Before it was Nevada History … It was news: Officials call MGM fire worst in Vegas history | NevadaAppeal.com

Before it was Nevada History … It was news: Officials call MGM fire worst in Vegas history

Tim Dahlberg and James Kastelle
R-J Staff Writers
Nov. 21, 1980



At least 81 people were killed and hundreds more injured Friday morning when fire raced through the MGM Grand Hotel in the second-worst hotel fire in the nation's history.

Most of the dead were trapped in the upper floors of the hotel and died of smoke inhalation before they could be rescued. At least 10 bodies were found in the casino area of the hotel, which was gutted when flames spawned from a kitchen fire suddenly tore through the casino-level ceiling and enveloped unsuspecting gamblers.

More than 200 firefighters from all over Clark County responded to the blaze, and helicopters from Nellis Air Force Base were used to pluck some of the hundreds of stranded guests from their rooms high up in the 26 story resort, which is one of the largest in the world with 2,100 rooms.

Ambulances streamed back and forth from the hotel carrying the injured to four area hospitals and an emergency station at the Convention Center. Hospital spokesmen said at least 534 persons were treated for smoke inhalation, lacerations, broken bones and heart attacks, and said 195 were admitted for further treatment. Five firemen were also injured, none seriously, from flying glass and smoke inhalation.

The names of the victims were not immediately available. They were taken, mostly by helicopter, to the county morgue on Shadow Lane.

The fire, which Clark County Fire Chief Roy Parrish said broke out in a huge kitchen area that services six restaurants at the hotel, started about 7:15 a.m. and was not totally contained until several hours later. Firemen were still mopping up patches of smoldering embers through the early afternoon hours.

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A column of thick, black smoke rose about 2,000 feet above the hotel and could be seen from all parts of the Las Vegas Valley. Water from firefighters' hoses was 10-feet deep in the hotel basement and 3-feet deep in the casino.

At least three people jumped from their rooms at the hotel, including a woman and her husband who leaped hand-in-hand from the 17th floor. The woman was killed on impact while her husband was critically injured. The other jumper was seriously injured and taken to a local hospital.

Hundreds of other guests were rescued from their room balconies and windows by firefighters, construction workers and window-washers using ropes and scaffolds. Police and Air Force helicopters circled the resort for several hours, plucking some hotel guests out of their upper-floor perches and off the roof.

Most of the guest were unaware of the fire until smoke began billowing into their rooms. The hotel's fire alarm apparently malfunctioned, fire officials say, because the blaze consumed the alarm system's amplifier located in the hard-hit basement area before a warning could be sounded.

Attempts by guests to reach the hotel switchboard also failed as operators, who manned the board located in the basement area, apparently fled as soon as the blaze was noticed.

Patrons were already breaking windows and throwing out blanket ropes when the first fire units arrived. It was about 11 a.m. before all guests and employees were finally evacuated from the hotel.

Fire department ladders could only reach the 10th floor of the resort and the majority of the victims were discovered from the 20th floor and above. One woman was plucked out of her penthouse suite in a sling dropped from a huge Air Force helicopter hovering just above.

Most of the victims, over come by smoke, were found in rooms, hallways, elevators and fire escape stairwells in the upper floors of the resort. Others were discovered in the casino and kitchen areas, burned beyond recognition. Some guests rescued claimed fire exits were locked, but fire officials said the doors were open in front of the escaping guests but automatically locked behind them to prevent further spread of the blaze. "It's an absolute tragedy," said Gov. Robert List, who toured the burned-out resort about 4 p.m. "It's a catastrophe. It turns your stomach."

"It broke through like a ball of fire into the casino area and the false ceiling above it collapsed," he said. The fire engulfed the casino in a matter of minutes, sending gamblers and casino employees fleeing for exits. Eyewitnesses said some casino employees frantically tried to cover gaming tables while others ran out of the casino while stuffing gaming chips and cash in their pockets.

Police said one Las Vegas man, Keith McClenahan, 32, was arrested and charged with grand larceny after allegedly looting the abandoned rooms. The suspect, of 3103 Piedmont St., had $6,600 in cash and jewelry on him when he was apprehended. Police reported no other instances of looting, although they patrolled the hotel rooms with guard dogs.

Most of the rescued guests said they were sleeping when the fire broke out, but were awakened by shouts, people pounding on doors and smoke coming through air vents.

Officials say 2,000 of the rooms at the hotel were occupied Thursday night, and estimated up to 6,000 persons were in the hotel at the time of blaze. They said the displaced guests will be put up in other hotels, private homes and apartments.

Fire officials estimated damage to the resort at "multi-millions of dollars" and predicted the hotel would not be operational for nearly a year.

The rescued victims milled outside the hotel in 40-degree weather, dressed in pajamas, underclothes or whatever they could find before escaping the heavy smoke. Several thousand onlookers crowded across from the hotel watched as firefighters went about rescuing trapped guests.

"I saw smoke coming in under the door and looked out in the hallway," said Charles Clark of Charlotte, N.C., who had a room on the seventh floor. "I saw two persons in the hallway who couldn't speak any English and they were panicking."

Clark said he took the two in his room and gave them wet towels to put over their faces. "They wanted to throw a chair out the window and jump, but I said no," he said. "We then saw some firemen rescuing people from the next room and went over there and got down the ladder."

As guests were rescued, they were carried to waiting ambulances and first aid stations temporarily set up in the middle of Flamingo Road. Paramedics and doctors frantically worked on a steady stream of victims, some of them laying in the middle of the street getting emergency treatment.

Many of the first victims were badly burned. Others, brought mostly from floors as the fire progressed, suffered smoke inhalation. Despite a mobile generation unit set up to replace empty oxygen tanks, paramedics and firemen depleted their supplies several times during the morning because of heavy use. Doctors pounded frantically on the chest of one middle-aged man laying on a stretcher in the street as a portable heart unit hooked up to him showed a steady line and no heartbeat.

Several clergymen appeared at the scene to administer last rites to victims as they were carried out of the smoke-filled building.

Food, clothes and blood donations were solicited from local residents. Salvation Army and Red Cross units coordinated the disaster relief for survivors.

Trading on MGM Grand Hotel stock on the New York Stock Exchange was suspended temporarily Friday in what brokers said was a routine action taken when there is a development that could affect earnings. Trading resumed later in the day and the stock closed at 11 points, two points below where it had been before trading began Friday.

The disaster was the second-worst hotel fire ever in the history of the United States. The biggest death toll came from a Dec. 7, 1946, blaze that killed 119 people at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta.

Editor’s note: Throughout the year, the Appeal has featured articles from various newspapers depicting Nevada’s history. As the state’s 150th anniversary approaches, the Appeal will periodically feature front page articles from the past on its front page.

This is one in a sesquicentennial series of Nevada newspaper front pages telling the history of the state in the words of the people who were there.

Newspapers have been part of Nevada since before it was a state. They have chronicled the major events of their communities and the milestones of Nevadans’ lives.

The stories reprinted here are reproduced as faithfully as possible — punctuation, grammatical errors and all — to retain the flavor of the era in which they were published.

— Barry Smith, Nevada Press Association