The MGM Fire: Learning and Adjusting Rather Than Just Offering “Thoughts and Prayers”

On this day 38 years ago, Americans peered between the fingers covering their eyes with jaws dropped.  An iconic hotel in the middle of their adult playground had turned into an inferno. The MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (currently Bally’s)  the middle of the Las Vegas Strip was on fire.  85 people would die, and over 700 more would be sent to the hospital. MGM Grand Las Vegas Fire in 1980_29226376_ver1.0_1280_720
Photo Credit: Las Vegas Sun

Sadly, it could have been prevented.

The fire started around 7:00 A.M. in a restaurant known as “The Deli.”  It was caused by faulty wiring.  “The Deli”  was not open yet, but a worker noticed the smoke and called security.  He searched frantically for an extinguisher, but could not find one.  A visiting off duty firefighter tried to help, but to no avail.  They tried gallantly, but kept getting knocked back.  The fire began spreading at 19 feet per second.

For the majority of the building, no sprinklers were activated.  Automatic alarms were not sounded.  Guests began to scramble frantically, but they had little idea where the exits were or how to get to them.

The massive and luxurious MGM opened in December 1973 with over 2000 rooms and covering two million square feet.  It may not seem big by today’s standards of the Las Vegas Strip, but it was considered monstrous at the time.

The total construction cost of the hotel and casino was $106 million.  To install automatic sprinklers would have cost around $200K more.   The Las Vegas Fire Marshall demanded that the hotel  install the automatic sprinklers, but MGM did not want to spend the money.  The Clark County Building Department sided with the MGM, saying that since it the building operated 24/7, it did not require automatic sprinklers throughout the entire building.  The National Fire Protection Agency issued a report on the fire in 1981.  It said the sprinklers worked in the places they were installed and if the entire building had them, “This would have been a one or two sprinkler fire, and we never would have heard about it.”

Greed and selfishness cost 85 people their lives.
Photo Credit: KUSI News

There were 6 manual fire alarms on each floor of the M.G.M., but not automatic ones.  The plan in case of fire was to pull the manual alarms, and make an announcement over the public address system.  None of the manual alarms were pulled.  There were two announcements made in the casino, but guests in their hotel rooms were not notified.
The stairwells and elevator shafts quickly became smoke filled chimneys, offering little in the way of an escape route.  75 of the 85 deaths were caused by smoke inhalation.

If not for the quick and heroic responses of the Las Vegas Fire Department and the Clark County Fire Department, it would have been much worse.  They were called at 7:17 a.m., and arrived at 7:17.  By 8:30, the fire was controlled.  Fourteen of the firefighters would later be hospitalized.

The MGM fire was the second worst hotel fire in American history.  Less than three months later, at the Hilton on the Las Vegas strip (then the largest hotel in the world), a busboy started a fire which killed eight people and injured hundreds more.
Photo Credit: Las Vegas Review Journal

Something had to change!

As one of the premier vacation destinations in the world, Las Vegas knew it had to make serious adjustments and quickly.  Guests had to feel safe, or they and their wallets would find somewhere else to vacation.  New codes and laws would have to be passed, implemented, and enforced.  Nevada lawmakers soon pushed through some of the fire safety regulations in the country, and other states soon followed.

What did they change?

Most importantly, the addition of automatic sprinklers.  All buildings taller than 55 feet were forced to be retrofitted with them.  A building taller than three stories can not be opened now without them.  Automatic smoke alarms, complete with bright flashing light for the hearing impaired are also now mandatory.  So are the exit maps you now see near the door of your hotel room.  The HVAC systems in the strairwells and elevator shafts now have to live up to strict safety standards to insure that they can be used in the event of an emergency.  Major resorts and hotels also often now have emergency management consultants coach them on how to develop communication and evacuation plans in the event of a fire or other disaster.

Did it work?


Occupancy has grown exponentially since the MGM and Hilton fires, yet in terms of fire danger, the Las Vegas Strip is one of the safest places in the world.  They learned from their mistakes.  They made adjustments.  The Government stepped up to make sure that human life was more important than money.

They didn’t simply rely on thoughts and prayers, they took action.

Casino Fire
Photo Credit: Associated Press

What can we learn from this?

People love Las Vegas now more than ever.   They still go en masse 365 nights a year to the wonderful casinos, resorts, hotels, and attractions that rival any epicenter of fun in the world.  In order to continue this, some changes had to be made.  Thank God.  Who knows how many people are alive today because of these new safety standards.

None of those laws and regulations ruined Las Vegas, in fact quite the opposite.  People still have the freedom to gamble, drink, dance, and be entertained in hundreds of different ways.  Dangerous things can be regulated without removal.  Fun, freedom, and safety can all co-exist, as they should.   Anyone with common sense can see that.

Some have called the MGM and Hilton fires “The Moment Las Vegas realized it had to grow up.”  They didn’t do is simply with “thoughts and prayers”, they did it with action.  We still have too many tragedies today that could have been prevented, I hope our country’s  “growing up moment” comes soon.


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