Burning Memories : Ten years later, survivors continue to relive the MGM Grand fire. ‘Once you’ve been through an experience like that, it stays with you forever.’
On the morning of Nov. 21, 1980, the sound of sirens stirred Rafael Patino from bed. “Usually when you hear sirens, they come and then they go,” he said. “But these were coming and staying.”
When he looked out the window of his 16th-floor room, he realized that the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel was on fire.
“I woke up my wife and we got dressed to leave,” said Patino, an Irvine sales executive. “But when we walked out of the room, we couldn’t see anything. The hall was pitch black with smoke. My wife and I lost each other for a minute in the dark. I called to her and she found me, and we went back into our room.”
Fortunately, Patino had brought his room key with him. Many victims, as their doors slammed behind them, discovered that they had locked themselves out of their only refuge.
Ten years later, he still has room key 1675--a memento that possibly saved his life.
Eighty-five people--10 from Southern California--died in the fire that turned the opulent, high-rise resort into a suffocating chimney. The second most deadly hotel fire in U.S. history--after a 1946 Atlanta blaze that claimed 119 lives--the MGM Grand fire would leave a lasting mark on both the survivors and on American building safety standards.
Today, fire codes throughout the country are much stricter because of the MGM Grand tragedy. In 1980, many high-rises were not equipped with smoke detectors--much less sprinkler systems. The year after the disaster, both the Nevada and California legislatures beefed up state fire ordinances.
But that hasn’t prevented survivors from suffering panic attacks over the smell of smoke. Or from compulsively looking for fire escapes when they enter strange buildings.
Among those survivors were employees and spouses of Printronex, an Irvine-based computer firm that had sent 26 people to a trade show at the MGM Grand. Rafael Patino and his wife were among that group. A Printronex manager and his bride, who had called the Las Vegas excursion their honeymoon, died in the fire.
Bob Kleist, founder and president of Printronex, believes that the fire left psychological scars on his employees and financially hampered his company at a time when it was just hitting its stride and for “at least a couple of years afterwards.”
The fire “was a deep trauma to the company,” he said. “My suspicion is that it had a deeper effect (on the people) than was obvious on the surface.”
Said Rafael Patino: “I was very nervous about small and stupid things for a long time after the fire: the smell of a barbecue, lighting the fireplace, going to hotels. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely get over it.”
The night before the fire at the 2,076-room 26-floor hotel, a group of Printronex employees and spouses went to a late show starring singer Mac Davis. Then they visited the MGM Grand’s lavish casino.
While hotel guests pulled slot machines and played blackjack, an electrical wire shorted in the nearby delicatessen. For hours, a small fire smoldered unnoticed inside the wall and ceiling cavity.
About 7 a.m., a ferocious blaze suddenly burst into the kitchen and literally chased waitresses and breakfast customers out of the deli.
When firefighters arrived a few minutes later, flames already were rocketing through the 50,000-square-foot casino, consuming its plastic decor at an unstoppable pace.
“The fire traveled at 17 feet per second,” recalled Clark County Fire Chief Roy L. Parrish. “Four minutes after it exited the deli, it hit the lobby’s front doors and blew out their glass.”
Firefighters managed to keep the flames to the first two levels, but the fire’s lethal byproducts--smoke and carbon monoxide--drifted up the elevator shafts and air-conditioning ducts.
While a war raged below, all was quiet on the upper floors. Guests peacefully slept through the commotion, their rooms unguarded by smoke alarms.
About 8 a.m., they gradually began to awake to the faraway sound of sirens or screams.
Trapped inside their room, Rafael and Luz Patino assumed that they would die. “We prayed and prepared ourselves for death,” he said. “Then we started talking about our kids and wondering what would happen to them.”
The couple, then in their 30s, had a 6-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son at home in Irvine. Thinking about their children galvanized the Patinos to fight for their lives. “We wanted to be there for them. We said, ‘Wait a minute--we are not going to give up,’ ” he recalled.
They stuffed towels under the door and over vents to block the smoke that had started to pour in. They moved furniture and flammables to one corner, hoping to preserve a safety zone.
When they yanked off the curtains, they discovered a balcony. “The air outside was much better than inside,” Rafael Patino said. “A lot of glass was coming down (as window panes were broken by hotel guests above them). So we took one of the drapes and made a tent and covered ourselves. Some of our friends down on the street were waving to us and telling us to stay calm.”
There they remained for two hours, embracing one another and exchanging words of love. “Even though I have said ‘I love you’ many times in my life,” Rafael Patino recalled, “rarely have I said it with such intensity.”
On the other end of the hallway, Rafael’s co-worker Joe Campanella and his wife JoAnn--whose room did not have a balcony--were gasping for fresh air through their smashed window. They had awakened to screams of “Fire! Fire!”
“We turned on the radio and (newscasters) were already on the site giving a blow-by-blow account,” JoAnn Campanella said. “We tried to phone the desk downstairs and didn’t get an answer. We didn’t know if we were the last people left in the hotel, or what.”
Once he discovered that they could not escape into the smoky corridor, Joe Campanella felt as though “the walls were caving in.” He and his wife were not as optimistic as the Patinos: “We both thought we were going to die, but neither of us confessed that to the other.”
They heard an elderly woman yelling for help from the room above them. “She couldn’t break her window, and the woman she was with had passed out,” JoAnn Campanella said. “We kept telling her to smash a chair against the window, and finally she did. I think we were trying to maintain our sanity by focusing on her.”
Six floors below, Joe Campanella’s co-worker Peter Craig and his wife found sanctuary in a room with about 10 other people who had accidentally stumbled into a relatively smoke-free shelter.
While many of his colleagues huddled in the resort-turned-prison, Printronex marketing executive Mel Posin was already out on the street counting heads. He and his wife had a room on the 21st-floor next to a stairwell. The middle-aged couple quickly located the fire exit and made their long descent.
“When we were going down, a bunch of people came rushing up saying, ‘You can’t get out that way.’ Apparently, the door (at the bottom of the stairwell) was locked shut,” Posin said. “I almost started to turn back, but my wife said, ‘To heck with it--the closer we get to the ground floor, the better.’ ” Just as the Posins reached the second floor, a firefighter knocked a hole through the wall and helped them through to the loading dock roof.
The Patinos, Campanellas and Craigs had been assigned to comparatively safe floors. Sixty of the fire’s 85 victims died on the 19th through 24th levels, where smoke had risen through the elevator shafts and air-conditioning ducts, accumulating in a dense cloud. Only nine of the victims actually burned to death--all in the casino area.
Printronex employee Ed Herring and his wife, Genese, had a room on the 21st level. They perished side by side on the floor, asphyxiated by smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation.
The previous night, they had teased Mel Posin about his plush suite. “My wife and I had a fancy bedroom with a Jacuzzi,” Posin recalled. “Ed said, ‘It’s a shame--you’re an old married couple, and here we are newlyweds. We’d really make use of this room.’ I said, ‘Tell you what--tomorrow we can swap rooms.’ ”
Posin instead went to the morgue the next day to identify the Herrings.
JoAnn Campanella was in her 16th-floor room, looking out her window. “I kept watching the ladders and thinking that eventually they would get to us,” she recalled. Like most people of the era before heightened public awareness on fire safety, Campanella wasn’t aware that fire ladders extended only to the ninth or 10th level of a building.
But a ladder did eventually reach the 10th-floor room in which Peter and Patricia Craig waited with others. One by one, the evacuees scrambled over the balcony ledge and made their way down 100 feet of rungs--the ladder’s railing their sole security.
“It was a real long way down, let me tell you,” Peter Craig said. “But after being cooped up for two hours, we were so relieved to be getting out alive that we didn’t have any hesitations.”
About 10 a.m., rescue workers began banging on 16th-floor doors and guiding people to a stairwell. “Up until that point, I guess I had to think I was in control,” Joe Campanella remembered. “But as soon as the fireman told us, ‘You’re OK now--you can go down,’ my knees just turned to jelly and I started crying.”
At some point after the Patinos had left Room 1675, 50-year-old Sara Galico--a Mexican national visiting Las Vegas on holiday--stumbled through the open door and died next to Mrs. Patino’s trade show name tag.
Luz Patino heard on television the startling news that she was a fire victim.
“We were at the Hilton (in Las Vegas) that evening watching TV, and they listed my wife as a fatality,” Rafael Patino said. “It was broadcast all over the country.”
They had not been able to contact their children and other family members--so their loved ones also heard the report.
“I called my brother in Arizona to let him know that my wife was not one of the victims,” Rafael Patino said. Initially, his brother--thinking that Rafael was in shock--did not believe him. “He said, ‘But I heard it on the news.’ ”
In hindsight, the MGM Grand as it stood in 1980 seems a disaster waiting to happen: guest rooms unguarded by smoke detectors or sprinklers; a yawning hollow above the casino’s false ceiling that allowed flames to sweep through unchallenged; poorly designed stairwells that sucked smoke into fire escapes.
Only three months after the disaster, a fire at the Las Vegas Hilton took eight lives. The Nevada Legislature moved quickly.
“As a result of those two fires, the state passed a fire code law in 1981 that put Nevada in the forefront of fire safety,” Nevada State Fire Marshal Rex Jordan said.
A 1979 law had mandated sprinkler systems in all new buildings open to the public, but the strict new “retrofit law” extended that requirement to existing structures. The revised fire-code ordinances also called for such features as smoke detectors in rooms and elevators, exit map signs in all hotel rooms, limitations on the use of combustible fiberboard, and smoke-detector sensors in air-conditioning ducts that would automatically shut down the system to prevent smoke circulation.
California similarly reinforced its state fire code--with one crucial omission. An existing sprinkler system ordinance was not changed to affect pre-1974 buildings.
“While we have some of the best fire safety laws in the nation, we don’t have the optimum,” said California Fire Marshal Jim McMullen. “The resistance to a retrofit law is purely economical; sprinkler systems cost an average of about $1 million per building.”
Despite the expense, McMullen hopes that California someday will adopt fire laws as stringent as those in Nevada. “There has never been the loss of more than one life in a fire that occurred in a high-rise building with sprinklers,” he said.
“The MGM fire was a significant turning point in the level of fire safety in the United States,” said Tom Klem, who wrote an investigative report on the fire for the National Fire Protection Assn. “Still, it seems as though a disaster has to happen in people’s own back yard before they’ll go that extra mile and retroactively mandate sprinklers in high-rises.”
Less than eight months after the devastating fire, the MGM Grand reopened--to a full house. “We hired thousands of construction workers who worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Fred Benninger, president of MGM Grand Inc.
But the fire continued to take its toll on the hotel. It was hit by heavy legal costs--including a suit filed by the 24 Printronex employees that returned them about $50,000 each, according to Mark Robinson Jr., their attorney. MGM Grand and various contractors ultimately paid more than $140 million to about 1,400 victims and their families.
The firm’s operating earnings in fiscal 1984 were $58.9 million, compared to $72.1 million in 1979.
In 1986, Bally Manufacturing Corp. acquired the MGM hotels in Las Vegas and Reno. Benninger said the sale had nothing to do with the infamous fire. “There was no stigma attached to the MGM Grand,” he said. “The hotel today is one of the most protected in the world. We simply received a very attractive offer from Bally.”
The hotel is now called Bally’s Grand.
For weeks after the tragedy, Mel Posin said the mood at his workplace “was very solemn.”
Printronex president Kleist thinks the fire hurt his employees’ performance and the company as a whole for at least a couple of years afterward.
“Most of our top sales and marketing people were at that meeting because it was a big trade show,” he said. “They were the focus of our company--the people who represented us to the outside world.
“Those were the people who had to travel a lot, and there was a loss of enthusiasm (about traveling).”
To this day, the Printronex salespeople who survived the fire request lower-level hotel rooms when they travel.
“One of the first things I do after I check into a hotel is find the fire exits, and then I make sure that all the exit doors (in the stairwells) are unlocked,” said Rafael Patino, who is the international sales manager for Printronex. “Sometimes it’s embarrassing because security people look at you like, ‘What’s that guy up to?’ ”
Posin, who never leaves home without a portable smoke detector, recalled that the mood at his workplace “was very solemn” for weeks after the tragedy. “I guess that once you’ve been through an experience like that, it stays with you forever,” he said. “I fought in World War II, but this was more traumatic.”
JoAnn Campanella for years suffered severe panic attacks “at the slightest hint of smoke.” In recent years, she thought that she had pretty much gotten over the trauma--until a few months ago.
“I was watching the television news, and there was (film footage) about a hotel fire,” she said. “I started crying--I became hysterical. It was like I was living through that fire again. Joe’s mom and dad were visiting us, and I’m sure they thought I was going crazy.”
Still searching for an end to the tragedy, Rafael Patino felt compelled to return to Room 1675--where he and his wife thought they would gasp their last breath. While on a business trip to Las Vegas five years ago, he stopped by the former MGM Grand.
“I forced myself to walk inside, I forced myself to take the elevator to the 16th floor,” he said. “I found the room and just stood outside the door for a while.
“It’s one of those things that you can’t understand unless you’ve been through it. I had to retrace my steps. It was like finding a piece of me that had been lost.”