Precisely 30 years ago today, at 7 in the morning of November 21, 1980, a fire at the luxury hotel and casino MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, killed 84 people. The majority of the fatalities were due to smoke inhalation, caused in part by poor building design where escape stairwells became an easy path for smoke to travel upwards. It remains to this day the third most deadliest hotel incident in the United States, after the 1946 Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta and the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1986.
A report released by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) a year later detailed the response as such:
The Clark County Fire Department dispatched the normal first-alarm assignment for such an occupancy: four engines, one ladder, one hosewagon, and one rescue, with a battalion chief and 23 firefighters. First-due Engine 11 and a rescue unit responded from Station 11 .. [their crew] of four investigated and reported smoke showing at 7:19 am.
The second alarm was transmitted at 7:21, which brought 4 additional engines.
At 7:26, the first ambulances were dispatched.
The almost total lack of windows and doors into the Casino severely limited attack positions.
At 8:00 am it was reported to the incident commander by Engine 4 that the total Casino was involved. About 25 minutes later, Portable 4 reported they had progressed to the center of Casino and were advancing.
The main fire was was controlled at approximately 8:30. However, Battalions 7 and 8 reported heavy smoke on the 16th, 17th and 18th floors.
Of the 5000 occupants in the building at that time, 600 guests were treated for minor injuries and approximately 35 firefighters had to seek medical attention after the fire. The report concluded that the probable cause of the fire was “an electrical ground-fault within a combustible concealed space in a waitresses’ serving station of The Deli”, a restaurant within the hotel.
Two Clark County Fire Department rescue units were on scene at 7:18am, two minutes after the alarm was received. Early-arriving units were dispatched to the upper floors to evacuate guests. At approximately 7:30, with the upper-floor smoke becoming a serious and life-threatening issue, a Las Vegas Metro Police Department helicopter pilot requested “all available helicopters” to the site. By 8:30 am, a total of 20 helicopters had responded, including nine United States Air Force aircraft.
An estimated 300 people were rescued from the roof.
Emergency medical services during the incident were coordinated by three or four key persons, including the manager of a Las Vegas ambulance company, Las Vegas and Clark County Fire Department captains and the director of the Clark County health district.
The ambulance company manager arrived first, becoming the on-scene EMS coordinator. The two Clark County rescue units, Rescue 11, and Rescue 12, were already on the scene at the time. Two additional rescue units from the county arrived between 8:30 and 9:00am. Then three additional rescue units from the city with fire equipment arrived. The Clark County Fire Department EMS coordinator, a captain, arrived on the scene at that time, observing two triage stations on Flamingo Road.
The ambulance company manager was asked by the deputy chief to request school buses to transport the ambulatory victims to the Las Vegas Convetnion Center.
The major problem reported with the use of helicopters involved communications, rotor noise, and rotor wash. As the large helicopters hovered above the hotel, noise was so sever that fire officers had extreme difficulty hearing their fire radios. Rotor wash, from 23 stories above, was severe enough to blow loose debris and blankets.
However, by 7:50 a.m., the fire was controlled on the east sector. And by 8:30 a.m. the main casino fire was controlled. Somewhat surprisingly, as a result of the firefighters’ quick response and knockdown, fire damage was limited to the ground floor casino and adjacent restaurants and did not extend to the high-rise hotel.
The full NFPA report is available here (7.3MB PDF).
If you’re interested in finding out more about the MGM Grand fire, here are some additional resources:
“The Las Vegas I Remember”. A six-part series from Nevada Public Radio KNPR’s Tim Anderson, originally broadcast in 2000.