Fiery Demise of the MGM Grand

I had the privilege of checking something nostalgic and fun off my bucket list earlier this week. Being a hotel geek, I’ve long wanted to stay in one of the 70s-tastic suites at the old MGM Grand (now Bally’s) on the corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Flamingo. These suites are often as cheap as $80, but I’d heard tell of many people getting free upgrades. So I booked a regular room for a whopping $31, and sure enough I was upgraded at check-in. Let me tell you, I couldn’t get up the elevators fast enough to check out this throwback of a room! Here’s a snapshot:

South Tower 7101

The thing with Bally’s is that even though the main tower (the original high-rise of the MGM Grand built in 1973) has been renovated, the South Tower has barely been touched since it opened in 1981. MGM Grand sold out to Bally’s in the mid-80s, and by then the glory days of this once-largest-in-the-world hotel were over. The main reason for the demise in only a dozen or so years? The third deadliest hotel fire in American history took place around 7:15AM on November 21, 1980 at MGM Grand. 85 people died and many, many more were injured. A small electrical fire started in the pie safe of the deli located off the casino floor of the hotel and smoldered for hours before a maintenance man stumbled upon it. By that time there were flames, and within minutes what should’ve been an easily contained kitchen fire sent a fireball racing almost 20 feet per second straight through the casino and out the hotel’s front doors, melting rows of slot machines and parked cars under the porte cochere in seconds. The main cause of death, however, wasn’t the fireball itself. The lavishly furnished casino floor was actually furnished with movie prop-quality chandeliers, drapes, and paintings, which means they were made of lots of polyurethane, lead paint, and plastic. Once these cheap furnishings caught fire, poisonous smoke began making its way up the hotel high-rise through vents and elevator shafts, suffocating slumbering guests and choking others to death. Where were the sprinklers, one asks? When the hotel was built in ’73, owner Kirk Kerkorian saved a mere $200,000 on construction costs of the $106 million dollar hotel by requesting an exemption to the sprinkler requirement. Per always reliable source Wikipedia:

The casino and restaurants were not protected by a fire sprinkler system because they were exempt from rules requiring fire sprinklers in areas occupied 24 hours per day. A Clark County building inspector granted the exemption—despite the opposition of fire marshals—reasoning that a fire would be quickly noticed by occupants and contained with portable fire extinguishers. When the fire broke out in the deli, it was no longer open 24 hours per day. It was closed and unoccupied.

I’ve read tediously long reports on the MGM Grand fire, and not only were there no sprinklers, but nary a fire extinguisher could be found in the vicinity of the deli. To make matters worse, the fire alarm never went off that morning. With well over 5,000 guests and employees in the building at the time of the fire, it’s a miracle only 85 people died. Helicopters rescued many guests off the roof, and fire truck ladders rescued people off their hotel room balconies as far as their truck ladders would reach: to the 9th floor of the 26-floor, three-winged tower. The scariest part about this tragedy to me is that most people died in the supposedly smoke-proof hotel stairwells. The doors leading into the stairwells from each floor locked behind the guests, and the only ways out were the doors to the roof or the doors to the ground floor. With all the retrofitted safety installations that Kerkorian and Co. were required to complete before re-opening and selling the property, guess what? To this day, those stairwell doors still lock behind you if you enter the stairwell. I’ve never stayed at another hotel where this was the case, and I have no clue why it would be the case in this hotel, of all places. (Did this stop me from taking a suite on the next-to-highest floor? Apparently not, but I checked for ample sprinklers and alarms in the room, and I also studied the evacuation plan posted on the door.)

One of the very few photos I’ve ever seen of the casino interior of the MGM, pre-fire. Since photography was prohibited by casino guests back then, it’s understandable that not many images exist.

Victims of the fire filed 1,327 lawsuits against 118 companies, and 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. Does that make up for the needless fiasco? Absolutely not…and to think that all of this could’ve been avoided by the installation of a $200K sprinkler system. More than that was spent on the opening night festivities of the hotel on December 5, 1973 alone. The stigma of the fire severely impacted the business of the re-opened MGM Grand in 1981, and Kirk Kerkorian soon set out to sell it and build a new, larger, more modern MGM Grand. The current MGM Grand is on the south end of the Strip and opened in 1992, almost 20 years after its namesake. MGM as a corporation now owns almost half the hotels on the Strip, including Bellagio, Mirage, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Circus Circus, and all the hotels and condos at City Center. At age 95, Kerkorian is intensely private, yet still very active as a minority owner of the MGM corporation.

Is it just me, or does this advert for the opening hotel look eerily like a disaster movie poster?

I’ll close with some photos from the aftermath of the fire. These are certainly not shared to glamourize the tragedy; rather, I think it’s important that we learned so much about fire safety and prevention from this disaster, especially as far as hotels are concerned. *Here* is also a great Web site with many facts about the fire and what was learned from it, from an emergency preparedness standpoint.

MGM pre-fire, late 70s

The fire in full force…you can see the new tower being constructed to the left. (That’s the South Tower I stayed in, which opened with the reopening of the hotel in 1981.)

This is a graphic from the Web site I linked to above.

The overall layout of the hotel remains mostly the same after almost 40 years. Even the deli where the fire started is still a small restaurant.

Casino interior after the fire was put out

MGM Grand porte cochere post-fire…notice the car’s wheels, among other things.

Firefighters survey the damage

300+ people were rescued from the roof of the hotel via helicopters, including several from Nellis AFB in north Las Vegas.

Provided caption: “Las Vegas, Nov. 21 1980- Rescue Arrives-Hotel guests, stranded on one of the lower floors of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, wait their turn to be rescued by firefighters Friday as a raging fire sweeps through the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Over 75 people have died in the fire with hundreds injured. Fire equipment could only reach nine sotries of the 26-story hotel.” All the balconies are sealed off these days, for better or worse.

Charred slots (I’ll refrain from making a “hot slots” joke.)

Polaroid someone took from the parking lot of the Tropicana, which is adjacent to the current MGM Grand. I’m always amazed when photos like this show up online.

Keys from the MGM Grand…I’ve read at least one account of how a survivor kept her room key to remind her how she cheated death that fateful day.

That’s all for this week. Maybe I can stick to my promise next week and write about something Southern or aristocratic. One can hope!

brt

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4 Comments

  1. Great blog post, I think it’s crucial people remember to think about safety–especially when they are in an unknown environment like a hotel

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting, Todd. Your blog was very helping in preparing mine–I think I paraphrased you once, and I was glad to link to your informative blog entry.

      Reply
  2. Shannon

     /  July 27, 2012

    thanks for the history lesson. 🙂 Seriously, that was very interesting…I didn’t know the full story until I read this. Thanks.

    Reply
  1. Call for Survivors of the MGM Grand Fire |

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