Douglas Thmopson - Author and International Journalist


Towering Inferno
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Towering Inferno!

Daily Mail 22nd November 1980

Towering Inferno

FIRE roared through a 26-storey hotel yesterday — and the disaster film called The Towering Inferno came horrifyingly true.
With a known death toll of 80 and rising, helicopters were lifting an estimated 1,000 people off the roof of the MGM Grand Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas.
Unconfirmed reports said more were missing in the thick, black, deadly smoke that swirled through the miles of corridors and 2,076 rooms.
Comparisons with The Towering Inferno were inevitable and all too apt.
At least one person remembered what to do because of the firm. Hotel guest Greg Williams said he panicked at first when smoke poured into his room. 'And then I got up and cleaned my damn teeth,' he said. 'I had seen The Towering Inferno and so I wrapped a wet towel round my head and got on my hands and knees and crawled to a fire exit.'

Helicopters

Some people crowded on to balconies and tied blankets and sheets together to climb down to the firemen's ladders — which only reached the ninth floor. Police shouted over loud-hailers : 'Don't jump ! Don't jump ! One woman did — from the 17th floor — and died. About 30 people were on the balcony screaming for help.
Many who tried to go ..down stairways were driven back by smoke billowing up. The best way to safety was to the roof.
A dozen helicopters, including seven big Air Force choppers, flew sorties through the smoke from the hotel parking lot* Other rescue services were improvised from scaffolding, from window cleaning cradles, from rope ladders.
The fire apparently began in a kitchen on the ground floor. One man who was passing said : 'I heard an explosion and a fire ball shot out of the front door.'
Another witness talked of seeing flames 'on the fourth floor and then on the 16th floor—they seemed to be racing up the elevator shafts,'

Panic-stricken

Former Vietnam medical officer Dennis Casey was on the 21st floor. 'It was pitch black, there were no telephones working but the strange thing was the television was on,' he said.
'I got down on my hands and knees and crawled the wrong way into the fire because it was so dark. Then I found my way out.
. 'I found an old lady in a wheelchair. She was panic-stricken. I wheeled her down the 21 floors but I think she had a coronary en route. I left her with the ambulance people.'
For some of the victims, their rooms became air-conditioned death ' traps. One observer said : 'People are in a panic. They are using chairs, lamps and couches in the rooms to break the windows and get some air. They must be suffocating in there.'
But another theory was that this struggle for fresh air created further draughts drawing smoke in from outside. •
'The crafty, unusual feature of this fire is that the smoke did not come into the hotel rooms through the doors,' said Coroner Dr Otto Raven-holt. 'The people broke their windows trying to get fresh air and the smoke came in from below.'
The fire began at 7.15 a.m. Las Vegas time. Even then, of course, the gambling was going on.
Within five minutes flames swept through the casino and showroom area, killing at least ten in the casino.
'I opened the door and people were shouting "What should we do ? what should we do ?" 'said Keith Beverton, a visitor from California. It was death, absolute death, in there. I closed the door and the air in my room was so thick that I was having trouble breathing.'

Inquiry

Ray Hutchison, a gardener who was working outside, said: 'The casino girls were coming out with cash drawers in their hands and dealers were running out stuffing chips in their pockets.'

As for the gamblers, one dealer said: 'Some didn't want to go, but there was no choice.' State Gaming Control Board agents arrived to see that casino money was not stolen.

Many survivors commented on the fact that lire alarms did not go off. Others claimed they had to break open locked fire doors.

A full inquiry into the fire has already begun under the control of Nevada Governor Robert List. Many bodies were found still in bed Others only got a few feet, before dying in choking clouds of smoke, which smothered the corridors

A priest, Father Larry Smith, who moved around the 19th and 20th floors, said : There were bodies everywhere. I saw at least 50 ... in the stair wells and the corridors.
'In one room, a woman had •written "HELP" in lipstick on the window '

Fifty per cent, of the windows of the MGM Grand were blocked with bright yellow blankets as signals for the rescuers in helicopters. They were instructed to make their way to the roof.
Every ambulance in town was called to the scene. Injured guests, many in night-clothes, were being treated by doctors on the street alongside the 43-acre hotel site.

There were three different theories about how the fire started. One said grease in the hotel delicatessen caught fire. Another that it was when the electronic Keno (bingo) board blew up and the fire began from sparks. The third theory blamed the fire on men doing construction work nearby.
More medical help and supplies were being flown in from nearby states to Nevada. Survivors were being taken to the Las Vegas Convention Centre where they were given food and clothing. Evangelist Billy Graham, who was in the city, was comforting the injured.
He later broadcast to the city of Las Vegas appealing for calm.
Several people were arrested for obstructing rescue work and Governor List said : 'These morons blocked the way of rescue vehicles and fire fighting equipment. They seemed to think they were watching the Towering inferno—live.
He added : 'There is smoke all over Las Vegas and people can see it for miles around. They are coming to see it — most of them think it is just another Las Vegas extravaganza.'
When the MGM Grand opened in December 1973, it claimed to be the largest resort hotel in the world. Its tower still dominates the strip skyline.
It boasts eight major restaurants, a 140-yard long casino, and a cinema.

British singer Engelbert Humperdinck was starring in cabaret there a fortnight ago-The blaze was being described as the greatest tragedy in the history of the desert gambling capital.
But at the Union Plaza Casino the band was playing, the dice rolling and the slot machines clunking.
One fireman said : 'Some people are so interested in their gambling they don't even know there has been a fire.'

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