotel.
"I remember about 9:00 at night the emergency power still being on," he said. "I was able to sit in a room and watch it on television. I could actually see what was going on from the outside," he said.
Despite the tragedy that day, there were also invaluable lessons learned and innumerable rescues performed.
"There were huge numbers of rescues - from the upper floors, from stairwells, from military helicopters pulling people off from the outside, from evacuations from the rooftop," King said.
"The majority came through the stairwells. They were so soot covered you couldn't recognize them," he said.
Riddle said construction crews, who were at the site to build additional hotel rooms, also helped people out of the high rise through the scaffolding set up for their construction.
King, Riddle and Morgan all agreed they never expect to encounter another fire like this one.
"I don't think I'll ever see an MGM fire again because our life safety systems are so outstanding," King said. "I'm very comfortable in these hotels. They're some of the safest buildings in the world," he said.
Modern high rises do not use flammable building materials, King said. "Everything that was used was flammable. You wouldn't find that today," he said.
Investigators saw that the sprinklers, where they did exist, stopped the fire from progressing into those areas. And unlike the elevators at the MGM in 1980, modern elevators lock and drop during an emergency, so no one can get trapped inside them, King said.
Another problem you wont see today is that the doors to the smoky stairwells at the MGM automatically locked behind people as they entered. If they couldn't breathe in the stairwell, they couldn't get back out. They could only exit at the bottom floor, King said.
"It's a one of a kind thing," Morgan said of the MGM Grand fire. "It's a historical fire. As tragic as it was, we're firefighters because we want the challenge of fighting the fire."