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."