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Nov. 20, 2005
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


CORRECTION, 11/22/05: A word was omitted from Jane Ann Morrison's commentary Sunday about the MGM Grand Hotel fire. At the time, it was the second-deadliest "hotel" fire in the United States, not the second-deadliest fire.

IN DEPTH: MGM GRAND HOTEL FIRE: 25 YEARS LATER: Disaster didn't have to be

Simple steps would have prevented state's deadliest blaze

By JANE ANN MORRISON
REVIEW-JOURNAL



Smoke from the Nov. 21, 1980, fire at the MGM Grand Hotel proved more of a killer than the actual fire. The early morning blaze started in The Deli restaurant and tore through the casino, causing the deaths of 87 people at the hotel now known as Bally's.
Photo by Gary Thompson.


U.S. District Judge Philip Pro carries on his key chain a fusible link, a small piece that was part of the MGM Grand Hotel's ventilation system to control smoke. Because it wasn't installed properly, smoke moved through the ventilation system during the fire at the hotel 25 years ago.
Photo by Clint Karlsen.


Click image for enlargement.

This photo of an unidentified man comforting his wife ran in newspapers worldwide. The woman, whose face is covered with soot, survived.
Photo by Gary Thompson.

The fire at the MGM Grand Hotel 25 years ago would have been a two-sprinkler fire if sprinklers had been there.

Despite pressure from fire marshals during the hotel's construction (and even after it opened in December 1973), hotel executives fought installing sprinklers. Sprinklers in the casino would have added about $192,000 to the cost of the $106 million hotel. A helpful Clark County building official interpreted the code so the hotel wasn't forced to have sprinklers in the casino, or in The Deli restaurant where the fire started.

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"With sprinklers, it would have been a one- or two-sprinkler fire and we never would have heard about it," said David Demers, the Massachusetts fire analysis specialist who co-authored the National Fire Protection Association's report on the MGM Grand Hotel fire.

Monday is the 25th anniversary of the Nov. 21, 1980, fire which caused the deaths of 87 people. For want of sprinklers.

Where the sprinklers had been installed, they clearly worked. But sprinklers weren't anywhere near where the fire broke out behind a wall near a serving station at The Deli that Friday morning about 7:10 a.m. The Deli had received an exemption for sprinklers because it was supposed to be a 24-hour restaurant. It was assumed someone would always be there to put out a fire.

But then the hours changed and The Deli wasn't open all the time. It was closed when the fire erupted.

The fire, caused by an electrical ground-fault, smoldered for hours before breaking through the wall.

Sprinklers could have put it out then. Instead, the fire fed off flammable plastic and paper, even the pictures of movie stars encased in plastic, all fodder for the state's deadliest fire, which was also the nation's second-deadliest hotel fire at that time.

An employee cutting through the closed Deli on the way to work was the first to see the fire. The worker, not identified by name in the fire investigation report, called security, then tried to put it out. The worker wasn't trained and the proper equipment wasn't there, the NFPA investigation said.

A visiting firefighter from Illinois breakfasting in an adjacent coffee shop also tried to help a security guard find an extinguisher to put out the electrical fire, but they couldn't locate one.

A flame front moved into the casino, where the fire gained speed and strength, fueled by more flammable materials, including the highly flammable adhesive used to attach ceiling tiles.

Again, sprinklers would have put the fire out there.

Without them, within minutes, the fireball tore through the casino, blowing out the doors leading to the valet area.

Soon, killer smoke rose through the 26-floor high-rise tower via ventilation ducts.

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While the lack of sprinklers was a major factor contributing to the severity of the MGM fire, it's not that simple. Blame also has to be given to code violations, design flaws, installation errors, and materials that made the fire worse.

U.S. District Judge Philip Pro, who as a magistrate worked on the complex litigation that followed, described the problems at the hotel as being like Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

The fire alarms didn't sound because they were manual and nobody pulled them. However, the disaster might have been worse if the alarms had prompted more people to rush into smoke-filled hallways.

Despite the discovery of 83 building code violations, nobody was ever charged criminally with any wrongdoing. A judge appointed local attorney Lou Wiener as "special prosecutor" to see if any criminal actions had occurred, focusing primarily on the building code department because of the code violations identified afterward.

Wiener died in 1996 without issuing a report detailing any findings. At the 10-year anniversary, he told the Review-Journal: "In my opinion, it would have been difficult to convict anyone."

Will Kemp, one of the attorneys on the Plaintiff's Legal Committee that was formed to represent the claims, said the attorneys looked for signs of corruption in connection with the fire.

"There was no indication of payoffs," he said. "Believe me, we looked."

He said the late Fred Benninger, chairman of MGM at the time and chairman of the MGM Mirage at the time of his death in 2004, "made the decision to pull the sprinklers."

Before the hotel opened, letters addressed to Benninger from the Orvin Engineering Co. warned that "the liability of all the unsprinklered areas in this building should be a concern to your corporation."

A risk management company strongly advised the MGM to install automatic sprinklers in the casino and other areas as well.

But Clark County Building Director John Pisciotta had agreed with the MGM that the code requiring sprinklers in exhibition halls larger than 12,000 square feet didn't mean that casinos had to have sprinklers. So they didn't.

Three days after the MGM fire, Kenny Guinn, now governor but then a private citizen, was appointed to chair a commission to study Nevada's fire safety laws. In the commission's final report, it became very clear that sprinklers must be required in casinos.

Eight months after the fire, the MGM Grand Hotel was rebuilt and open for business. In 1985 it was sold and renamed Bally's. It is now part of the Harrah's Entertainment empire.

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Nobody can say the firefighters weren't prompt. A crew from nearby Station 11 was on the scene two minutes after the 7:16 a.m. call. The NFPA report includes a written report from one of the first responders.

An unnamed firefighter reported, "I saw three or four people coming out of the delicatessen area, and they started running across this ramp to these doors in front of us. At that time, all of us stopped You can see sort of a stratified layer of black smoke At the same time we noticed this stratified layer which was probably down about six to eight feet from the ceiling. A fireball and a heavy dense black cloud with a little bit of flame visible in the perimeter of the flames started rolling out."

When the firefighters saw the fireball coming toward them, they turned to run to the doors. By that time, the smoke was down to about 4 feet off the floor. "When we got to the doors, it felt like the fire had pushed us outside, the smoke had dropped so fast," the Clark County firefighter wrote.

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Most people remember a lot of people died in the fire and that it was the catalyst for Nevada's tough fire codes and retrofit laws that make the state's resorts among the safest places to stay.

They may have forgotten that actually it took two fires to prompt retrofitting.

For three months after the MGM fire, there was opposition to retrofitting. The retrofit of a Strip hotel was estimated to cost $2 million.

Opposition crumbled when an arsonist set fire to the Las Vegas Hilton on Feb. 10, 1981. Eight people were killed and 200 injured. The timing of the Hilton fire was particularly bad. The national press was in Las Vegas for the next day's big event: Frank Sinatra was going to be in front of gaming regulators to seek a gaming license. News of the Hilton fire, including the pictures of flames leaping up the outside of the hotel, went around the world nearly as quickly as those flames had jumped from floor to floor.

Opposition to expensive retrofitting disappeared.

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For all the memories of the opposition to sprinklers and retrofitting, there are memories of heroic acts.

The firefighters, of course. But also the advertising executive from Pittsburgh who carried a frail, elderly woman down 21 floors to safety. There were construction workers who used their scaffolds to help people escape from windows. There were helicopter pilots who evacuated 300 people from the roof of the high-rise tower.

And there were the police who helped search for the dead.

Sheriff Bill Young was a young patrol officer who worked the graveyard shift on the Las Vegas Strip. "We started in the casino and everything was melted. It was surreal looking." He saw dead bodies still sitting on chairs in front of slot machines "almost like they were frozen."

"I did room searches, finding dead bodies," he said. "We packed them up the stairs to the roof where they could be recovered."

The police and firefighters checked every room, floor by floor. "I remember going in rooms, seeing people who had tried to write their last notes and wills. I saw messages written in lipstick on mirrors and bathroom towels which people had tried to stuff under doors to keep the smoke out."

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The lawsuits were resolved relatively swiftly.

There were 1,327 lawsuits against 118 companies. Money from all the companies went into a $223 million settlement fund that was distributed to the victims and their families within three years of the fire.

MGM's $105 million was the largest. The second biggest sum was $14.4 million paid by Simpson Timber Co. for providing below-grade ceiling tiles and flammable adhesive.

Millions also were paid out by the architects, contractors, subcontractors, and those who provided the materials that enhanced the smoke damage.

With a settlement, no negligence was admitted.

The massive case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Louis Bechtle of Philadelphia. A new magistrate just six weeks on the job, Philip Pro, was assigned to handle pre-trial discovery.

Michael Cherry, now a Clark County District Court judge, was appointed special master to handle the logistics of scheduling and dealing with 4 million documents and 1,400 depositions.

Pro carries a reminder of the case on his key chain, a fusible link, a tiny little thing that was part of the ventilation system to control smoke. Because it wasn't installed properly, smoke moved through the ventilation system.

"It's a reminder of the case in a legal sense and it illustrates powerfully how things can go wrong, and the terrible consequences," the federal judge said.

"The aspect that sticks with me were the individuals in the elevators, they died by inhaling smoke. They were clawing at the door and had soot at their nose and mouth," Pro said.

They died because of a design defect by Otis Elevators.

"There was no sense that anything criminal had happened," Pro said. The evidence he saw "suggested negligence, terrible negligence."

Las Vegas attorney Steve Morris was the MGM Grand's local counsel and spent six years on the litigation, including the settlement with the victims and the subsequent insurance lawsuits. He didn't want to relive the case and rehash the causes and the fingerpointing.

"This wasn't a case where the MGM people intentionally built a defective hotel to save money," Morris said, taking issue with Kemp's analysis of Benninger's anti-sprinkler position.

"The sprinklers were not required at the time it was built. As far as we could tell, it was built to code." But he agreed that the codes were subject to interpretation.

It was wrong, Morris said, to suggest for a minute that Benninger ever said it was worth the risk to save money by not installing sprinklers. "I know how personally agonized he was after the fire," Morris said. "He was a tough businessman, he drove a hard bargain, but he was a warm and giving man. That fire almost killed him."

Morris conceded: "After the fact we could see things that perhaps should have been different."

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Everyone interviewed talked about the vast improvements in fire safety as a result of the MGM and Hilton fires.

Kemp remembers a small newspaper article about a construction fire at the Riviera, perhaps in 1992. At the time, he recalled, hundreds of people in wheelchairs were attending a spina bifida convention. Sprinklers quickly put out the fire, but he thought about what might have happened without the sprinklers.

He once counted 22 sprinklers in a single Caesars Palace hotel room. "You have a greater risk of drowning here than dying in a fire," he said.

Demers, the Massachusetts fire safety consultant who today has more than 30 years of experience investigating fires, believes the building code violations were so flagrant that "either nobody looked at it or they looked the other way."

He remembers fire dampers bolted open. "Anybody would have seen that," he said.

"There were improperly enclosed exits and improper installation of sprinklers. Because of the construction of the new addition, a line of exit doors had been chained shut. If the fire had occurred when the showrooms were occupied, between 1,500 and 2,000 people might have died."

Demers has no complaints about the fire department, then or now. Nor does he criticize today's Clark County Building Department.

But so many of the problems were so easy to see, he still wonders 25 years later: "How could anybody not have seen that stuff?"

MGM GRAND HOTEL FIRE: 25 YEARS LATER

MGM FIRE: 25 YEARS LATER


MGM GRAND HOTEL FIRE

BY THE NUMBERS


Deaths: 87

Injuries: More than 600

Legal claims: 1,357

Cost to settle the claims: $223 million

What sprinklers would have cost: $192,000

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