A witness to Vegas history

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In the 45 years I have lived in Las Vegas, there have been dozens of dramatic moments. Some have been tragic, some exhilarating. The ones that are locked in memory are the ones I personally witnessed, not just in news accounts, but with my naked eyeballs.

The one that stands out most occurred on November 21, 1980. I was in my last semester of teaching writing classes at UNLV when I got the news that the MGM Grand was on fire. As my girlfriend at the time was finishing late-night rehearsals for the soon to open big-budget stage show Jubilee, I dashed from the classroom after my 8 a.m. session ended and made the quick drive to the Strip.

The entire Flamingo corridor was blocked with fire trucks and police cars, so I parked two blocks away and ran to the site. Desperate people on the highest floors were hanging out of windows, screaming for help. Helicopters hovered overhead, and it appeared as though attempts were being made to lower rope ladders to those brave enough to grab onto them. In a horrifying image I’ll never forget, I saw two people jump to their deaths. We wouldn’t see such a sight again until 21 years later in New York, on 9/11.

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There were no cell phones back then, so I was helpless to know whether my girlfriend had gotten out of the hotel in time. I knew that the rehearsals for her show often lasted until the early morning hours, so when I was told by a fireman that the first alarms weren’t issued until around 7 a.m., I felt reasonably sure she hadn’t been trapped. But I wouldn’t learn for certain until a couple hours later.

Eighty-seven people lost their lives in that fire, and the tragedy forever changed regulations about the requirement of in-room sprinklers in hotels. I wrote an essay about watching helplessly from the sidewalk as the fire raged, and it was picked up and run in hundreds of newspapers on the Associated Press’ wire that week.

Just 90 days later, I watched a similar tragedy unfold just four miles away at the Las Vegas Hilton. It was unimaginable that two of the largest hotels in the world would become towering infernos in such a short space of time.

Unlike the first fire, which was an accidental breakout in a ground-floor kitchen that carried deadly fumes to the higher floors, the second one was set intentionally. Phillip Cline, a 23-year-old busboy with a history of petty crimes, set fire to a curtain and three other flammable objects in the hotel. He admitted to smoking marijuana laced with cocaine and PCP when the devil made him do it. Then, as the fire raged, Cline ran from room to room through the hallways alerting hotel guests to flee for their lives. Part of him wanted to be deemed heroic.

My apartment in 1981 was on the Las Vegas Country Club, and from my balcony I once again had a front-row seat to an American tragedy. Eight people died and over 200 were injured in that one. Cline is now 62 years old and will never be released from a Nevada prison. He still doesn’t fully grasp why he did it.

The third dramatic event that’s locked in memory occurred on October 27, 1993. This one was intentionally staged and had no loss of life. It was the implosion of the Dunes Hotel. My fiancé Carol, who is now my wife, and I wanted a birds-eye view of the demolition, which was done to clear the land for the eventual construction of Bellagio. It was a calm day up until early evening, when the wind started to blow in an easterly direction.

The countdown to fireworks was conducted by Bellagio developer Steve Wynn, from a stage at Treasure Island. The whole spectacle was filmed for a TV movie.

The implosion was apocalyptic; the fallout less so. As the breezes continued in our direction, there was no escaping the tons of ash and dirt blowing our way. We were covered in it. The Unabomber looked cleaner when he was arrested.

While Las Vegas has seen dozens of momentous events over the last half-century, I’ll never forget the three at which I had a front-row seat.

About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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