Last week, I mentioned why it is so important to remember the heroes, the victims and the astonishing efforts that saw almost 5,000 people rescued from the then-MGM Grand Hotel (now Bally’s) on Nov. 21, 1980. Keep in mind that if not for many heroes and the fact that the fire had broken out at 7 a.m. and not 7 p.m. the death toll could have been upwards of 6,000-8,000!)
As the ranking public relations executive on duty and on site, I can tell you the sights and sounds of Sept. 11 incredibly paralleled that day in 1980, including the deeds of LV fire fighters and policemen risking their lives going into the structure and up stairwells saturated with choking black smoke. Construction workers who were building a new tower in front of the hotel, voluntarily got in harm’s way to help folks out windows, off balconies and down ladders to safety.
Helicopter crews flew dangerously low through blinding smoke, time after time, attempting to pluck people to safety. Even MGM security guards and other employees risked their lives to assist guests out of the carnage. Some died doing so.
Off-duty medical folks rushed to hospitals and the Las Vegas Convention Center (converted into the main aid station) to assist if needed. Taxis, limos, county school buses and even private cars picked up guests free of charge and took them to the Convention Center. Volunteers from the Salvation Army, Red Cross, Blood Bank, Civil Defense, United Way, labor unions, churches, synagogues, UNLV, Boy/Girl Scouts, even employees from other hotels and local entertainers, turned up to offer food, clothing and blankets to thousands of strangers. Local airline officials and McCarran International Airport provided assistance and unencumbered services, even free tickets, for those who were able to travel and wished immediate transportation home.
Many radio and TV news personnel turned their microphones into vehicles for dispensing second-by-second information, while serving as a calming and organizing force, rather than a confusing or frightening stimulus. The News Bureau with the help of experienced volunteers from many hotel public relations staffs was turned into a communications center and assisted world-wide media.
Our city’s leaders, Mayor Bill Briare, Sheriff John McCarthy and County Fire Chief Roy Parrish, all provided encouraging motivation and guidance.
Thousands, mostly MGM employees and the hotel’s suppliers, were instantly jobless. But other hotels and businesses came through with many job and assistance offers, some even created part and full-time jobs where none really existed to put folks right back to work.
It was a time in which Las Vegas’ image and economy suffered drastically. And there were the expected fears that perhaps many would never return to the city or risk staying in another Las Vegas high-rise ever again.
Yet, the community proved it could handle the massive emergency and, partially as a direct result, is even more prepared to handle any today. That feeling of well being is evidenced by millions continuing to flock to Las Vegas each year to live while others come and stay in its towering high-rise hotels.
So, with sympathy and admiration, a heart-felt “hats off” to New York City! But lest we lose perspective and forget, to a degree, Las Vegas has been there, too. Just a bit of evidence that whether as a result of an act of terrorism or just a deadly accident; compassion, co-operation, courage under fire and the ability to bounce back are “American” traits.