November 21, 1980... I don't often post publically how my morning went that day, but my wife, son and close friends are well aware of where I was at the time.
I took my wife to work at Spring Mountain and Lindel on my Goldwing motorcycle... she had to be to work at 8:00 a.m.
It was on my way back to our apartment that I noticed the mushroom cloud hanging over the Strip, so I headed in that direction. I parked my motorcycle in the Little Caesar's Sports Book, walked around the cinder block wall that divided the properties and began walking up the South West driveway toward the MGM hotel.
I did not get more than a few yards when a Hispanic male stumbled between the fire units parked in that driveway and looked into my eyes and then dropped to his knees and rolled over with his hands around his throat. I've been a Certified PADI/NASDS Advanced Open Water SCUBA Diver since 1977 and during that time had to learn CPR for safety during dives.
The man was blowing soot bubbles out of his nose, staring at me as though he had very few breaths left. I put his shoulders on the curb and let his head lay back and I stuck my fingers in his mouth, there were no obstructions, but what came out was largely black soot-like mucous.
I used my sweater sleeve to wipe off his mouth and nose and began giving him mouth to mouth, to help him get a full lung full of air, with each breath I gave him, he coughed up more soot. It was not a pretty sight.
Knowing shock was an issue, I asked a blonde girl on the sidewalk if I could borrow her blue, quilted ski jacket and she did not think twice, she just gave it to me. I placed the man's feet on the curb higher than his head and placed the ski jacket over his torso to keep him warm.
I then ran to get help... there was at least one small paramedic type fire department/box type truck parked in the driveway and then closer to the front of the hotel there was a fire engine. I looked around the vehicles, but could not find anyone, so I walked toward the valet platform near the front doors... I was just to the right of the platform, when a fireman in full gear attempted to walk up a ladder that was up against the shorter roof, just to the right of the main entrance canopy for lack of a better word. It was about a 20 foot ladder give or take, maybe 30.
He was headed up the ladder when the weight and drag of the flat, heavy hose was making it hard for him to get up the ladder, so I went up behind him and pushed the hose up to him, while he climbed the ladder with the hose draped over his shoulder.
When we got to the top of the ladder, he stepped onto the roof, turned around and pointed for me to go down.
I backed down the ladder next to the ceiling of the valet area outside of the main entrance was covered in various sized gold colored plastic balls, some as big as two feet in diameter as I remember, though I am not certain, that is what they appeared to be.
When I was about four feet from the bottom of the ladder, an explosive burst of flames came out of the front doors, blew the doors open and the plastic balls caught on fire. Long stringy missles of black liquid plastic shot across toward me and I hurried down the ladder.
I then walked back to see if the Hispanic man was okay, but when I got half way, I could see he had moved from that location and the girl who gave me the jacket was gone.
I began walking around the parking lot level of the main entrance, below the valet parking area... There were statues shooting water out of their mouths, I remember statues of fish, Carp comes to mind and when I got about half way around toward Flamingo Road, I heard a creaking, groaning up on the valet area above me where there was a gray or silver Ford LTD and it appeared to make the noise, then in an instant, the windows of the car imploded, the car shook and I ran around the side of the hotel onto the Flamingo Road sidewalk.
I began walking down the sidewalk, heading east when I saw up on a ramped area of the parking lot, there was a ladder truck with a ladder extended up several stories on the North side of the hotel.
I watched as people came down the ladder, some were middle aged, to me at 26 years-old, they did not have to be old to appear old to me. There was a fireman on the ladder and one at the controls, but nobody to help the people down off the back of the ladder truck.
It was probably a five foot drop off the back of the fire truck once the people got down the ladder, perhaps four feet, but too high for most, they jumped off or slid down the truck and fell or hit the ground hard, so I went over to help them down off the truck.
While I was doing that, I kept hearing screams coming from an open stairwell door west of the location of the ladder truck.
I helped a few more down and heard the screams again.
Once there was a break in people coming down the ladder, I walked over to the door... it is the fire escape/stairwell in the far North West corner of the hotel, just east of the main entrance driveway leading to the valet/front doors and perhaps a hundred or so feet West of the entrance to the shops, where the ramp was, probably still is.
I stood outside of the door, which was open and the door removed. There were plywood sheets on the ground in front of and entering the door way, there was construction work was being done there. No physical door in sight.
As I stood there a black construction worker, plaid shirt and hard hat walked over. I think he was a couple of years older than me, but not much as I remember.
I looked at him and said, "What do you think?" He just looked at me and then started walking toward the door. I turned around and on one of the spires of the wrought iron fence that lined the property, there was a hard hat with a label maker sticker on it that read, "RAY."
I took RAY'S hard hat and followed my new friend toward the doorway to the stairwell. The moment we stuck our heads in the door, the heat and smoke took our breath, so we had to get on our knees and crawl up the stairwell. I went out in front and began striking the glass windows in the corner of the stairwell with my elbow.
I was raised in martial arts and thought breaking the glass to let the smoke out and air in would be fairly easy, I used to break 12 inches of capping blocks with my elbows... back when I was a teen.
What I did not realize is that the glass in the stairwell had chicken wire embeded in it. I thought I had broken my elbow the first time, but I did crack a few... chipped out some corners, but it was a futile effort.
We crawled up the stairs on our hands and knees. Below four feet we could breathe, but when we raised our heads above four feet, the smoke choked off our breathing immediately. We crawled on.
I don't know what the first floors were numbered, but we entered the hall and could not see anything, our eyes burned and it was dark with smoke. The first room we came to, I kicked the door down and we ran in and pulled the curtains down and opened the window... stuck our faces out the window so we could catch our breath.
Then we headed back out into the hall.
Still crawling, we went about four rooms down and had to get more air, so I kicked the door down and we ran to the windows, tore down the curtains, opened the window and again... sucked in fresh air.
This time, I went to the bathroom and soaked a couple of white towels with water and wrapped them around our heads and we covered more ground that way.
I am not sure, but I think it was the 14th floor where we were walking down the dark hallway, still filled with smoke, wet towels around our heads when I tripped, did not fall, but came close over something in the hallway. I kicked the door open and could see there was a 40-50 something hispanic male and a younger female laying on their backs dead. There was no trauma, they must have suffocated. I shook them, but they were clearly dead, her eyes partially open, his eyes wide open. We moved on!
It was on the 19th floor, the smoke was pretty much cleared by now and as we walked down the hall people opened their doors and came out to meet us, they were afraid and thought the hotel was still burning.
My so far mute friend and I escorted the group down the stairwell. A couple of floors down, I picked up this very frail, probably 80 years-old, perhaps 100 pound woman who repeated over and over, "I am okay, my husband had a quadruple bypass help him!" He was doing fine, so I carried the woman down the stairs.
Calm as could be the entire way down from what I believe was 19 floors, the moment we got to the door opening where the plywood was and she was bathed in light... she went out of control and I nearly dropped her on her head. I handed them off to a paramedic who was either getting or leaving an SBCA unit and he took them away.
The construction worker and myself walked back up the stairs to the 20th floor and found another group of perhaps a dozen people, we brought them down without issue.
Headed back up the third time and we began kicking down doors. On the lower floors, the doors were hollow doors and breaking their connection to the jamb was fairly easy. That changed once we got in the upper floors, I don't remember where it began, but the doors were solid from about the 20th floor up to the 24th.
Those doors were fighters, they kicked back. I kicked some so hard, the blue trim molding on the door came off and fell over me and the brass Lion head on the door came off and hit me in the chest.
I continued to kick the doors and we came to a room where there was a heavy woman on the floor. I don't know how heavy she was, perhaps 250 pounds, but she was not breathing.
I began giving her mouth to mouth and she had a pulse. We got the coffee table from the room and tied her to it with sheets. Just two of us, trying desperately to carry this way too heavy, very well built coffee table with a 250 pound woman on it. Stopping every 20 seconds to fill her lungs with air.
We had to tilt her to get her through the door, then started down the steps. I was on the front, lower left corner and holding the brunt of her weight. My arm was wrapped inside and around the lower left leg of the table and the pain was unbelievable, I really thought any second now, my arm was going to snap.
Ironically, as we were going down, a NEWS TEAM, which I thought forever was NEWS 13, because one of them had a blue or purple reflective jacket on with the logo and I thought it said 13 in big letters, but... the odd thing is, I don't remember a camera, just wo guys, one with a mic, the other with a recorder or other device, but I cannot remember a camera. They passed us going up as we were going down and when we got to the door, we took the woman out on the coffee table and caught the attention of a paramedic. He took over!
As I caught my breath and tried to massage my arm to ease the pain, I looked up toward the street and saw two photographer friends of mine on the sidewalk, Dusty Willison and Hank Delespinasse, they nodded and I went back into the stairwell for another hike to the higher floors.
Oh! Anyone in that tower that day, being led down by strangers, a white guy in a fleece lined corduroy jacket and a black man wearing a plaid jacket will remember me... I said over and over and over again all the way down, "FOLKS THE FIRE IS OUT, THE ONLY DANGER NOW IS FALLING DOWN THESE STEPS!" If you were in the North West tower between 8:30 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. and being led down the steps, you will remember me saying those words.
We kicked down dozens of doors, yanked perhaps a million dollars of drapes off the windows. Every other time we stuck our heads out of the windows to get fresh air, the Metro Hughes 500 helicopter was hovering outside watching us from just a few yards away. We would give them the thumbs up and went back kicking doors.
We found I believe 8 or so bodies up there, you don't stop to count. Two in the hall, a man in his white Jockeys so close to his bedroom window he almost made it, but was overcome. Laying on his back, I looked into his face and thought he was Clint Eastwood... there were others.
You think you will always remember every detail, but as time goes by, you start to confuse many details and do forget. I thought I would never forget the face of the man and girl in the hallway... the first bodies we found and for years, I would see their face, clear as day, but now... It's gone!
There was an odd thing, I think it was the 22 or 23 floor, we came to a door, knocked... attempted to kick it in and I broke the jamb only to find blankets and pillows on the other side of the door as though they were put there to keep the smoke out. We looked around, closet, bathroom, under the bed, every corner... we could not find anyone in the room.
Problem is, at that height, the rooms up top had suicide proof windows, which only opened a few inches, which allowed us to catch our breath, but only our face as wide as our cheeks fit through the windows and there was no sign that anyone forced the windows or jumped, but... how did they get out of the room and then place blankets and pillows up against the door as we found them? ALWAYS A MYSTERY TO ME!
Then on the 24th floor, we were met by two firemen who had entered the elevator area. I was standing at the last door on the left before we got to the elevator area, kicking on the door when the fireman turned the corner.
He handed me a pole about three inches in diameter, a wheel and a wedge on the end. It was quite heavy to a tired 26 year-old, but I knew what he wanted me to do with it, so... I tried to jam it between the door and the door jamb.
It was a pry bar of sorts. My first try, hit the jamb, but not the sweet spot. The second try missed the jamb completely and I poked a hole through the drywall to the left of the door jamb/molding. Third time was the charm, I wedged it and pryed the door open.
A Hispanic male jumped up in his wife-beater and light gray sweat pants, hands in the air, yelling something in Spanish. We pulled open the curtains and there was the METRO helicopter and two pilots outside the window.
By the look on his face, he had no idea the hotel was on fire and he thought he was being BUSTED!!!
I said one of the few verbal lines my construction worker friend and I said the entire three plus hours... I said, "That must have been one hell of a party!" He ran out the door and down the hallway.
Most of the floors below were free of smoke, but the 24th floor was still pretty smoke filled, not horrible, but... I thought I would clear out the smoke.
I won't go into details, but there were a couple flat upholstered benches between two very large stone planters filled with dirt. One of those planters fell out of the 24th floor window and I watched as it fell straight down and went through a roof below. Immediately I thought... "That's not good!"
I did not see where the firemen went, they did not stop and chit chat, so my fellow hard hat friend and I headed back down to the open door we came in and we sat on the asphalt at the bottom of the wrought iron fence, neither of us talked, not a word. I took RAY'S hard hat off and placed it back on the wrought iron spire, my friend looked right and I could see Coroner personnel bringing out bodies from the front of the casino main entrance.
There were arms sticking out of the body bags, they were burned black as charcoal, but would not bend, so the authorities carrying the body bags zipped the bags up to the arm or leg and allowed it to stick out.
My friend who said not a single word in three and a half hours, got up, brushed off his pants, looked at me and walked back to the area where the MGM was building a new tower addition, which is what he was working on when the fire started.
I got up, walked to my motorcycle and rode home.
I don't post this story for many public eyes... it is a personal story, private story I only share with friends, family and very few others.
Since some in Facebook forums have their own personal MGM FIRE experiences, I thought I would share mine.