Could the Strip become a model of safety in a post-pandemic world? The response to the 1980 MGM fire might offer some lessons
Everyone who was in Las Vegas on the morning of November 21, 1980, remembers what they were doing when they heard that the MGM Grand was burning.
It was the worst disaster in the city’s history, and, at the time, the second-worst hotel fire in the nation’s history. (The 1946 fire in Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel, which claimed 119 lives, had that dubious honor.) All told, the MGM Grand fire would claim 87 lives. Thursday night had ended normally. At 7:15 that Friday morning, a fast-moving fire erupted from the hotel’s deli, racing through the casino and sending toxic smoke through the hotel tower. Most of the hotel’s 2,000 rooms were filled with sleeping guests who, if they were lucky, were woken by shouting and banging.
That day saw heroism — helicopters from Nellis Air Force Base rescuing guests from the hotel’s 26th-story roof, iron workers using their scaffolding to help others out of their windows, the 200 firefighters who battled the blaze. Yet there was also the sense that this tragedy was avoidable.
That the disaster may have been less deadly had there been fire-safety equipment provoked outrage.
“There was no alarm, not a thing, just panic,” guest John Pupich told the Review-Journal. Smoke detectors, fire alarms, and sprinklers had not been required by law when the MGM Grand had been built in 1973. As they stood in 1980, county building codes required all those fire safety features, but the building code was not retroactive, so the MGM only had sprinklers in its theater, kitchen, lobby, basement, and top floor.
This tragedy was also a public relations catastrophe for Las Vegas. The newest, most modern hotel was revealed as a death trap. Certainly images of black smoke billowing from the MGM Grand as guests desperately tried to escape — some jumped or fell to their deaths — were not going to encourage tourists to make travel plans.
National press coverage was macabre. “A Life-and-Death Gamble at MGM Grand,” read the headline to a UPI wire story. “Gamblers all, some of them bucked impossible odds, betting their lives on the strength of a bedsheet and plunging to a loser’s death,” the article began. Fire Chief Roy Parrish did not help matters when he told a press conference that, all things considered, only one percent of the 8,000 human beings in the MGM Grand at the time died. When he got on the scene, he’d figured “hundreds” would be dead. News that personal items left behind when guests fled the blaze had been looted added insult to injury.
Within a week of the inferno, several multimillion-dollar lawsuits had been filed, as other Strip hotel executives claimed that such a disastrous blaze could never happen at their resorts — though a quick check revealed that many of the city’s high rises lacked smoke detectors, alarm systems, and sprinklers.
For their part, MGM executives made it clear that the hotel would be reopened by July 1, and they also announced the establishment of a $1 million fund to assist employees who had been thrown out of work by the Grand’s closure. Other local businesses started a complementary relief fund, and labor unions and relief organizations distributed donations of food and clothing to both out-of-work employees and stranded tourists.
Even before survivors of the fire had left town, concerns about the economic impact of the fire blossomed. Las Vegas was already amid a recession, and 4,500 newly unemployed casino workers, as well as more than 2,000 rooms out of service, boded ill for the city’s recovery. Already, some were fretting about how the city could absorb the 55,000 conventioneers slated to arrive for the Consumer Economics Show in a few weeks. And removing the MGM Grand from the tax rolls, experts thought, could subtract up to $5 million from tax collections.
Looking to the future, the first instinct for both public officials and casino executives had been to deny that a problem existed. But with bad press continuing, it was impossible to deny. Governor Bob List convened a fire-safety commission chaired by Kenny Guinn in December; by the end of the month, it had gotten far enough along that it had already assembled a list of 11 ways existing hotels could be retrofitted.
By early February, the commission was prepared to file its report, which recommended adding some sprinklers, smoke detectors, and emergency stairwell lighting to existing high-rises. Some still protested that these measures might not be fully necessary, that they might be too expensive to enact. Although it seemed obvious that only retrofitting all hotels with sprinklers and other expensive safety systems would prevent another fire like that at the MGM Grand, the commission, bowing to pressure from the gaming industry, did not require it in existing structures.
DISASTER STRIKES TWICE
Then, on February 10, tragedy struck again. Eight guests died in a rapidly spreading fire in the Las Vegas Hilton’s East Tower. Fifteen hours later, Senate Bill 214, which required all hotels install sprinklers in all guest rooms and back- and front-of-the-house areas, was introduced in Carson City. Some still, however, argued that the state should continue to let local jurisdictions remain responsible for fire safety.
But with the second high-rise disaster, the reality became clear: However expensive fire mitigation systems might be, they were cheaper than the alternatives.
“Before the Hilton fire, the Legislature was diametrically opposed to retrofitting with sprinklers,” said state Sen. Joe Neal, a cosponsor of SB 214. “After the Hilton fire, no one was opposed.”
By the time in early March that List’s fire safety commission delivered its findings, some casinos were already installing protective systems. On June 15, List signed a bill turning the commission’s recommendations into law, requiring that about 33,000 structures throughout the state undertake expensive retrofitting projects that would ensure that all buildings over 55 feet tall would have smoke detectors, fire alarms, exits, improved emergency lighting, and other safety improvements.
Beyond the economic impact of the fires — and the costs of retrofitting — was the emotional impact on potential visitors of hotels everywhere. The fires, combined with the collapse of a skywalk at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency that July, made many guests fearful; according to news reports at the time, some avoided hotels whose design they perceived as dangerous or refused to stay in a room on an upper floor.
Las Vegas bore the brunt of the negative publicity from the fires and the ongoing recession. After a decade of successive increases, a record 11,941,524 visitors made it to Las Vegas in 1980. The numbers dropped the following two years, the longest and proportionally largest decline in visitation in Las Vegas history (so far).
Las Vegas reached a milestone on the road back on July 30, 1981, when the MGM Grand, after eight months and $50 million of reconstruction work, reopened. Although Dean Martin was the featured entertainer for the reopening, the real star was the hotel’s new $5 million, state-of-the-art fire suppression system. It featured a fireproof command center from which personnel monitored a computer capable of automatically activating 1,000 safety actions.
“This is the safest place in the world,” Martin reassured his audience. “I ordered smoked salmon for breakfast in my room and the sprinklers went off.”
FROM LAGGING BEHIND TO ‘SAFEST IN THE WORLD’
Of course, reopening the MGM Grand didn’t immediately reverse the city’s economic decline, and it didn’t assuage the worries of all potential Las Vegas visitors. Retrofitting the state’s high-rises was not an easy or quick task; it was not until the third anniversary of the MGM fire that most structures were in compliance, and it took several more years for all of the Strip to pass muster.
But by 1983, Las Vegas was seen as taking the lead on fire safety. The Hilton and MGM fires had led to Nevada adopting what was called “the toughest safety code in the nation,” with individual casinos going above and beyond it to show their concern for guest safety.
Still, uneasiness remained. A February 1986 series of arson attacks at the Dunes, Holiday Inn (now Harrah’s), and Sands were mostly extinguished by sprinklers, but some felt that Las Vegas got lucky. The bankruptcy-prone Dunes, which had several times requested extensions for its retrofitting because of financial problems, had a main casino that still lacked sprinklers or an alarm system. The Marina Hotel had failed to install non-combustible panels on its exterior windows to prevent a repeat of the Hilton tragedy — in which flames jumped from window to window — and was headed to court. The Flamingo Hilton and Landmark were not yet compliant, but they were close to the finish line.
The litigation sparked by the MGM Grand fire dragged on for years; the hotel never quite recovered its pre-disaster momentum and was sold, along with the MGM Grand Reno, to Bally Manufacturing in April 1986. A few months later, with the completion of the necessary work at the Marina, Clark County Inspections Administrator Brad Remp announced that all resorts in the county were now fully compliant with all fire-safety ordinances.
“I would say,” he said, “the tourists that come here can be very secure in knowing that any major facility they stay in can be counted among the safest in the world.”
Media coverage of the December 31, 1986, fire in Puerto Rico’s Dupont Plaza Hotel, which claimed 96 lives, reflected indirectly the work that had been put into improving safety for Las Vegas resorts. Only Massachusetts and Florida, it was noted, had laws as stringent as Nevada’s. Presumably these ordinances would prevent disasters like that at the MGM Grand — or at the Dupont Plaza.
‘IT HAS BEEN WORTH EVERY DOLLAR’
Ironically, a series of fires may have cemented the narrative that Las Vegas hotels were now fundamentally safe. On June 8, 1988, a housekeeper discovered a fire in a pile of linens on the 24th floor of Fitzgeralds (now The D). An employee quickly smothered the fire with a fire extinguisher; it never became intense enough to activate the sprinkler system. However, the alarms did trigger, and three floors of the hotel were evacuated, and play continued in the casino without interruption. A more serious September 1989 blaze at the Riviera, sparked by construction on the high-rise, led to the evacuation of 3,000 guests and caused $3.5 million in damage. Still, no one died, and though the fire was serious enough to halt gambling in the casino (which suffered water damage), most of the resort returned to operation within hours.
A Review-Journal editorial used the occasion to declare the retrofitting program, which had cost resorts more than $200 million, a success. Although it had taken strict enforcement to bring the Strip into total compliance, “it has been worth every dollar, as the aftermath of the Riviera blaze showed,” the R-J proclaimed.
And visitors returned. Visitation to Las Vegas started rising again in 1983. From 1985 until 1990, the city added, on average, more than a million new visitors a year, bringing the total from less than 12 million in 1980 to almost 21 million in 1990.
FROM DISASTER, A LESSON
The retrofitting and recovery of Las Vegas after the MGM Grand fire can serve as a playbook for how resorts adapt and the town recovers from its current crisis. The immediate disaster and its economic impact were the worst of it, but the long-term implications were worrisome too: With public confidence shaken, there were real fears that tourists would stay away.
The February 1981 Hilton fire, which claimed fewer lives but garnered more national media attention, underscored the need for real action. The 1981 fire-safety legislation, though it was expensive, ended up giving resorts a blueprint for improving safety. Some found it onerous, others struggled to pay for it, but in the end the public demanded safety, and Nevada’s leaders made the decision to embrace it.
With the state’s resorts reopening during the pandemic, there are few certainties. Will tourists want to travel? Will they want to visit casinos? Will a spike in cases force a second closure? But there are general principles to be learned from the pain of the MGM Grand fire four decades in the past. Las Vegas is a city built on public relations. Coming back from the fire demanded that the city undertake costly, time-consuming retrofitting before it could be promoted as safe. The eventual adoption of fire safety in Las Vegas led to the city being hailed, within a half-decade, as an example of responsible planning — two words not usually paired in discussions of Sin City.
So far this year, Las Vegas has suffered a calamity whose death toll and economic impact already dwarf that of the fire. But the lessons of that tragedy, painfully learned, can continue to point the way to the future.
While the first instinct may be to deny or minimize health and safety concerns about traveling to and vacationing in Las Vegas, ultimately the public will demand a response to those concerns. With the gaming industry already in recession in 1981, spending money on retrofitting was a huge financial burden — but one the industry accepted, after the Hilton fire proved the MGM Grand disaster was no fluke. For years, some hotel guests insisted on staying in rooms below the ninth floor, the highest elevation fire ladders could reach. It was only the existence of robust safety systems that proved themselves literally under fire at Fitzgeralds and the Riviera that fire became less of a concern.
It’s not hard to imagine that the labor and effort it will take to make Las Vegas appear healthy and safe should another viral outbreak occur here might eclipse the fire safety retrofitting of the 1980s. Certainly it would have an even bigger impact on how people live, work, and play in Las Vegas. So, in the new Las Vegas, expect stringent health measures. Expect messaging about how, while it’s fun, Las Vegas is also safe and responsible.
After the fire, casino executives learned to rely on fire-safety experts, whose advice helped them make changes that restored public confidence. Post-pandemic, virologists and public health experts will likely play a similar role in Las Vegas.
History has one final lesson. The prognosis for Las Vegas looked terrible by 1981. But within two years, the city’s recovery was well underway. By the end of the decade, the city — welcoming nearly twice as many visitors as before — was on the verge of even greater growth. F
Before becoming associate vice provost, gaming historian David G. Schwartz was the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.