This week the world awoke to a tragedy in Las Vegas. It reminded me of another Vegas Tragedy: The MGM Grand Fire of 1980. Aviation played a key role in that Vegas Tragedy.
It was November 21, 1980. Just past 7:00am a fire broke out at the MGM Grand Hotel located on “The Strip” in Las Vegas, Nevada. It originated in a restaurant known as “The Deli”. There was an area of the casino which was not equipped with fire sprinklers. As a result, the fire spread at approximately 19 feet a minute through the casino in the hotel.
Because the first was located on the lower floors and lobby, it trapped many hotel guests on the upper floors of the 26 floor resort. All told, 85 people were killed. A few died from burns, but over 60 died from smoke inhalation. Over 600 others were injured. It is the third deadliest hotel fire in US history. The Clark County Fire Department reports the fire as follows: http://fire.co.clark.nv.us/(S(wetbrkfx43q21y42dohddk0i))/MGM.aspx This video chronicles the disaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4o8dRs1R6O0
My friend Russ was flying that day. He was stationed at Nellis AFB, where he flew helicopters. Smaller UH-1N Hueys and the monstrous CH-3E Jolly Green Giants were summoned to the scene.
Russ was one of the first to arrive. His chopper was already in the air, heading out to the range for a routine training mission. They were diverted to the hotel where they settled on the roof and began to pluck panicked guests from the roof top.
Back and forth, back and forth, Russ and others flew, filling their choppers to capacity as smoke engulfed the hotel. By days end, Russ and friends had pulled over 1000 individuals off the rooftop.
It was a long hard day.
I have been to Nellis AFB on several occasions and hence to nearby Las Vegas. I like the inexpensive dining, I dislike the gambling. The saddest eyes I have ever seen are the eyes I saw in the people walking through Las Vegas. This week Vegas experienced yet another tragedy with first responders called upon again. I am thankful for them.
I remember chatting with Russ about the MGM Grand fire four years after it occurred. Not surprisingly, it was still vivid in his mind. He told me that you never know what can happen on a flight. “Flexibility is the key to airpower” as they say in the Air Force. It was certainly demonstrated by Russ on that rooftop on that day.