Lessons from the Past: MGM Grand Fire

Nov. 18, 2010
November 21 marks the anniversary of the 1980 MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas that killed 85 people, and Ozzie Murkhah details how sweeping changes came in the wake of the blaze.

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.

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.

The MGM Grand disaster was not a fire suppression failure, and the elected officials and the public administrators recognized that. After all, firefighters did all that they could to react to a flashover scenario in a megaresort. And with all respect, they were successful in their efforts and contained the fire to the floor of origin and knocked it down in about 90 minutes.

It was quite clear to the elected officials and the public administrators that the MGM Grand catastrophe was a major failure in plans review and construction codes enforcement. The numerous design flaws and construction code violations that contributed to the magnitude of the fire, were obvious results of the building department's unilateral review and approval system that did not allow any involvement from the fire marshal during design review and participation in the construction phase of the project.

As a result, the MGM Grand fire underlined the importance of fire prevention for the fire departments in Southern Nevada. Fire departments recognized that, as an integral part of the fire service, the fire prevention division's involvement and active participation in the construction review and inspection process is essential, and not only provides for the safety of the public, but also has direct impact on the firefighters' safety. The fire departments started recruiting the expertise and expanding their fire prevention division's role in the plans review phase of projects, and in performing in-depth inspections of the fire protection and life safety systems for all new buildings.

Thirty years later Las Vegas is the safest tourist destination in the world. Fire prevention is about the fire that did not happen; and just like the story of "the fish that got away," it is rather hard to prove its value. But as a direct result of the fire prevention division's proactive participation in the development of stringent fire code, active involvement in the design development and plans review and inspection for all new construction development, and continuous inspection and maintenance of the existing facilities, Las Vegas is one of the safest cities in the world. Our fire calls are less than four percent of the annual call volume.

It is important to reiterate that the MGM Grand fire was not a suppression failure; it was a failure in prevention. The responding firefighters did the best that they could. But due to the lack of built-in fire protection systems, once the fire progressed passed the incipient stages, catastrophic conflagration was inevitable.

Today, CCFD and LVFD have both obtained the ISO Class 1 rating, and the Commission on Fire Accreditation International accreditation. But, even with all our resources, expertise and experience, all things being the same, if hypothetically we had to fight a very similar fire in the same exact building with all those construction deficiencies and without fire sprinkler systems, have no doubt that the results would not be much different, and many dozens of victims could be expected. And that would not be due to lack of fire suppression excellence.

Have we had fires in hotels since the MGM Grand fire 30 years ago? Of course, hundreds of them. But due to the built-in fire protection systems and our stringent fire code enforcement activities, the fires were contained and extinguished and our responding crews minimized property losses, and we have not had any fire fatalities in the high-rises.

So what could our country's fire service leaders learn from the MGM Grand fire 30 years ago?

First, remember the importance of our fire prevention duties. Fire prevention is an important priority and is instrumental in protecting our communities and providing not only for the safety of our citizens, but also our own firefighters, making sure that they go home safe to their loved ones at the end of each shift. Other tragic fires, such as the 1991, One Meridian Plazaa fire in Philadelphia (where we lost 3 firefighters), and the 2007, Charleston Super Sofa Store fire (where we lost nine firefighters) also point to the same conclusions.

Second, fire prevention divisions must be an integral part of the fire department, and must be proactively involved in the planning, development, design review and construction inspection phases for all new projects. Design omissions, non-code compliance conditions, and other installation defects during the construction of the buildings, can have devastating impacts on the outcome of an incident; where even the most prompt and gallant efforts by the responding crews might not be adequate to prevent a catastrophe.

Undisputedly, the building department's role is primary and of utmost importance for all new construction projects. They must play their important role in reviewing and approving all structural, plumbing, mechanical, electrical and other plans and conduct the respective field inspections. But then, the fire marshal and the fire prevention division must be fully involved and actively participate in the review, approval and inspection of all fire protection and life safety systems designs for all new constructions also.

History has shown disastrous failures when the fire departments did not have any authority over the construction review and the fire prevention division where taken out of the plans review and inspection process. In the case of the MGM Grand fire back in 1980, the building department's unilateral review and approval of the owner's request to omit fire sprinkler installation, despite the objections of the fire marshal, resulted in a tragedy. Where the fire could have been contained and extinguished by the operation a couple of fire sprinklers, 85 civilians died. And tragically, and rather similarly in the 2007 Charleston fire, nine of our own firefighters lost their lives in that inferno, because no fire sprinklers were installed even after several expansions to the building.

Unfortunately, passage of time erases the memories, and that is when complacency sets in. Some might not be cognizant of the conceptual relationship between frequency and probability of an event, versus the consequences and the final outcome. The frequency and probability of having a catastrophic fire might be small; but as we have seen, the consequences of such fire are devastating. Fire prevention programs assist us in lowering the probabilities of such events occurring, and drastically decrease the magnitude of the consequences. Logically then, fire prevention programs must be viewed as an integral part, and one of the most significant functions of all fire departments', and must be viewed as a much higher priority for us in the fire service.

As we are all painfully aware, our country is facing severe economic challenges these days. And there are way too many examples of plans review and fire prevention programs around the country bearing the brunt of the budget assaults, and losing virtually all of their staff, if not the entire division.

While the MGM Grand fire underlined the importance of fire prevention, and we have made great strides since then in striving for safer communities, these staff reductions could set us back decades. Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Then from all the historical lessons from the MGM Grand and Charleston fires, why should we expect any different results next time around, if we allow our fire prevention programs to be drastically reduced and our role in plans review and fire inspection be eliminated? We must remember what philosopher George Santayana said, "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at [email protected].

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