Wednesday, Feb. 11, 1981 | 6 a.m.
Unleashed by a powerful explosion, a fire set by one or more arsonist roared through the plush Las Vegas Hilton Hotel Tuesday night, killing at least five persons and routing hundreds of guests.
In a horrifying of the MGM hotel fire on Nov. 21, flames broke out on the eighth floor on the 30-floor luxury hotel gambling spa about 8 p.m. and went through the east wing three-wing hotel. While some guest clambered down hastily made sheet ladders, other hung out of hotel room windows and screamed for help.
Helicopters evacuated guests from the hotel, delivering them to nearby Las Vegas Convention Center.
Authorities on the scene confirmed the fire was deliberately set. Early Wednesday, police were questioning a suspect with a soot-blackened face at the nearby Las Vegas Convention Center.
At least five persons were found dead in the hotel - three men on the eighth floor and a man and a woman in a bathroom on the 10th floor. The eighth floor victims were found lying face down in an open elevator, the others were outside closed elevator doors.
A sixth person was said to have fallen or jumped to his death, but the report was unconfirmed.
Shortly before midnight, a second fire broke out ion a linen room, fire officials reported. That blaze was quickly controlled.
At 10:20 p.m., county Fire Department Captain Ralph Dinsman said there were unconfirmed reports that the fire had begun on the eighth floor after an explosion.
Earlier, enormous clouds of smoke billowed from the 2,300-room hotel. Hundreds of onlookers thronged around the hotel, creating massive traffic problems for Metro police. There were reports that fights broke out among people milling outside the hotel.
Fireman and hotel employees raced through the hallways, searching for persons overcome by the smoke.
"Some guests were trapped in their rooms," a hotel spokesman said.
Fireman worked their way through the upper stories, leading guest to safety.
The east wing of the hotel where the fire started, according to one employee, was 80 percent occupied, including some of the guest who were attending a national shoe business convention.
"It started on the 8th floor and spread to multiple floors," said Capt. Ralph Dinsman of the Clark County Fire department.
"Fireman immediately began checking all the rooms," said Dinsman.
A security guard ran through the casino and told gamblers:
"This is the last hand and I do mean the last hand."
Money was locked in boxers at the casino tables and gamblers were evacuated.
Entertainment director Dick Lane interrupted the act of dancer Juliet Prowse, telling the audience of more than 900 that "there is an emergency - please leave immediately.
"Everybody left their stuff on the chairs and left in an orderly fashion," said Rick and Linda Ryan, tourist from Iowa.
"We though it was a bomb," said Al Cramer of Hannibal, Mo. "We didn't smell any smoke."
The fire triggered a call for all emergency fire equipment in the metropolitan area. Ladder units pured water into the 8th, 9th and 10th floors in the rear of the hotel as policed attempted to control a crowd of spectators who rushed to the scene.
One entire wing of the resort was darkened by an apparent electrical failure.
Dr. Richard Dix, chief of hospital services at Nellis Air Force Base, was named to coordinate medical facilites at the emergency hospital set up at the Las Vegas convention center.
"We are prepared to handle 400 to 500 people. Fortunately the population in the hospitals locally is low and we can handle everybody if it becomes necessary," said Dix.
Frank DeSantis, a baseball player for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, saw a man on the eighth floor throw a chair through the window, sprinkling glass below. A man hanging from the window below was showered with falling glass but appeared to have escaped serious injury, said the athlete.
A black charred scar was visible from outside the hotel leading from the 8th floor to the top of the resort. It appeared to follow the path of an elevator or stairwell.