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September 20, 2019

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1980 MGM Fire:

Survivors, witnesses describe chaos of MGM Grand fire

Don Feldman

Christopher DeVargas

Don Feldman, 1980 MGM fire survivor, sits in the living room of his home, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. Feldman was a baker for the MGM Grand at the time of the 1980 fire.

Some 5,000 people were in the MGM Grand when it caught fire Nov. 21, 1980. Eighty-five people died and about 700 were injured, making it the second-deadliest hotel blaze in United States history — the worst was a Dec. 7, 1946, fire at Atlanta's Winecoff Hotel in which 119 people perished.

Thirty-two years after the fire, here are the recollections of some of the people who either survived the fire or were there.

    • Don Feldman

      Feldman, who is now 80, has jokingly said he's been called the man who almost froze in the MGM Grand fire.

      Feldman, then 48, was assistant pastry chef at the resort's bakery, where he was making bread. Just after 7 a.m., he saw smoke coming from the ceiling vents and the lights went out.

      Feldman and another employee decided to get into the walk-in cooler, a refrigerator attached to the freezer. It was frosty inside, but the cooler had a generator, a light and was out of the smoke.

      After more than an hour — after the fire had been extinguished — they came out. One of his fellow bakers was lying on a cart, dead, and the charred casino floor was filled with about eight inches of water and debris.

      "There were firemen all over the place," Feldman said. "They came immediately over to us and they covered us up and guided us out onto the street."

    • Kurt Schlueter

      Schlueter, 25 at the time, was vacationing at the MGM Grand with several friends, all of them firefighters from West Springs, Ill.

      They had rented a suite on the 12th floor. While two in their group were still upstairs, Schlueter and two others were at a restaurant next to The Deli, where the fire broke out.

      "I was having breakfast when a security guard came and said there's a small fire next door. We told him we were firefighters and where is the fire equipment and we'll put it out."

      But they couldn't find any extinguishers or other equipment. "Long story short, we couldn't get the fire out. But we got a lot of people out of the building," he said.

      They spent the rest of the day looking for their friends.

      "We found them in a refrigerated semi-truck (which was being used for a morgue), dead at 10 o'clock at night," Schlueter said. "They died in the fire. They died from helping people trying to get out."

    • Scott Browar

      Browar, 59, now of Coarsegold, Calif., was a deputy Clark County coroner. Browar remembers seeing yellow bed sheets hanging over balconies as people on the upper floors considered trying to climb down. A man yelling "jump" in Spanish was taken away by the crowd, he said.

      About 10 a.m., Browar was called to the Coroner's Office to help document and ID the victims. One woman, wearing a man's trenchcoat and high heels, was identified by police as a prostitute, he said. Many people had large amounts of money in their pockets or expensive jewelry that had to be inventoried.

      Most of the bodies had a distinctive pink coloration, a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning, he said.

    • Tom Pitts

      Pitts, now of Anacortes, Wash., was working at Mickey Cole Travel, a local office of American Express, inside Caesars Palace.

      "As soon as I entered our office, people were knocking on our doors. When we realized what was happening, we opened the doors immediately and were overwhelmed with people in pajamas, wrapped in blankets and other hastily chosen garments," Pitts said in an email. They had evacuated from the MGM Grand.

      "At that time, before ATMs and other banking methods, we were the only office in Las Vegas that could replace lost or damaged American Express Travelers Checks, credit cards and cash personal checks for card holders," he said.

      "It was chaos at the start, then turned into an all-out effort to help all the people who may have lost all they had with them, or may not be able to retrieve their items for two or three days.

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