November 21 marks 30 years since the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas went up in smoke. Recorded as the second largest life-loss hotel fire in United States history, the tragic event resulted in a total of 85 deaths and more than 700 injuries, according to the Clark County Fire Department.
Of those deaths, 75 were attributed to inhalation of smoke and carbon monoxide; four to smoke inhalation only; one to burns only; three to burns and smoke inhalation; one to massive skull fracture; and one from myocarditis.
There were approximately 5,000 people in the hotel at the time of the fire. Joyce Axilrod and her family were among them, trapped on the 16th floor of the 26-floor hotel.
Survivors were first taken to the Barbary Coast Hotel, then transported to the Las Vegas Convention Center, where they were given first aid and oxygen.
Axilrod, a Santa Barbara resident, recalls the following day when survivors were able to retrieve their belongings.
“Walking up 16 flights of stairs I viewed the horrifying damage, as the stench of acrid smoke filled the air,” wrote Axilrod. “I noticed the word ‘HELP’ on a window, scrawled in red lipstick.”
A chapter in Axilrod’s memoir, Stories of My Life, outlines her experiences from that day. She was vacationing in Las Vegas with her parents and daughter, Susan Mastman, to celebrate her 38th birthday and her parents’ 43rd wedding anniversary. Mastman, who was an 18-year-old SBCC art major at the time, joined the group with a promise of Las Vegas glitz and glam.
The fire originated in the wall of the Deli, a restaurant located at the hotel’s casino level. According to the report filed by Clark County Fire Department, the main source of ignition was an electrical ground fault but there were several factors. The fire itself did not spread farther than the first floor, but smoked traveled to upper floors through the air conditioning system and the elevator shafts.
Both Axilrod and Mastman recall their disbelief that there was a fire in the first place, despite the panic and cries from other hotel guests. “I heard no smoke alarms or sirens, and there was no odor of smoke,” wrote Axilrod.
Being trapped on the 16th floor turned out to be a worst-case scenario in terms of being rescued: fire truck ladders extended only to the ninth floor, while helicopters retrieved people on the 25th and 26th floors. Axilrod and her family stayed in a room with 13 other people, sticking sheets and towels under the door and putting washcloths over their mouths, waiting to get instruction from the fire department. “We were very calm and I never felt like I was going die,” said Mastman. “Our window was facing the wing that was not affected by the fire, so we didn’t see any flames or smoke billowing up. I felt safe because of that,” she added.
“Strangely enough, I believed we could escape this raging inferno,” wrote Axilrod, who also attests that they saw no flames, nor was there any smoke in their room. “What I did see however, were some desperate people smashing windows and jumping to their deaths below. What a gruesome sight,” she wrote.
While their family was fortunate enough to escape without significant injuries, the aftermath reverberated painfully. “It wasn’t until after the rescue that reality set in,” said Mastman. “To hear about all the deaths and to think that it could have been one of us was very difficult to comprehend. Stairwells have taken on a whole different feeling. To this day, I cannot go through a stairwell without having the memories of the smoke and darkness,” she adds.
Memory of the fire has of course faded some for both Axilrod and Mastman, who both returned to Las Vegas and the former MGM Grand Hotel after it had become Bally’s. Still, Mastman said she can’t believe it’s been 30 years. “Sometimes it feels like yesterday, and other times I actually have to remember that I was in the fire,” she said. “I know that a fire can happen anytime, any place, and I’m thankful that stricter fire codes are in place since the MGM tragedy so that if something like this should happen again, lives can be saved.”
From this distance, Axilrod can muster up a sense of humor about the situation. “My fantasy of being rescued from a burning building by a handsome fireman had come true, but I never really believed it would happen this way!”