Thirty years ago on the morning of November 21, 1980, 85 people died and more than 700 were injured as a result of a fire at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. This was the second largest life-loss hotel fire in United States history. It was determined during the investigation that the fire originated in the wall soffit of the side stand in the Deli, one of five restaurants located on the casino level. The investigators concluded that several factors contributed to the cause of the fire but the primary source of ignition was an electrical ground fault.
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. As fire companies and firefighters were arriving, according to published reports, an estimated one-million-cubic-foot wall of flames was rushing through the casino, melting slot machines and sending a cyanide-laced cloud of killer smoke pouring upward.
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.
This fire 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.
- 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.
- According to the newspapers reports, NFPA’s Fire Investigation Manager, David Demers, concluded that “with sprinklers, it would have been a one or two sprinkler fire, and we would never have heard about it.”
- An employee cutting through the closed Deli on the way to work was the first to see the fire. The worker, not identified by name in the fire investigation report, called security, then tried to put it out. The worker wasn’t trained and the proper equipment wasn’t there, the NFPA investigation said.
- A visiting firefighter from Illinois breakfasting in an adjacent coffee shop also tried to help a security guard find an extinguisher to put out the electrical fire, but they couldn’t locate one.
- A flame front moved into the casino, where the fire gained speed and strength, fueled by more flammable materials, including the highly flammable adhesive used to attach ceiling tiles.
- Again, sprinklers would have put the fire out there.
- Without them, within minutes, the fireball tore through the casino, blowing out the doors leading to the valet area.
- Soon, killer smoke rose through the 26-floor high-rise tower via ventilation ducts.
- While the lack of sprinklers was a major factor contributing to the severity of the MGM fire, it’s not that simple. Blame also has to be given to code violations, design flaws, installation errors, and materials that made the fire worse.
- The fire alarms didn’t sound because they were manual and nobody pulled them. However, the disaster might have been worse if the alarms had prompted more people to rush into smoke-filled hallways.
- Despite the discovery of 83 building code violations, nobody was ever charged criminally with any wrongdoing
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.
- Construction of the 26-story MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (currently Bally’s) started in 1972 and it opened in December of 1973.
- There were 2,078 rooms at the hotel and the total area of the hotel and casino was approximately two million square feet.
- Fire sprinkler systems were not installed in the high-rise hotel, the casino (approximately 380 by 1200 feet, or 450,000 square feet), and the restaurant areas.
- Only partial fire sprinkler protection was provided for limited areas (arcade, showrooms and convention areas) on the ground level.
- Where the sprinklers had been installed, they clearly worked. But sprinklers weren’t anywhere near where the fire broke out behind a wall near a serving station at The Deli that Friday morning about 7:10 a.m.
- The Deli had received an exemption for sprinklers because it was supposed to be a 24-hour restaurant. It was assumed someone would always be there to put out a fire.
- But then the hours changed and The Deli wasn’t open all the time. It was closed when the fire erupted.
- The fire, caused by an electrical ground-fault, smoldered for hours before breaking through the wall.
- According to NFPA’s final investigation report , several major factors contributed to the large loss of life in this fire. Among them was the rapid fire and smoke development in the casino in the early stages of the fire due, in part, to the lack of sprinklers and adequate fire barriers.
- The fire generated massive amounts of smoke that spread up the hotel’s 23-story high-rise tower through unprotected vertical seismic joints and elevator hoistways and the substandard interior stair enclosures and exit passages.
- In addition, the hotel’s heating, ventilating, and air conditioning continued to operate during the fire, pushing smoke throughout the high-rise.
- Investigators found no evidence that the hotel had executed an emergency plan or sounded an evacuation alarm signal. Nor was there any evidence of manual fire alarm pull stations in the natural escape path in the casino.
- The number and capacity of the exits from the casino were deficient, and the travel distances from certain areas of the casino to the exits were too long.
- Finally, there was no automatic means of recalling the elevators to the main floor during the fire to prevent people from boarding them. Ten of the MGM Grand victims were found in the hotel’s elevators.
- As a result of this fire, NFPA Life Safety Code® requirements for stairwell re-entry onto building floors if the exit stair enclosure becomes untenable were changed to include three options.
- Stairwell doors must now remain unlocked on the inside of the stairwell so that people can get from the stairwell back to guest room floor.
- Or they may be locked, but they must automatically unlock when the building’s fire alarm system activates.
- Or hotels may use selected re-entry, in which there may be no more than four intervening floors between unlocked doors and signs must be provided to direct occupants to the floors with unlocked doors
On the night of February 10, 1981, just 90 days after the devastating MGM Grand fire, an arson fire started at the Las Vegas Hilton, which at the time was being retrofitted with modern fire safety equipment. Firefighters, using the knowledge they had learned from the MGM fire, used local television networks to notify people to stay in their rooms and not go out to the halls and stairwells. Because of the lessons learned, only eight people died in this fire compared with the 84 people who died in the MGM Grand fire
NFPA Looking back at the MGM Fire, HERE
RELATED NFPA INFORMATION
NFPA Investigation Report: Las Vegas MGM Grand Fire
U.S. Hotel Fire Incident With 10 Or More Fatalities (PDF, 17KB)
Additional Hotel/Motel Safety Information and Statistics
Looking Back: The MGM Grand Hotel Fire (NFPA Journal, May/June 2010)
NFPA remembers the 1980 MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas (NFPA Journal, March/April 2001)
Las Vegas Review Journal Media Research: Here
USFA Topical Fire Report Series; Hotel and Motel Fires, HERE
Lessons from the Past: MGM Grand Fire on Firehouse.com, HERE
Las Vegas and Nevada history as told by those who lived it- The MGM Fire 1980. This six part series was broadcast in 2000 and produced by KNPR’s Tim Anderson with support from the Nevada Humanities Committee. HERE
These links from the Las Vegas Review Journal Media covered the 25th Anniversary of the event;
IN DEPTH: MGM GRAND HOTEL FIRE: 25 YEARS LATER
IN DEPTH: MGM GRAND HOTEL FIRE: 25 YEARS LATER: Disaster didn’t have to be
IN DEPTH: MGM GRAND HOTEL FIRE: 25 YEARS LATER: Officer recalls eerie scene at burned hotel
MGM Grand Fire Photos, HERE
Current Data from the USFA:
- An estimated 3,900 hotel and motel fires are reported to U.S. fire departments each year and cause an estimated 15 deaths, 150 injuries, and $76 million in property loss.
- Hotel and motel fires are considered part of the residential fire problem. However, they comprise only approximately 1 percent of residential building fires.
- Half of hotel and motel fires are small, confined fires.
- Cooking is the leading cause of hotel and motel fires (46 percent). Almost all hotel and motel cooking fires are small, confined fires (97 percent).
- Eighteen percent of non-confined hotel and motel fires extend beyond the room of origin. The leading causes of these larger fires are electrical malfunctions (24 percent), intentionally set fires (15 percent), and fires caused by open flames (12 percent). In contrast, 42 percent of all non-confined residential building fires extend beyond the room of origin.
- While bedrooms are the primary origin of non-confined fires (23 percent), when confined cooking fires are considered, the kitchen or other cooking area is the most prevalent area of fire origin.
- Hotel and motel fires are more prevalent in the cooler months due to increases in heating fires and peak in February (9 percent).