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.
A process called galvanic corrosion was the ultimate cause of the catastrophic fire. A pastry case in one of the hotel's restaurants, The Deli, was installed improperly. Over time, vibrations from the refrigerated case caused its copper pipes to shift and come into contact with an ungrounded aluminum conduit inside the wall. The two pipes rubbed against each other, causing the wire insulation to wear away, heat up the copper pipe, and start a fire within the wall.
It's unclear how long the fire smoldered inside the wall because the restaurant was closed overnight. On the morning of November 21, a hotel employee walked through the restaurant on his way to another part of the casino and saw a wall of flames reaching up to the ceiling. The heat was so strong that it knocked him down, but he wouldn't have been able to do anything to stop the fire anyway because the restaurant's fire extinguisher was missing.
The construction of the brand-new, top-of-the-line MGM Grand Hotel and Casino complex came to around $106 million. Despite the amount of money put into the building, there was one crucial expense that they had balked at: fire sprinklers. They did have fire sprinkler systems in a few parts of the complex, but not in several critical areas, like The Deli, where the fire started, or the casino floor, where the fire quickly spread. The additional cost to add the sprinklers throughout the hotel and casino would have been $192,000.
Officials from the fire marshal to an independent risk management consultant had either strongly recommended or insisted that the MGM Grand install the sprinklers. However, they were allowed to proceed with construction without them because they insisted that The Deli would be open 24 hours a day - if a fire began, an employee would always be nearby to handle the situation. However, after a few years, The Deli's business had slowed and it started to close overnight. Despite this schedule change, sprinklers were still not added.
The MGM Grand itself lost several hundred million of dollars between settlement payments, reconstruction costs, and a lack of gaming income while out of operation. Other hotels and businesses in Las Vegas suffered for years after the incident, due to the newly perceived lack of safety.
There were 85 deaths and 650 injuries (14 of those injured were firefighters) in the MGM Grand fire. Even though the fire was contained to the first floor and extinguished fairly quickly, casualties reached all the way to the top of the building. Because the air conditioning units didn't have smoke detectors, they kept running, thereby circulating smoke and carbon monoxide throughout the building. It was this combination of smoke and carbon monoxide that killed 80 victims, many trapped between the 16th and 26th floors of the building.
But how did the smoke get to the upper floors? During construction, the MGM Grand was improperly fitted with fire dampers inside the ventilation system that were supposed to shut and stop the spread of smoke. The dampers didn't shut after sensing the fire, so the carbon monoxide spread throughout the building.
It took less than 10 minutes for the fire to completely engulf the casino after it was discovered. The casino was essentially filled with fuel since almost all of the decor was made out of a combination of either plastic or wood. Leather stools were filled with foam padding, "chrome" finishes were actually plastic, not to mention plastic casino chips, and decorations like chandeliers and wood moldings that only looked like crystal and wood - they were plastic as well.
The ceiling compounded the problem. Ceiling tiles were installed using adhesive that was so flammable the state of Nevada banned its use three years earlier. Once the fire exploded into the casino, the ceiling went up in flames as fast as five to 10 feet per second. This allowed the fire to spread quickly, while all the burning plastic generated a deadly amount of smoke.