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Scars Remain 10 Years After 87 Died in MGM Grand Hotel Fire

November 19, 1990

LAS VEGAS (AP) _ Ten years after crawling to safety from his hotel room through 21 floors of choking smoke, Dennis Casey will be in church to mark the day the MGM Grand Hotel burned.

Time and a $50 million remodeling job to the 26-story resort - now known as Bally’s - have dimmed memories of one of the nation’s worst hotel fires, which killed 87 people Nov. 21, 1980.

But mental scars remain for survivors like Casey.

″You always wonder why you lived and they died,″ the Pittsburgh public relations executive said. ″I have nightmares about it, I’m not ashamed to admit that. I see a therapist for it on a regular basis.″

Explaining that he’ll attend church Wednesday, as he has done every anniversary of the fire, Casey said: ″I go at the exact Eastern time of the fire and I say a prayer for those that lived and died. It’s my way of remembering the people in the hotel.″

The 2,800-room resort now boasts one of the finest fire safety systems of any high-rise. And tough state retrofit laws passed after the disaster forced other Nevada hotels to also install top-of-the-line sprinkler and fire safety systems.

But on the morning of the blaze, the then 7-year-old resort had no sprinklers and an array of code violations.

Casey and some 4,000 others were inside when a short circuit in a delicatessen pie case sparked a smoldering blaze that went unnoticed for hours.

In a restaurant next to the deli, a vacationing Illinois firefighter, Kurt Schlueter, was sitting down to breakfast with fellow firefighter Dave Beshoar and his brother when guards first noticed the fire and began to evacuate the restaurant.

Two other friends were on their way down from a 12th-floor suite the five had rented for a weekend of fun and gambling in Las Vegas. The two were later found dead.

″A security guard came in said there was a small problem next door and asked us to leave,″ said Schlueter, a lieutenant in the Western Springs, Ill., Fire Department. ″By the time we got to the front of the restaurant, we could see smoke piling up on the ceiling and we knew what was happening.″

A few people kept gambling in the casino, but the firemen and security guards hustled most of the guests toward the exits as the main floor began filling quickly with dark, acrid smoke.

By the time Schlueter and the Beshoars had gotten to the front door, they had been forced to their knees by the smoke. Suddenly, shortly after 7 a.m., the lights went out and the blaze exploded into a fireball that flashed across the casino floor at an estimated 17 to 19 feet a second.

″Dave and I were the last ones out before the fireball hit,″ Schlueter said. ″We heard a loud click, all the lights went out and it was pitch dark. All of a sudden there was a massive heat that pushed us clear out the door. If we hadn’t been right at the door, we would have been trapped in there.″

A handful of people were killed by the fireball, but the toxic smoke from the casino’s synthetic furnishings would prove far more deadly.

Smoke billowed up elevator shafts to the top of the hotel and was trapped on the upper floors of the tower. Of the 61 people who died in their rooms or in hallways, 60 were on the 19th floor or above.

Figuring he would die if he stayed in his room, Casey doused himself with water from a bathtub and put a wet towel around his face. Opening his door, he saw the body of a woman lying in her doorway.

″I crawled to her body and felt her neck for a pulse,″ Casey said. ″She was dead. It was the first time I fully realized that I might die and I began to cry. You’ve got to remember that no more than five minutes earlier I had been asleep.″

Six months later, the MGM had a $5 million sprinkler and safety system, and the melted, charred slot machines had been replaced by a glittering new casino. Actor Cary Grant was the first guest to check in.

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