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Vegas showed ‘NY’ grit during MGM fire crisis

Oct 23, 2001 9:06 AM

Because Las Vegas reached world-notoriety at a time when the founding fathers and even most of the entertainers who set the standard for the “Golden Era of the 50s and 60s,” were getting on in their years, the all important concept of “perspective,” which is so vital to where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going, is often lost or clouded. And with it, memories that may so valuable to our appreciation and knowledge of what we have here and where we’re going.

The tragic events of September 11 in New York related to what happened in Las Vegas on November 21, 1980, and they represent just one of thousands of those examples, large and small.

Being born in New York (though a Las Vegan for almost 25 years), may explain my mixed reaction when it is said that only New York City could have handled a tragedy like that of September 11. How that city’s folks have acted and reacted is only the first part of the duality of my pride. It truly is a great city.

But how vividly and with the same extreme pride I recall, as a resident and the publicity director of the MGM Grand hotel at the time, how the city of Las Vegas came together in the same courageous, co-operative way back in 1980 when the old MGM (now Bally’s) was virtually destroyed by fire and fumes in a matter of minutes. Yet, that all-important time in Vegas’ history, when it needs to be remembered most, seems to be veritably buried in the same archival dust as some of Las Vegas’ great casinos, memories and traditions.

It is especially important for Las Vegas to remember, with pride, the heroes and the victims of that tragic event and how the city rebounded.

Though “only” 84 people died that day in 1980, as the ranking public relations executive on duty, I can tell you, if not for many local heroes, as well as proverbial Lady Luck, the number could easily have been far greater.

Ironically, the fire broke out at 7 a.m. and not 7 p.m. when three or four thousand walk-in visitors off the street and another 5,000 MGM guests, instead of being up in other hotels or their MGM rooms, could have been trapped in the two showrooms, jai alai fronton, shopping mall, restaurants, lounges, movie theater or casino.

One didn’t have to see the towering plumes of black smoke rising hundreds of feet in the air, the helicopters hovering over the building rescuing guests from the roof, hear the blood-curdling screams of those trapped in their rooms, tables and chairs being thrown out of broken windows to let in air or actually see firemen carrying a charred body on a stretcher, as yours truly did that morning, to appreciate the scope of the crisis.

There was much to read about in print and hear on broadcasts for weeks and months to follow on a tragedy that indirectly or directly, physically and/or emotionally, affected an estimated quarter of a million people who lived or visited here and their families and friends throughout the world. Like the World Trade Center, there were friends and family members of people from around the globe visiting and working in the MGM Grand and Las Vegas at the time.

In the weeks and months thereafter, many around the globe thought Vegas would never recover from the initial panic and fear that might keep visitors from coming to Las Vegas or at best, from staying above the second floor in any high rise here.

But today, we look around and see twice as many huge hotels; buildings even bigger than the old MGM and people confidently requesting penthouse suites and top rooms with a view.

That day the town came together, worked together, prayed together and cried together. And like we’re sure New York will, has since rebuilt and grown together.

(Next week: How the city quickly switched gears from its intensely competitive spirit to a unified spirit and effort of co-operation, courage and compassion”¦and its “finest hour.” And set the groundwork for an even bigger and better Las Vegas.)