On November 21, 1980, the MGM Grand fire claimed the lives of 85 people and sent 650 more to the hospital. The tragedy shook Las Vegas to its core and destroyed what was supposed to be one of the city's most luxurious hotels. But how did the MGM Grand fire start?
The fire was caused by a chain of negligence, from the construction of the building itself to the installation of fire prevention devices to updates that were in the process of being made the year of the fire. The lack of oversight that led to the fire horrified the country, sending sweeping policy changes into effect, not just for other casinos, but for the entire country.
The city of Las Vegas was haunted for years by the tragedy, and many hotels and casinos suffered due to the impact on the city's image. Decades later, the MGM Grand fire stills stands as a testament to the bravery of the city's firefighters and the massive changes in fire safety that sadly came too late for its victims.
The Stairwell Doors Locked Automatically, Trapping People Inside
One of the major flaws in the construction of the MGM Grand was its stairwells. The 26-floor hotel had multiple stairwells for guests to exit the building during the fire, but the doors automatically locked from the inside. So, guests could enter the stairwells to head downstairs, but once inside they were trapped. Many died in the stairwells, as they were filled with toxic black smoke from the casino. However, hundreds of guests found their way up the stairs to the hotel's roof, where helicopters assisted with the evacuation.
The Casino Wasn't Equipped With A Sprinkler System
Although sprinkler systems were installed in select sections of the MGM Grand complex, many critical areas weren't covered, including the casino itself. The casino was the size of three football fields, and the open space allowed the fire to blaze out of control. Not only was the large room pumped full of oxygen to feed the flames, it was packed with wooden and plastic decor. Luckily, since the fire began around 7 am, there were relatively few guests in the casino at the time. After the fire was extinguished, the casino had been reduced to heaps of burned plastic and rubble.
There Were No Automatic Fire Alarms
Today, buildings are outfitted with alarms that activate on their own when they detect a fire, but the MGM Grand wasn't equipped with automatic alarms in 1980. Staff had to set the alarms manually once a fire was identified. To make things worse, there were no alarm boxes in the casino area of the complex where the fire started. Employees interviewed after the tragedy said they initially doubted the existence of a fire because the alarms weren't triggered. Without proof, they hesitated to evacuate guests. Many guests remained asleep in their beds, unaware of the catastrophe that was unfolding.
Guests Were Desperate To Escape The Upper Floors
As the fire quickly spread downstairs, hundreds of guests were trapped on the floors above. Due to the delay in activating the manual fire alarm, many guests didn't realize they would need to get out until it was too late to go downstairs. Even after the evacuation had begun, some guests dismissed the activity outside of their room as typical Las Vegas revelry.
Most of the people who died were found between the 19th and 26th floors. After the fire, victims were found with a "black kiss" around their mouths from the smoke they'd inhaled. Others left bloody handprints on doors and desperate messages for help on their mirrors. Survivors took serious measures as well. Some fled to the roof, where helicopter pilots airlifted them to safety, while others shattered windows so they could try to get fresh air and wait for rescue.