32nd Anniversary of Worst Fire in Las Vegas History

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LasVegasMichael discussed the anniversary of the MGM Grand fire that devastated the Strip 32 years ago in November of 1980.

This week marks the 32nd anniversary of what many people believe to be the most tragic event in Las Vegas history: the MGM Grand fire. It is only fitting that this day is continued to be remembered not because of the horrific events that occurred that November day in 1980, but because of the many positive events that occurred due to this tragedy. Nearly 100 people perished that day at MGM Grand, and the days events are not soon forgotten by anyone, locals and tourists alike. Today’s article will discuss this day, and how 32 years later, the event is still extremely relevant and talked about each and every year.

The modern generation may have no idea that there was ever a large scale fire at MGM Grand. Though the modern day MGM Grand sits unscathed at the busy intersection of Tropicana and Las Vegas Boulevard, this historical hotel fire occurred at the site of the ORIGINAL MGM Grand casino, which is now known as Bally’s and is part of the Caesars Entertainment family. Perhaps most surprisingly is that the structure itself and the layout of the casino has changed very little in the past 32 years. The place where the fire started, in a restaurant kitchen, continues to be a restaurant kitchen to this day. The casino itself and the physical layout has seen minimal changes in 32 years, so it is fairly easy to walk the casino floor and just imagine the incidents as they occurred. Aside from the aesthetic differences that the casino has from the many decorative renovations that have been done over the years, the single biggest change is the front of the property, which once held a vast parking lot. The days of open parking lots in front of casinos has long gone, so the area that formerly held the parking lot is now a large garden with a mechanical walkway that enables passerby easy access to the Bally’s casino. The hotel towers themselves stand as they did 32 years ago, with the tower that is closest to the strip (facing North/South), being the only structure that was completely unscathed by the fire, as it was recently constructed and not in use at the time of the blaze.

On that day, November 21st, 1980 85 people were killed in the fire. The majority of those were killed in stairway areas from smoke inhalation. The fire started due to faulty electrical wiring in the wall behind a display case in a restaurant located toward the rear of the casino. Sitting in the same location is the current coffee shop and tequila bar. The way that the casino is constructed, with one long thoroughfare creating the gaming pit, allowed for the growing fireball to literally envelop the entire casino in a matter of seconds. Though there were countless rumors of how people refused to leave their slot machines and instead burned to death, those urban legends have no basis. Though a select handful of people did perish in the casino proper, the majority of those were due to the fireball that quickly went through the casino.

What many people have forgotten over the years is how the city truly came together during and after the fire. The Air Force, based at Nellis Air Force Base, sent rescue helicopters to the scene ans rescued over 100 people from the roof of the building. At the time of the fire, it was estimated that over 5,000 people were in the building. Also at the time, the MGM Grand was one of the largest hotels in the world, and considered very high luxury by 1980's standards. Thousands of people were successfully evacuated and the neighboring casinos (especially Barbary Coast) shut down their operations to help out the smoke filled MGM Grand. Gaming tables at Barbary were used as operating tables, as medical triage was established in the casino lobby and gaming pit of the neighboring casino.

Though many people broke windows and waved flags hoping to get rescued, only one person was known to have fallen to death by jumping from the highrise. Also, despite other urban legends, people were not killed trying to break into the cage or looting during the fire. Heroic measures were made by firefighters from all over the Vegas valley, and the city as a whole seemed to truly pause operations and come together to help out.

Perhaps the largest positive that came out of the fire was the strong advances in fire prevention once the smoke cleared and codes were updated in the wake of the tragedy. At the time, sprinklers were not required in these buildings and limited regulations existed for fire codes with regards to the casinos. Though the MGM Grand was in the process of installing new sprinklers and ventilation systems, they were not operational at the time of the fire, and caused more deaths. Fire codes were stringently updated and new requirements were put in place the ensured that these types of disasters would not occur again in Las Vegas. Recent hotel fires in the city are contained quickly and cause little to no disruption to the hotel guests and safety is a much larger concern these days.

The tragedy wreaked havoc with the company that operated the MGM Grand. Only a few years later, the property was sold, and there was no MGM Grand in Las Vegas for several years. It wasn't until 1993 that the MGM Grand emerged in Las Vegas in an all new Wizard of Oz themed resort down the street. The old MGM Grand was sold to Bally Entertainment and became known as Bally's, which it still is known to this day, despite now being owned by Caesars Entertainment. Though the fire was over three decades ago, this is a city that never truly forgets. Those 85 people that perished that day did not die in vain, and countless lives have been unknowingly saved by the regulations and advances that have occurred since that fateful day in 1980. If any of the readers are old enough to remember this tragedy or perhaps even lived through it, please consider posted a comment in the link below and sharing your story. Thank you for reading.

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  1. Great post Mike. Thanks!!!

  2. Check out this video on YouTube: it is the NBC news broadcast the night of the fire

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xmsQrZ8 ... ata_player

  3. wasn't a body found in under one of the beds when the casino first opened and it was kept very quiet by the company?

  4. Nice piece Michael. My wife and I stayed there just a few weeks before the fire so we were really shocked to hear about it. The place was state of the art when it opened with the largest gaming floor on the strip. If memory serves me right a lot of people died in the stairwell because the ground story floor was locked.

  5. Excellent piece LVM. Are there any pictures of the aftermath? I stayed there recently and am interested to see what it was like compared to what I remember