40 years later: Reflections on the Las Vegas MGM Grand hotel fire
Despite the staggering death toll, plus myriad fire protection and human failures, change was not immediate
Chief John Kenlon of the FDNY knew well the potential peril for hotel guests during fires. In 1912, he wrote that there was a hotel fire every 33 hours in North America.
One reason for the high loss of life in hotel fires was the fact that so many hotels featured the so-called “fireproof construction” favored by fire underwriters of the era. These buildings could withstand both exterior and interior fire without collapse of exterior walls, ensuring that losses from fire were minimal and predictable. Lost in fire underwriter calculations were the people. Little, if any, concern was given to flame spread over surfaces, unprotected vertical openings (stairwells, shafts, chutes, etc.) and the transom windows above doors to offices and guest rooms that allowed for ventilation. Being trapped in a fireproof building was akin to being on the inside of a wood or coal stove with a lit fire.
The deadly toll from hotel and motel fires continued through most of the 20th century. Savvy travelers quickly learned to request rooms on the ground-level or no higher than the second or third floor so they were within reach of fire department ground ladders.
While there were many infamous hotel fires over that timeframe, the year 1980 provided the wake-up call.
One of the notable fatal hotel fires that year was on Dec. 4, 1980, when fate came calling at The Stouffer's Inn and Conference Center in Harrison, N.Y. The early-morning flash fire claimed 26 lives. It came just three weeks after another hotel fire, this one in Las Vegas, captured worldwide attention from its staggering death toll.
Dramatic rescues, staggering death toll
On the morning of Nov. 21, 1980, a fast-moving fire hit the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.
While more than 200 firefighters fought the blaze and made rescues, helicopters made daring pickoff rescues of hotel guests and staff from the rooftop and balconies.
Military helicopters in the area for a Red Flag Exercise at Nellis Air Force Base proved to be life-savers. One of the units, based in Florida but in Nevada that morning for the exercise, was the U.S. Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing with its HH-3E Jolly Green Giant aircraft. They were specialists in air search and rescue. They lived their unit’s motto, “Any Time, Any Place,” that morning as they rescued roughly 1,000 occupants who were trying to escape the deadly smoke.
Protection system problems
For the 85 (two more died later) lives lost, their fate had been sealed by an inadequate building code, lax enforcement, political pressure on code enforcers, and building owners wanting to cut costs on construction.
The MGM owners had been advised to install a sprinkler system during construction, which they did not, citing the expense. The hotel met the existing fire codes when it was constructed in 1973, and the owners followed the minimum requirements, only sprinkling the basement, showrooms and a 26th floor special use room.
At the time of the MGM fire, there were a handful of key life-safety and fire protection systems:
- Egress system to provide safe passage routes
- Fire detection, suppression and alarm systems
- System of fire zones to isolate sections of the hotel to prevent spread of fire and smoke
- HVAC system designed to stop the inflow of air during a fire
While a relatively small electrical fire in an unoccupied deli was the principal cause, a major contributing factor was the lack of an automatic sprinkler system in the area of origin.
Other important contributing factors:
- HVAC system design deficiencies (improper air flow during fire)
- Alarm system design deficiencies (system vulnerability to fire)
- Unusually high amount of flammable material in building
Human factors and failures
The human factors contributing to the fatal fire were an attitude of indifference by hotel management and political interference in code enforcement. Hotel management’s indifference was expressed by their neglect of maintenance for emergency systems and ignorance for adopting new safety technology. Political pressure on code enforcers resulted in inadequate fire inspections. Despite the well-known flaws of its fire protection systems, the MGM passed a fire inspection just six months prior.
The failure of fire and life-safety systems at the MGM are attributable to human negligence and/or malfeasance. Some examples:
- Hotel construction failed to meet the intent of the designers.
- Materials with high flame spread and smoke ratings were used for ceilings and attic areas.
- Casino-level furnishings were unusually flammable and produced toxic smoke.
- Physical and operational modifications made since the hotel opened reduced the effectiveness of the fire protection systems.
- Smoke paths across fire zone enclosures were left open or were covered with flammable materials.
- Areas designed for 24-hour use did not have sprinklers under the assumption that fire could be quickly detected there. One such area was the deli, the area of origin, where few people were early in the morning.
Other problems: The fire incapacitated the alarm system, preventing people in the tower from getting a timely warning. The fire zone enclosures were inadequate or burned, allowing smoke to enter hotel air ducts, elevator shafts and stairwells. The HVAC system provided fresh air from the outside instead of depriving the fire of oxygen.
It was the building egress system that proved to be the deadliest factor. The only guest exit paths were from rooms down stairwells to the street. Once guests entered stairwells, self-locking doors trapped them in smoke-filled stairwells, preventing them from returning to the hallways. Only the automatic sprinkler system worked as designed, preventing fire from spreading into the guest tower or beyond the casino-level areas that were equipped with sprinklers.
The tipping point fire
On Feb. 10, 1981, tragedy struck again when eight guests were killed in a fast-spreading fire at the Las Vegas Hilton’s East Tower.
It was this fire that finally shook up the slow-acting politicians at the state capital. Fifteen hours after the blaze, Senate Bill 214 was introduced, requiring all hotels to install sprinklers in all guest rooms and the back- and front-of-the-house areas.
Again, some politicians argued that the state should continue to let local jurisdictions remain responsible for fire safety. The politicians argued until June when finally they signed into law a bill requiring that approximately 33,000 structures throughout the state of Nevada undertake expensive retrofitting projects that would ensure that all buildings over 55 feet tall would have smoke detectors, fire alarms, exits, improved emergency lighting, and other safety improvements.
Years of important work
In July 1981, the MGM Grand reopened after $50 million worth of reconstruction work was complete. Dean Martin was the featured entertainer for the reopening. Using his reassuring delivery, Martin told the audience, “This is the safest place in the world, I ordered smoked salmon for breakfast in my room and the sprinklers went off.”
The Las Vegas fires and the 1986 arson fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which killed 98 and injured 140 brought the fire service face-to-face with two problems: lodging fires and high-rise fires. The resulting effort to address these problems took years, revising of codes, technology innovations and changes in firefighting methods – but the work is worth it when lives are on the line.