Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2019

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MGM Grand fire altered safety standards

Marv and Carol Schatzman always were health-conscious.

He was a standout on the 1948 National Invitational Tournament championship St. Louis University basketball team and she played college basketball and field hockey. They lived healthy, active lives.

But a fateful vacation in Las Vegas 20 years ago filled their lives with physical trauma and emotional scars.

Marv, who today is 73 and suffers from heart problems, and 71-year-old Carol, who in the last 20 years has had four heart attacks, two open-heart surgeries and breast cancer, were survivors of the tragic MGM Grand fire on Nov. 21, 1980.

Officially the fire at the 26-story Strip resort that was built in 1972 and today is called Bally's took 87 lives, nine of them Las Vegans.

However, no statistics are kept on people like the Schatzmans, whose lives arguably have been shortened as a result of the smoke and toxins they inhaled that day when the fire accidentally started in the resort's deli, smoldered in the walls and fireballed through a casino full of flammable plastics.

But many survivors like the Schatzmans, including the hundreds who were injured, returned home and told their stories to lawmakers to help pass laws that changed fire safety practices in high-rise buildings worldwide.

The Schatzmans worked with safety experts in St. Louis, leading to the Missouri Legislature mandating smoke detectors and sprinklers in hotels and other public buildings in the mid 1980s.

The Schatzmans testified that during the MGM fire they were blinded by smoke, causing them to stumble through stairwells and crawl over dead bodies to get to an exit.

"Even after all that was known about the MGM fire, the lobbyists (for Missouri hoteliers) were so strong against us," Marv said. "They argued that putting a $2 smoke detector in each room would bankrupt them."

In the wake of the MGM fire, the second-worst hotel blaze in history -- the worst was at Atlanta's Winecoff Hotel, which took 119 lives on Dec. 7, 1946 -- Nevada became one of the first states to enact what remain some of the world's toughest safety standards for public buildings.

"For the longest time, there wasn't a day that went by after the fire that we didn't get calls asking us which Las Vegas hotels had sprinklers and which were the safest to stay at," said Clark County Fire Department Assistant Chief Katherine Zagorski, who was a rookie fire inspector during the MGM fire.

"It wasn't until after the MGM fire that people got a true appreciation for the fact that fire kills and smoke kills."

After the fire, then-Gov. Robert List put together a blue-ribbon panel of fire prevention experts, building inspectors and government representatives to strengthen safety regulations in resorts statewide.

Although some progress had been made by the panel in the first weeks following the MGM fire, the Feb. 10, 1981, arson blaze at the Las Vegas Hilton killed eight people and drove home the need for immediate change.

"That (Hilton fire) really motivated the panel," fire department spokesman Bob Leinbach said. Philip Cline, a then 23-year-old Hilton busboy, was convicted of setting the fire. He is serving eight life terms without parole plus 15 years for arson.

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

And it wasn't just the MGM Grand or Hilton that were virtually without sprinklers in November 1980. A report prepared for the Clark County manager's office named 11 other hotels as lacking sprinklers, including the Flamingo Hilton, Desert Inn and Riviera.

Mandated sprinklers

Five months after the MGM fire, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill mandating sprinkler systems in all hotels, motels, office buildings, and apartments higher than 55 feet and requiring sprinklers in showrooms and other public gathering places of more than 15,000 square feet.

Former Deputy County Fire Chief John Pappageorge, who served on the state Board of Fire Safety at the time of the MGM fire, said that after the regulations were in place about 30,000 building owners around the state retrofitted their systems.

Before the MGM fire, Pappageorge said, Clark County had recorded only two hotel deaths from fire -- one the manager of the Holiday Inn on the Strip, who fell asleep smoking a cigarette in bed, and the other, fire department Capt. Frank Testa, who died from a heart attack while fighting a fire at the Stardust Hotel in 1969.

District Court Judge Michael Cherry, who was appointed special trial master for the complex litigation that followed the fire, said because of safety changes he believes a similar disaster in unlikely.

"Today you'd have a better chance drowning from the room's sprinklers than you would being burned to death in a fire," Cherry said.

Zagorski is not ready to go quite that far: "How I would put it is that if systems are maintained properly, hopefully nothing like this will happen again. In my line of work, you lean to the cautious side."

The MGM, which was at 99 percent capacity the day of the fire, only had sprinklers in a galley and in the basement, areas where the fire was stopped dead in its tracks by the heavy flow of water, Zagorski said.

In 1980 there were no smoke detectors in any MGM rooms. Today, Zagorski says, every room of every hotel has one or more smoke detectors depending on size.

The MGM, like other local hotels, had shared-air supply vents that funneled toxic fumes into rooms, killing people as they slept that Friday morning. Today, the vents operate independently, blocking fumes, Zagorski said.

The MGM and other resorts did not have fire control rooms. Today, every major public building has such rooms with computers that can pinpoint the origin of fires and vent smoke out of areas to help firefighters, Zagorski said.

There was no way for the MGM to contact hotel guests. Today, all hotels have voice communication paging systems, enabling hotel and fire officials to talk to guests and give them evacuation instructions.

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. Zagorski said those materials have long since been replaced.

Even the adhesives have changed. Cherry recalled that during the court proceedings it was learned that one defendant had applied an adhesive in the MGM that had been banned in Connecticut.

"Use of that adhesive cost that company $26 million in damages," Cherry said.

The MGM restitution trial and a subsequent legal action where the hotel sued insurance companies that balked at paying off retroactive insurance policies also had profound legal ramifications.

"We were real pioneers in this kind of law," Cherry said of the restitution trial that had 2,000 plaintiffs and several hundred defendants, including the MGM, suppliers, engineers, architects, chemical companies and elevator firms.

"The things we learned from that case paved the way for how we conduct today's massive consumer trials, like those involving tobacco and breast implants."

Bill Shernoff, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in bad faith insurance lawsuits, was hired by the MGM for the 1985 retroactive insurance case.

'Unforgettable lawsuit'

"It was one of the most unforgettable lawsuits I experienced," Shernoff said of the case where the underinsured MGM paid a $40 million premium for $120 million in retroactive insurance to cover huge claims.

The insurance companies banked on a long settlement process in order to make money from investments of the premium. The settlement came too quickly -- within five years -- and the insurance companies refused to pay.

"(MGM Grand owner) Kirk Kerkorian took the money out of his own pocket to pay off the remaining fire victims, then sued the insurance companies," Shernoff said in a phone interview. "It prevented the victims and their families from suffering while the matter was argued in the courts."

The trial was to be financed by the litigants, not Nevada taxpayers, but days before it started the insurance companies settled, paying $87.5 million.

"In the end, retroactive insurance was just bad policy because it makes the insurer insensitive to settling quickly, while public policy is to settle quickly," Shernoff said. "This trial ended retroactive insurance."

But while insurance and legal issues dominated the aftermath of the fire, public safety always remained the central concern.

"What it comes down to is that hotel guests and workers expect to be kept safe," Zagorski said. "We have made great strides in assuring that they are. It is a shame it took a tragedy like the MGM fire to achieve that."

For rookie Las Vegas firefighters John Banks and Rick Eaton, answering the 7:30 a.m. alarm at the MGM 20 years ago -- a time when Las Vegas had 450,000 residents -- changed their professional lives.

Banks and Eaton arrived during the second alarm, among the city of Las Vegas fire crews who followed county firefighters into the inferno. Two-man crews held twin hoses that pumped 800 gallons of water a minute onto the fireball.

"There was a river of water put on that fire," Banks said, recalling the foot-deep flow around the casino. "It was just awesome."

Eaton said: "We never left the scene. The preventative measures to safeguard Las Vegas hotels remain in place to this day. It makes it one of the safest cities to stay in in a high-rise now."

Kurt Schlueter, a firefighter from Western Springs, Ill., who was vacationing at the MGM the day it burned, returned to Las Vegas six years ago.

"I walked through Bally's and remembered that it was dumb luck that I had been in a position to survive," Schlueter said, noting that he got up early and decided to go to the coffee shop while his friends and fellow firefighters David Porter and William Gerbosi decided to stay in their rooms.

Porter and Gerbosi died trying to fight the fire on their floor.

Marv and Carol Schatzman have visited Las Vegas several times since the fire. Ironically, they usually stay at the Las Vegas Hilton, but only in a room on one of the first three floors.

"We visited Bally's once," Marv said. "After five minutes, Carol said she wanted to leave, so we did. It was just too much for her."

Spokesmen for Bally's, now owned by Park Place Resorts, and the MGM megaresort, that was built down the street by the original MGM owners, declined to comment on the historic fire.

Close calls

Since the MGM catastrophe, there have been some close calls, but no resort disasters. Most hotel fires are caused by a carelessly tossed cigarette, an electrical malfunction or grease ablaze in the kitchen, Leinbach said.

Thomas Edward Little Owl, born on a Montana Indian reservation, was convicted of setting a string of fires at Strip hotels in early 1986. He was sentenced in December 1986 to 10 years in prison for an arson blaze at the Sands Hotel. He no longer is imprisoned in Nevada. His whereabouts are unknown.

As recently as 1998, the Hilton hotel-casino suffered $1 million in damages and evacuated six floors during a two-alarm fire, but no one was injured, Leinbach said.

Also in the late 1990s, a four-alarm fire at the Rio's All-American Grill evacuated the hotel as the fire blazed in a kitchen duct.

While fire-proofing major resorts that are the size of small cities is expensive, few of today's owners balk -- still well aware of the consequences of an MGM-type fire.

When the Aladdin was resurrected this year, every smoke alarm was tested three times. Any failure requires replacing the faulty alarm. Zagorski worked through the night as an inspector on that one.

"Unfortunately for the Aladdin, it delayed the opening day, but they understood that we have to have everything working properly," Zagorski said.

Leinbach said safety measures are so exhaustive that a water pump has to work at all times and have a backup generator in case the power goes out -- and that electricity has to be restored within 10 seconds.

"The bottom line," Leinbach said, "is we have very small fires and no deaths."

And if that becomes the MGM fire's lasting legacy, fire officials -- and millions of future guests to Las Vegas -- can live with that.