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Chapter 2: The Fire

Smoke pours from the MGM Grand Hotel on November 21, 1980

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Shortly after 7am on Friday, November 21, 1980 a fire broke out in a restaurant known as "The Deli" on the main floor of the MGM Grand Hotel.  The fire was discovered by employee, Tim Connor, who decided to take a shortcut to work through the restaurant, which was closed at the time.  As he made his way through the restaurant, he was horrified to discover a sheet of flames running from the top of a counter to the ceiling above.

Connor managed to call security from a phone on the wall, just before being knocked to the ground by a wave of heat & smoke.  He scrambled along the hallway, gathering other employees to help him collect fire extinguishers & hoses from inside the Barrymore Restaurant next door.  But by the time they made it back into the deli, it was too late; the flames had made their way up to the ceiling tiles - which were fastened with an incredibly flammable adhesive.

When Connor & the others realized they'd be trapped if they stayed there any longer, they fled back into the casino, closing the thick double-doors behind them & shouting warnings to everyone.

Closing the doors bought patrons of the MGM Grand Hotel a small amount of time to escape, but the heat inside the area around the closed off area became intense enough to cause a "flashover" - which blew the doors open.  The resulting fireball raced through the casino at an incredible rate of speed - consuming everything in its path - and blasted out the main entrance on the west side of the casino, towards the Las Vegas Strip.

A car damaged by the explosion/fireball that blasted out the main entrance of the MGM Grand Hotel

Photo Credit: AP Photo

Clark County Fire Department had a station located immediately across the street from the MGM Grand Hotel and were on site within 2 minutes of the first call from MGM Security.  Within less than an hour, crews were able to fight the flames back to their source and had managed to get the fire completely under control.

However, the struggle that guests of the hotel were about to face was just beginning.

Most were sleeping soundly in the 2000-plus rooms & suites located above the casino and were completely unaware of the disaster that was unfolding downstairs.  But how could that be possible?

First, there was no fire alarm; the MGM Grand Hotel had NO automatic fire alarms...they had to be manually activated by staff and that hadn't happened.  Secondly, after the fire had been discovered, a PA system had been used to alert guests in the casino area of the danger but in the confusion, guests in the hotel towers were never notified.  And thirdly, guest rooms also lacked smoke detectors, meaning that many people inside the MGM Grand Hotel had no idea anything was wrong until they smelled smoke, heard people in the hallway outside their room or saw the firetrucks outside the building.

Smoke from the fire at the MGM Grand Hotel is visible for several miles around the site

Photo Credit: KNTV Las Vegas

As guests became aware of what was happening and attempted to escape, the danger became even more apparent.  Thick black smoke & toxic fumes - created by material that had burned in the casino downstairs - had begun to fill the hallways in the hotel towers, making many of them impassible.

Guests who did manage to get out of their rooms and make it to fire exits & stairwells discovered that those were also full of smoke.  To make matters worse, the doors to the stairwells were designed to lock from inside the hallways (as a security feature) meaning that once people were in the stairwell, they were trapped.  And with smoke billowing up the stairwell like a chimney, the only direction to go was up, forcing evacuees to make their way up as many as 20 flights of stairs towards the safety of the roof.

Guests of the MGM Grand trapped in their rooms dangle bedsheets from broken windows to alert firefighters

Photo Credit: The Las Vegas Sun

For those guests that couldn't get out of their rooms or were forced to return to their rooms by the thick smoke, there were few options.  Many used the furniture in their rooms to smash out windows in a desperate attempt to get fresh air (it was later determined that this likely resulted in smoke from outside the building making its way inside guest rooms).  Others filled their bathtubs with water to soak towels to tuck under the door to keep smoke out of their rooms.  Several guests also tied bedsheets together and hung them from balconies either to attempt to escape or attract the attention of firefighters below.

Firefighters rescue guests trapped on the lower floors of the MGM Grand Hotel

Photo Credit: AP Photo

Guests on lower floors of the hotel were rescued by firefighters using ladder-trucks that were only able to reach as high as the ninth floor of the hotel.  Construction workers, who were working on building an addition to the hotel, used scaffolding to reach windows that firetrucks couldn't.  Elsewhere in the hotel, first responders went floor by floor, banging on doors in attempt to clear guests from their rooms.  

 

Helicopters - including those belonging to local police departments & US Air Force units - were used to evacuate over 300 people from the roof & upper floors of the resort.

Some guests were assisted in their evacuation by by-standers; two vacationing firefighters who were getting coffee near the deli when the the fire was initially discovered stayed behind to help get people out, one security guard managed to drag two unconscious guests from the hotel and an advertising exec from Pittsburgh carried an elderly guest down 21 flights of stairs to safety.

In the end, the process of clearing the MGM Grand Hotel took over four hours.

One of many helicopters used to rescue MGM Grand Hotel guests trapped on upper floors of the hotel

Photo Credit: AP Photo

Guests are evacuated during the MGM Grand Hotel fire on November 21, 1980

Photo Credit: Las Vegas Review-Journal

Once the evacuation was complete, Firefighters & First Responders began the horrible task of going on the hunt for casualties of the fire.

Victims of the blaze were found all throughout the resort complex - including in stairwells, near the elevator bank on the main floor, in the casino area and even inside elevators.  The largest concentration of victims was on the upper floors of the hotel - between the 16th & 26th floors - with a majority being on the 20th and 23rd floors.  In almost all of those cases, victims were discovered inside or near their rooms on in the lobby area outside the elevators.

According to the Coroner's report, a majority of fatalities were due to a combination of smoke inhalation & carbon monoxide poisoning with very few deaths being linked to burns or other injuries.

When all was said and done, 85 people were dead and over 650 people were injured in the fire.

Firefighters remove a body from the entrance of the MGM Grand Hotel following the November 21, 1980 fire

Photo Credit: Las Vegas Review-Journal