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NFPA remembers the 1980 MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas

NFPA Journal®, March/April 2001

The second-largest loss-of-life hotel fire in United States history took place on November 21, 1980, at the 26-story MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. This fire, which killed 85 people and injured almost 700, provided a wake-up call for the industry to improve fire safety standards in hotels around the country. As a result, hotels today are safer than ever.

The fire scene at the MGM was grim. The blaze began with an electrical ground fault in a wall soffit in the first-floor deli that resulted when the uninsulated wires of a refrigeration unit were stretched and rubbed as the unit vibrated.

Once the fire ignited, it quickly traveled to the ceiling and the giant air-circulation system above the casino. In the casino, flames fed on flammable furnishings, including wall coverings, PVC piping, glue, fixtures, and even the mirrors on the walls,  which were made of plastic. The fire burned undetected for hours until it flashed over just after 7 a.m. and began spreading at a rate of 19 feet (5.8 meters) per second through the casino.

About 5,000 people were in the resort when the blaze started to burn in earnest. Many were trapped in their rooms, in the corridors, and in stairwells, and most of the victims died at the scene or in Las Vegas Valley hospitals. Another handful of victims succumbed to fire-related injuries within a year. Fourteen firefighters were hospitalized, most suffering from smoke inhalation.

The investigation determined that the rapid fire spread was due to a series of installation and building design flaws. A wire at the point of fire origin that had been improperly grounded could’ve been discovered had the area been inspected. A compressor wasn’t properly installed. A piece of copper wasn’t insulated correctly. A fire alarm never sounded. A stairwell that was a crucial escape route filled with smoke. The laundry chutes failed to seal, and defects existed in the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. All of these factors contributed to the spread of smoke.

To make matters worse, fire marshals had insisted sprinklers be installed in the casino during the building’s construction in 1972, but the hotel refused to pay for the $192,000 system, and a Clark County building official sided with the resort. Authorities later said the sprinkler system could have prevented the disaster at the hotel, which is now Bally’s Las Vegas Hilton Casino Resort.

The fallout was $223 million in legal settlements, in addition to the lives lost.

Fortunately, the lesson was learned, and Las Vegas is now a world leader when it comes to fire safety.