November 21 Marks 30th Anniversary of the Deadly MGM Grand Hotel and Casino Fire

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Inadequate Building Design Contributed to Deaths of 85 People in Las Vegas High-Rise

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The MGM fire reminds us of the importance of designing buildings that that keep people safe from fire. Today, most hotels are better protected-largely due to the fire-safety strategies and systems designed by fire protection engineers.

In the early morning of November 21, 1980, a fire broke out at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. As a result of this catastrophic fire, 85 people died and hundreds were injured.

The fire, which occurred 30 years ago, still remains one of the deadliest hotel fires in the history of the United States. The deadliest hotel fire was in 1946 at the Hotel Winecoff in Atlanta Georgia were 119 people died.

“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, Maryland-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.”

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

The fire started in the 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.

At the time of the fire, only parts of the building were protected by the building’s fire sprinkler system. The Deli and the Casino did not have 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.”

Moreover, the hotel’s fire alarm system was never activated. As a result, many of the hotel occupants were not alerted to the emergency until they saw smoke, observed the fire department apparatus, smelled smoke or heard people yelling. By the time many of the hotel guests were alerted, smoke conditions made the normal escape routes untenable. About 300 of these guests were able to make 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 a delay in occupant notification, the 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 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.”

What is a Fire Protection Engineer?

According to the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, a fire protection engineer applies science and engineering principles to protect people, homes, workplaces, the economy and the environment from the devastating effects of fires. 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. Fire protection engineers also work closely with other professionals, including engineers of other disciplines, architects, state and local building officials, and local fire departments to build fire safe communities. Fire protection engineers are in high demand. The number of available jobs far exceeds the supply.

About Society of Fire Protection Engineers

Organized in 1950, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) is the professional organization that represents engineers engaged in fire protection worldwide. Through its membership of over 5,000 professionals and 65 international chapters, SFPE advances the science and practice of fire protection engineering while maintaining a high ethical standard. SFPE and its members serve to make the world a safer place by reducing the burden of unwanted fire through the application of science and technology.

More information about SFPE can be found at


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