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October 30, 2014

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Past tragedies at Las Vegas resorts led to safer visits for today’s guests

Fire at the Monte Carlo

Clark County Fire Chief Steve Smith answers questions about the Monte Carlo fire and guests share their reactions to the evacuation process.

Business as usual

A mid-morning fire at the Monte Carlo did little to disrupt life on the Las Vegas Strip Friday afternoon.

Monte Carlo Burns

Smoke engulfs the Las Vegas skyline as the Monte Carlo burned for about an hour Friday, Jan. 25, 2008. Las Vegas and Clark County firefighters were able to contain the three-alarm fire that touched off on the top floors of the 32-story resort. At least seven people were injured in the nearly full 3,002-room hotel — the 13th largest in Las Vegas.

Monte Carlo Fire

The charred upper floors of the Monte Carlo show where a fire broke out Friday, Jan. 25, 2008. Launch slideshow »

Audio Clip

  • Celebrity Drew Carey talks about the MGM fire

Monte Carlo Quick Facts

  • Rooms: 3,002 (13th largest in Las Vegas)
  • Casino sq. footage: 102,197 (18th largest in Las Vegas)
  • Slot machines: 1,650
  • Tables: 75
  • Poker tables: 15
  • Sports book sq. footage: 5,628
  • Convention square footage: 23,000
  • Parent company: MGM MIrage
  • Year opened: 1996
  • Branded restaurants: Diablo’s Cantina, Andre’s French Restaurant, Monte Carlo Brew Pub, Dragon Noodle, Market City Caffe
  • Top exec: Anton Nikodemus, president
  • Headliner: Magician Lance Burton

Fires on the Strip

See a history of fires on the Strip »

The hotel fire with the second-largest loss of life in United States history took place on Nov. 21, 1980, when the 26-story MGM Grand Hotel and Casino burst into flames, killing 87 people and injuring 700.

At the time the MGM spouted a plume of black smoke seen throughout the Las Vegas Valley, there were no requirements for sprinklers, no smoke detectors in rooms and no way to contact guests in their rooms once the electricity was cut off.

Days after what was then the MGM Grand — the hotel is now Bally’s — burned, then-Gov. Robert List formed a panel of fire prevention experts, building inspectors and government representatives.

Though the panel made progress strengthening safety regulations in resorts statewide, a Feb. 10, 1981, arson blaze at the Las Vegas Hilton killed eight people and drove the point home that immediate changes in safety standards were needed.

Philip Cline, a 23-year-old Hilton busboy, was convicted of setting the Hilton fire. He is serving eight life terms without parole, plus 15 years for arson.

Since then, Las Vegas has not had a fire death in a high-rise building.

The MGM fire scene was grim, with witnesses reporting a fireball exploding from the front entrance about 7 a.m. Fire investigators discovered that the blaze began in a first-floor deli when a bare electrical wire leading to a refrigerator sparked.

The fire spread to the ceiling and the giant air-circulation system, funneling toxic fumes into hotel rooms. Flammable furnishings — as well as plastics, PVC piping and plastic foam within the walls for earthquake protection — fed the fire.

The fire burned for hours before it began spreading at a rate of 19 feet per second through the casino shortly after 7 a.m., the investigative report said.

About 5,000 people were in the resort when the blaze started. No fire alarm sounded. There was no panic in the casino and, unlike today, no mandatory evacuation.

Many guests were trapped in rooms, corridors and stairwells. Others died at gaming tables in the casino.

The investigation concluded that the fire spread rapidly because of a series of installation and building design flaws. A stairwell that was a crucial escape route filled with smoke. The laundry chutes failed to seal, opening more paths to heavy smoke. The MGM and other hotels shared air supply vents, allowing smoke to spew into hotel rooms and kill people as they slept.

To make matters worse at the MGM, fire marshals had ordered sprinkler systems installed in the casino during the hotel’s construction in 1972. But the hotel refused to pay for the $192,000 system and a Clark County building official agreed with the resort. Investigators said the system could have prevented the MGM disaster.

A report prepared for the Clark County manager after the MGM fire named 11 other hotels lacking sprinklers. They included the Flamingo Hilton, the Desert Inn and the Riviera.

Five months after the MGM blaze, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill mandating sprinkler systems in all hotels, motels, office buildings and apartments higher than 55 feet. All showrooms and other public gathering places with more than 15,000 square feet are required to have sprinkler systems. About 30,000 property owners statewide retrofitted their buildings.

Each resort today has a fire control room with computers that can pinpoint the origin of fires and vent smoke out of areas to help firefighters attack the flames.

After the MGM fire, some guests worked to improve fire safety standards in their own states.

Marv and Carol Schatzman of St. Louis, who were trapped inside the MGM but were rescued, worked with Missouri fire safety experts who presented recommendations to the Missouri Legislature mandating smoke detectors and sprinklers in hotels and other public buildings by the mid-1980s.

The Schatzmans testified that during the MGM fire smoke blinded them, causing them to stumble down stairwells and crawl over bodies to reach an exit.

The MGM and other hotels had flammable cellulose acoustical ceiling tiles, as well as plastics in carpets and slot machines that fueled flames and spread toxins. Modern Las Vegas hotels have replaced those materials.

Even adhesives have changed, since a banned adhesive used at the MGM cost the company $26 million in damages.

Sun reporter Ed Koch contributed to this report.

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