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Chapter 3: The Investigation

Fire Captain Roy Walsh walks past the marquee at the MGM Hotel Theater the day after the tragic MGM Grand Hotel Fire

Photo Credit: AP Photo

The official cause of the fire at the MGM Grand Hotel was listed as an "electrical ground fault" inside a wall in the Deli Restaurant.  A refrigerated pastry display case had been added to the Deli after its initial construction.  A pair of copper lines attached to the display case (that carried refrigerant) had been run through the same part of the wall as an existing electrical conduit - and in contact with the conduit.

The evaporator unit hadn't been properly secured and, as such, vibrated constantly while it was in operation.  The vibrations ran along the copper lines which caused the electrical conduit to also vibrate.  As a result of that vibration, in combination with the electrical lines being pulled through the conduit during installation, caused parts of the plastic insulation on the wires to be rubbed away in several spots and make contact with the conduit, thus causing the conduit to no longer be electrically grounded.

The now-bare wiring glowed red-hot & began to arc, which ignited the fire.  According to reports, it's possible the fire had been smouldering inside the wall for hours before flames appeared and were discovered that morning at around 7am.

Complete diagram of the floorpan of the main level of the MGM Grand Hotel highlighting the location of "The Deli"

Photo Credit: Clark County Fire Department Official Report

Floorplan/seating chart of "The Deli" including the fire's point of origin

Photo Credit: Clark County Fire Department Official Report

Diagram showing the path the fire took from its point of origin in The Deli into the main casino area of the hotel

Photo Credit: Bob Allen/Los Angeles Times

One big question remained though: How did what appeared to be a simple electrical fire lead to 85 deaths and over 650 injuries?

The answer lies in the initial design and construction of the MGM Grand Hotel.

The first issue was the sprinkler system - or lack thereof.

Automatic sprinklers had been installed in some sections of the property - including the shopping promenade, the Celebrity Room Showroom, convention areas and the Barrymore Room Restaurant.  However, there were NO sprinklers in the hotel tower, the casino or most of the restaurant areas - including "The Deli" where the fire began.

At the time of the MGM Grand Hotel's construction in 1972, officials had been pushing for the installation of a full sprinkler system but Fred Benninger, the MGM Chairman at the time, deemed the $192,000 cost to install the system "not feasible".  MGM went to the Clark County Building Department seeking an exemption.  It was agreed that MGM could be exempted from installing sprinklers in areas that were occupied 24 hours a day, reasoning being that employees would quickly notice a fire and could use an extinguisher to contain it.

However, when The Deli changed its hours and was no longer a 24 hour restaurant, sprinklers were never installed.

Firefighters survey the damage on the casino floor following the fire at the MGM Grand Hotel

Photo Credit: Las Vegas Review-Journal

The other major issue involved the ventilation system for the MGM Grand, which allowed smoke and toxic fumes to make their way from the casino to the hotel tower and into guest rooms.

All of the "fire dampers" (trap doors inside duct work designed to close in case of a fire) on the lower levels of the resort had been installed incorrectly, with the ones directly above the casino bolted open.  As such, the dampers never closed and were unable to function as designed.

Also, once smoke had passed through all the ductwork, it entered what should have been an empty air circulation space above the casino.  Instead, that space had been filled with miles upon miles of drainpipes.  Builders had made the decision to use ABS piping rather than the traditional PVC, which was cheaper and easier to install.  However, when melted, ABS piping gives off poisonous cyanide gas.

Further to this, seismic joints designed to allow the building to sway in the case of an earthquake were open to the ventilation system - which they shouldn't have been.  This allowed smoke to make its way to the upper floors of the hotel, where open air vents fed directly into hallways & guest rooms.

Also, fans in the guest rooms, which were designed to be vented to an airshaft leading outside to bring in fresh air were connected to interior air sources - meaning they were continuously pumping smoke & fumes directly into guest rooms.  And to complicate matters even more, the air conditioning units on the roof hadn't been fitted with smoke detectors, so they continued to circulate smoke & fumes back into the building.

Fire damage on the casino floor of the MGM Grand Hotel following the fire on November 21, 1980

Photo Credit: Firehouse.com

Investigation photos show the severity of the damage on the casino floor at the MGM Grand Hotel

Photo Credit: Las Vegas Sun

Other issues included flaws in the design of the elevators where, contrary to building codes, the elevator doors weren't tightly sealed on any level of the hotel.  This allowed smoke & fumes to climb the elevator shaft like a chimney & creep out into hallways of the hotel.  Also, of the six stairwells intended to serve as emergency exits, the supposedly fire-rated materials used during construction failed in four of them, which allowed them to fill with thick deadly smoke that made its way into hallways every time a guest trying to escape opened an entry door.

It was also determined that there was an insufficient number of fire exits from the casino floor, no way to manually activate fire alarms in the casino area and that the hotel staff had never attempted to execute an emergency plan or sound an evacuation signal.

Later newspaper articles revealed there were upwards of 83 different building code violations, design flaws, installation errors and materials used that contributed to the scale of this disaster.

Photo showing damage in the casino area of the MGM Grand Hotel following the fire on November 21, 1980

Photo Credit: AP Photo

The major determination to come out of the investigation was that if MGM had just spent $192,000 on a sprinkler system, none of this would have happened.

According to David Demers, who handled the investigation for the National Fire Protection Association, "With sprinklers, it would have been a one or two sprinkler fire and we never would have heard about it."

Over 1300 lawsuits were filed against 118 different companies involved with the MGM Grand Hotel.  Money from the companies went into a $223 Million settlement fund, which was distributed to the victims and their families within 3 years of the fire.  MGM's $105 Million settlement was the largest portion and with that settlement, no negligence was ever admitted.

Beyond the human toll of the disaster, it's hard to calculate the economic impact of the MGM Grand Hotel fire.  Over and above the $223 Million in settlements paid out and the $300 Million in reconstruction cost, there's the hundreds of millions of dollars lost in downtime at the resort as well as lost revenue from gaming & tourism throughout the entire city as TV news showed the horrifying images from the fire for weeks and months afterwards.

In all, potentially BILLIONS of dollars in revenue went up in smoke - literally - as the direct result of the decision to save $192,000 by not installing sprinkler protection.

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Photos from inside the MGM Grand Hotel taken in the days following the fire on November 21, 1980

Photo Credit: Las Vegas Sun