Lessons of MGM Grand Fire Remembered

Thirty years ago, inadequate building design contributed to the deaths of 85 people in the Las Vegas high-rise, which was one of the deadliest hotel fires in U.S. history.

In the early morning of Nov. 21, 1980, a fire broke out at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. As a result of this catastrophic fire, 85 people died, and hundreds were injured. It remains one of the deadliest hotel fires in the history of the United States; the deadliest hotel fire, which killed 119 people, occurred in 1946 at the Hotel Winecoff in Atlanta.

"Poor fire protection design was a major contributing factor to the significant number of deaths and injuries," said Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager with the Bethesda, Md.-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers. "Many lives were lost on the upper floors of the hotel when smoke and toxic gases spread to the upper floors of the building via stairways, elevator hoistways, and the building’s heating ventilation and air conditioning system."

An estimated 3,400 hotel guests were inside the 23-story high-rise hotel/casino complex at the time of the fire. The building had a large ground floor that included the casino, restaurants, and a convention center. The hotel was located on the 21 floors above the ground level, and there was an arcade level below the ground level with a movie theater, shops, service areas, and a parking garage.

The fire started in an unoccupied deli on the ground level. The probable cause of the fire was determined to be an electrical ground fault that occurred in a concealed space in the deli’s serving station. After burning out the deli, the fire quickly spread into the casino. Some parts of the building were not protected by the building's fire sprinkler system at that time; neither the deli nor the casino had sprinkler protection.

"Once the fire reached the casino, because of the heavy fuel load and the lack of a fire suppression system, the fire spread quickly," said Jelenewicz. "As a result of the heavy fire conditions on the ground level and unprotected vertical openings throughout the building, deadly smoke propagated to the upper levels of the hotel."

In addition, the hotel's fire alarm system was never activated. Many occupants were not alerted to the emergency until they saw or smelled smoke, saw the fire department apparatus, or heard people yelling. By the time many of the hotel guests were alerted, smoke conditions made the normal escape routes untenable. About 300 guests made it to the roof, where they were rescued by helicopters.

Because of the lack of a fire suppression system throughout the building, unprotected vertical openings that allowed toxic gases to reach the upper floors, and the delay in occupant notification, many occupants could not get out alive. "The MGM fire reminds us of the threat that is posed by fire and the importance of designing buildings that keep people safe from fire," said Jelenewicz. "The fact of the matter, however, is that today, most hotels are much better protected. This is in large part due to the fire safety strategies and systems designed by fire protection engineers that make our world safer from fire."

Fire protection engineers analyze how buildings are used, how fires start and grow, and how fires affect people and property. They use the latest technologies to design systems to control fires, alert people to danger, and provide means for escape. Organized in 1950, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) represents engineers engaged in fire protection worldwide. It has a membership of more than 5,000 professionals and 65 international chapters.

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