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Safety protection – then vs. now: MGM Grand fire

Ramtech’s Content Marketing Manager Jon Bennett looks at how safety protection has evolved over time. In the third article in this series, Jon looks back 41 years to an infamous fire in Las Vegas. Would or could this disaster still happen now?


It’s a Friday morning in November 1980 at the MGM Grand hotel and casino in Las Vegas. No doubt it was a busy time, especially heading into the weekend. In fact, there were around 5,000 people on site that morning, across the casino, entertainment and dining areas. There are circa 2,000 hotel rooms.

It starts in The Deli

Just after 7 in the morning, a fire was discovered in a restaurant within the complex known as The Deli. A tile crew was undertaking an inspection of the restaurant and noticed a flicker of light, which turned out to be the fire. It was ultimately caused by an electrical ground fault inside a wall-mounted electrical receptacle. Employees also noted at around the same time that smoke was coming from ceiling vents. Security was advised, who then contacted the fire department. Under 20 minutes from the fire first being noticed, the Clark County Fire Department was onsite. This was followed by various helicopters (who started roof top evacuations) and other fire crews.

Initially, the fire spread rapidly. Fuelled by flammable materials such as wallpaper, glue, PVC piping, and plastic mirrors, once the fire had entered the lobby it continued into the casino at a reported 13mph. This resulted in a huge fireball bursting through the main entrance close to the famous Las Vegas Strip. This whole event was very rapid, and it seems to have claimed the first victims when 18 people were killed on the casino level.

The fire never actually spread beyond the second floor of the casino – so why did the incident claim a total of 85 lives?

Toxic atmosphere

The flammable material I mentioned earlier when alight created toxic fumes and smoke. Unfortunately, this spread through the complex into the hotel easily thanks to vertical shafts such as stairways and elevators. This widespread flow of toxic air would end up causing the majority of the deaths.

Guests tried to evacuate, but some were unable to get out quickly enough due to the elevators not automatically returning to the main floor. 10 people died in one of these elevators. Some people even escaped via hanging bedsheets out of their windows to reach lower floors.

Some people who were trapped in their rooms broke open the windows to get fresh air, only for thick smoke from outside to pool into their rooms, making the situation worse. A few even managed to escape via a scaffolding platform.
A total of 78 guests and 7 employees died as a result of the incident. 650 suffered injuries, including 14 firefighters. 61 deaths happened from the 19th-24th floors, emphasising the impact of the toxic fumes.

Following the disaster, there was a campaign to promote the fact that during a building fire, inhaling smoke is a more serious threat than flames.

Would it happen now?

Specifically, the cause of fire was electrical and related to a display case in The Deli restaurant.
This display case was added after the building of the hotel and without going into technical details, vibration of an internal fan in the display case was also a factor as the wiring became ungrounded after plastic insulation eventually corroded. This eventually caused heat to build and the connections to arc, which ignited the fire. Initially it is suspected that the fire smouldered for several hours, until fresh oxygen fed it and it spread rapidly.

Modern display cases featured different, safer equipment – so although a fire is still possible of course, it’s likely in current times the technology would be such that a similar incident would never happen.
Once the fire has developed into the casino areas, there were a lack of sprinklers, which didn’t help the situation. Due to rules at the time, these areas didn’t have to have a sprinkler system. As they were occupied 24 hours a day, it was thought that any fire would be taken out by people using fire extinguishers, – although this opinion had opposition. Mainly due to cost, only a minimal amount of sprinklers were installed across the complex.

Within a week of the disaster, the local Governor formed a commission to determine whether older hotels in Nevada state should work to newer fire safety rules. However, less that 100 days after the MGM Grand fire, a fire broke out at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel, killing 8 people. These two incidents sped things along, leading to a major reformation of fire safety guidelines and codes. There were, after all, several failings noted to evacuation procedures and fire crew knowledge.

Later in 1981, all public-use buildings in Nevada were required to have fire sprinklers, smoke detectors in rooms and elevators, with exit maps in all hotel rooms. It took several years for all complexes of this type to conform however, as it took time to specify.
The reality is that even in 2021, a fire is still possible. But the chances of it spreading are drastically reduced due to a mix of increased safety requirements and advances in technology. For example, even if a wired fire alarm is undergoing refurbishment, temporary solutions such as WES can ensure 24/7 early warning of potential fires.