Hotel Impossible’s Anthony Melchiorri Revisits the MGM Grand Fire of Nov. 21, 1980

544 firefighters fought the blaze…87 people lost their lives, including 14 firefighters, and over 700 others suffered injuries during the MGM Grand Fire of November 21, 1980. Although great strides have been made in fire-safety since that dark day in November of 1980, much more can and needs to be done, and there is much more to be learned by many. Fire-safety should be a top concern at all hotels across the United States as well as around the globe. Naples Herald, Gary Levine, shares an insightful, must read interview with Hotel Impossible’s Anthony Melchiorri.

 

 

The fire was allegedly the result of improper installation of a pastry refrigeration case.  The unit was, in essence, a walk-in refrigerator and, due to inefficient installation, the case tended to pulsate.  The vibration of the unit caused the pipes to regularly rub against the electrical conduit in a wall soffit.  The exact cause, as determined by the Clark County Fire department, can be reviewed in Section V of the above-referenced report.

Upon recalling that the MGM Grand Hotel fire occurred in late November, I opted to write this column on the anniversary to both commemorate those guests and staff members who unnecessarily lost their lives that day, as well as to aggrandize the memory of the 14 firefighters who valiantly rushed in while others rushed out.

Immediately, I realized that in order to wholly and accurately understand the scope and ramifications of anything hotel-related, I needed to reach out to Anthony Melchiorri, host of the Travel Channel’s “Hotel Impossible” and knower of all things hospitality-relevant.  His wealth of knowledge, in the hospitality industry, is unsurpassed and I was confident that he could provide a higher level of understanding regarding this dreadful event.

Always approachable…always enthusiastic about improving the hotel industry…Mr. Melchiorri promised to set aside some time to chat and to answer the many questions that I had regarding the MGM Grand tragedy.

Gary Levine:  Anthony…when I contacted you regarding the anniversary of the MGM Grand Hotel fire, you referred to it as a “watershed moment” for the hotel industry.  Why did you refer to this event in such a way?

Anthony Melchiorri:  “What happened in 1980…there were a lot of fire codes for major hotels in Vegas, and around the country, already in place.   There had to be fire sprinklers and there had to be fire safety plans in place.  However, the municipalities had a lot of say over whether those codes had to be implemented.  And the Fire Chiefs and the people responsible for fire safety didn’t have as much say.  Once that happened…as a matter of fact, in that fire specifically, there was a code in place to have fire sprinklers in the casino, however…and the fire department really, really, really pushed for compliance…however, the Code Inspector decided that because it was occupied 24 hours a day, they wouldn’t need to have the sprinklers…even though the Fire Chief wanted it and pushed for it very, very hard.  The place, I believe, it started in was in a deli and the deli was open 24/7…then it was closed.  And it wasn’t only closed overnight…but it was closed indefinitely.  The restaurant, itself, wasn’t opened.  The fire happened in a closed area that there were no employees or staff on duty at the time the fire occurred.  So…there was not a way to contain the fire in that small area.  And, as you know, once it hit the casino, and it went up to the floors, most of the people…the majority of the people…didn’t die from the fire…’cause the fire was put out by the time it got to the second floor…but died from carbon monoxide and smoke inhalation poisoning.  And so once that happened…once that occurred…it put a strong emphasis on ensuring that when these rules and regulations are implemented, in different municipalities, that you will have to implement them.”

mom grand hotel fire

Anthony continued.  He began to discuss…almost boast…of the prodigious New York City fire safety standards.

“Fire safety in New York City is very serious and, if you don’t have a Fire Safety Director on duty, you will be fined and probably shut down.  So, we go through fire safety training…I went through John Jay College…and I had to be Fire Safety Director and had to be approved several times throughout my career…and the first thing that they train you on is the MGM fire.  And they go through the MGM fire and teach you about the MGM fire…and it really increases your awareness…it increases your sensitivity for the vulnerability of your guests.”

Gary Levine:  Allegedly, the fire spread rapidly through the casino and restaurant…blamed on faulty wiring in a refrigerated pastry display case.  Neither the casino nor the restaurant had sprinkler systems…because a Clark County building inspector granted an exemption because fire sprinklers are not required in areas occupied 24 hours per day.  This exemption was opposed by local fire marshals.  Is that exemption a nationwide standard or was it unique to Nevada?  Is this exemption still in place?

Anthony Melchiorri:  “Each state has different rules and regulations and codes…some more restrictive than others.  So, I can’t speak to all of the different states and counties.  What I can speak most surely of is my experience in New York City.  And my experience in New York City is…without going into specific fire codes…I can just tell you that the restrictions…the fire codes in New York City, for hotels and high-rise buildings…are as serious as a heart attack.  High-rise hotels, in the city, have to have a Fire Safety Director on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  You have to have a fire safety plan with a fire safety team.  Every person on that team has a job to do.  If there’s not a Fire Safety Director on duty…in a high-rise hotel…you can be shut down.

Gary Levine:  Then, Anthony, why is this not the standard in all 50 states?

Anthony Melchiorri:  “Well…I can’t speak to government policy.  What I can say is my opinion.  It should be.  It is a tragedy waiting to happen.  With my show (Hotel Impossible) going into so many states and municipalities, I see first-hand when fire-safety isn’t the first concern of the hotel.  I’ve had on my show, on more than one occasion, where the fire-safety panel did not work.  The majority…and I will say this strongly and loudly…the majority of the employees that I speak to…across the hotels that I have been to…have no clue about fire-safety.  Now, I will say that these are independent hotels.  I would say that the branded hotels have very good standards and have policies and procedures.”

Anthony then made certain to emphasize that, in no way, did he intend to insinuate that independently-owned hotels, as a whole, had lax fire-safety standards…as that is, in all truthfulness, the case.  He reiterated that while most non-branded hotels have clear and concise safety plans, an ample number of struggling, independent facilities have unsatisfactory fire-safety plans and measures in place.

After this clarification, Anthony continued:

“Most of the first-class, well-run boutique hotels…whether they’re branded or not…do have employees that are well-trained and most branded hotels have very good standards.”

As a consumer…one who rests his head at night on hotel pillows…one who entrusts these hotels with his safety…I was still befuddled and distressed about the lack of uniformity regarding fire-safety across the nation.

And, as an American, I am further perturbed by governmental codes and policies that seem to be more concerned with the protection of big business…rather than the protection of its citizens.

There was a pregnant pause…a pause created by bewilderment.  I suppose that Anthony recognized my inability to comprehend how ALL hotels were not held to the strictest of fire-safety standards.

“If you’re asking me ‘should it be a federal requirement that the safety standards are at the highest level…at New York standards or higher,” he injected into our silence, “100 percent.  The reason that I’m doing this article is for that reason.  The reason that I do my show is for that reason.”

When Anthony and I spoke last in September, he passionately stated that he, too, is a consumer and that he frequently travels with his daughters.

“The reason I do the show is for that reason,” he reiterated, “to bring this to the attention…not only of government…not only of hotels…but to the travelling public.  To ensure that they’re staying at hotels at which they can see fire extinguishers…they can see sprinklers…they can see clearly marked maps.  There are ways of checking to see if you are safe in a hotel.  Fire extinguishers have inspection dates and must be up to date…smoke detectors must be blinking…sprinklers must not have any corrosion.  You can also ask for a fire-safety plan.  There’s no reason why I wouldn’t share my fire-safety plan with a guest that asked me to see it.  As a matter of fact, not only would I show it to them, I’d probably be like a…you know…a local giving directions to a foreigner!  So, if you asked to see my fire-safety plan, I’d probably nauseate you with the details.”

Gary Levine:  My research indicated that the fire spread at an alarming rate of 15 to 20 feet per second.  This would indicate to me that the materials used for construction and décor were highly flammable.  While I recognize that every component of a hotel cannot be fire-retardant and flame-resistant, have any legislative changes occurred, regarding permitted materials, since this fire in 1980?

Anthony Melchiorri:  “While I can’t tell you about nationwide code changes, I can tell you that you must have fire-retardant furniture, drapery, wall-covering in all hotels in New York City.  You can go back and look at the show that I did in Myrtle Beach a few years ago (please take a moment to check out this brief video from the episode “Making Waves” http://www.travelchannel.com/shows/hotel-impossible/video/the-drapes-are-too-dangerous).”

During that episode, Anthony and a crew from the Myrtle Beach Fire Department removed curtains from the hotel and ignited them in the parking lot.  The hotel owners were “unaware” of the NFPA (National Fire Prevention Agency) fire safety catalogue (for additional information regarding NFPA list of codes and standards, they can be reviewed at http://catalog.nfpa.org/Complete-List-of-Codes-and-Standards-C182.aspx).

“You saw how fast those curtains went up in flames.  And then, we showed another piece of material, that we selected, and the fire was immediately out.  So, yes, there are lots of regulations…there are a lot of restrictions…as to what kind of materials you can use in hotel rooms.  I can tell you this…without hesitation…since the MGM fire…fire-safety, in most states, in most hotels, in most brands have improved as that fire was a ‘watershed moment.’”

Gary Levine:  Let’s take a moment to discuss overseas properties.  A 2001 fire at the Manor Hotel in Quezon City, Manilla in the Philippines claimed the lives of 75 guests and hotel staff.  This fire was also blamed on faulty wiring in a stockroom.  Iron grilles on the windows prevented firefighters from rescuing guests pleading for help.  Keep in mind that a few years earlier, a fire at a Manilla disco resulted in the deaths of 162 people…most of whom were teenagers.  There were no sprinkler systems, insufficient fire exits, no emergency lighting, etc.  Anthony…how safe are foreign hotels?

Anthony Melchiorri:  “Again…I would say that if you have a brand…a Hilton, a Marriott…you’re going to have the same type of fire-safety in those hotels.  I can tell you that when I travel internationally, my awareness is heightened. As a guest, I am very cognizant of the hotels that I stay in, internationally, and I try to stay in brands that I recognize…especially American brands that I recognize…because I’m pretty confident that those brands have the same standards that they have here in the states.”

“If you go into a restaurant that’s filthy…you’re probably not going to eat there.  If you smell the fish before you taste the fish…you’re probably not going to eat the fish.  So, if you see lackadaisical employees…if you see a filthy hotel…if you see a hotel with maintenance issues…what makes you think that their fire-safety standards are going to be first-class or at a high level?  If they can’t keep towels clean or paint the parking lot, what would make you think that the hotel is diligent when it comes to fire-safety?  That’s why it’s critical to be a good consumer.

Gary Levine:  Today’s hotels have become more and more elaborate…with complex, high-tech features and facilities.  iPads control lighting and temperature…hovering tennis courts…rotating gyms…sensors that detect body heat to notify housekeeping of your presence in the room…crazy structural designs like the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore and the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai.  Hotels have come a long way over the last half-decade and the new designs and technologies likely add additional and unconsidered safety concerns.  Do you agree that some of scientific and architectural advances are accompanied by new safety concerns?

Anthony Melchiorri: 100 percent yes, but 100 percent confident…being part of development conversations and being in design conversations…the first thing that architects are looking at is fire-safety.  And when you are constructing new hotels, especially in big cities, the fire department and building department has crazy input and has major say regarding every part of the development of your building.  So, I am confident that…at least from what I’ve seen…there’s not a detail…not a decision that’s made in a hotel that hasn’t considered fire-safety.  You can’t get a hotel built, in New York City for example, without the fire department being extraordinarily conscious and involved in your building…period…end of story.  I just tried to instill that into an owner, trying to develop a hotel in Brooklyn and, because he didn’t listen to me and because he didn’t do the things he was supposed to do, his building was not opened for 6 months.”

Gary Levine:  A raging fire spread rapidly on a pool deck, this year, at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.  A Fire Chief indicated that artificial palm trees, found all around the pool area, fueled the fire.  He referred to them as “solid gasoline.”  There was speculation that a cigarette thrown from a balcony ignited a cabana roof situated at the pool.  Unlike large apartment buildings where homeowners are somewhat vested in the care and safety of their residence, hotels are, in reality, gathering places for intoxicated, unreserved and uncaring visitors who often behave differently and more recklessly than they would at home.  Do you agree?  Is that an irresolvable issue that hotels will forever need to deal with?

Anthony Melchiorri:  “Yes…yes.  When you open a hotel you approach it as if you are going to have drunk, adolescents with machine guns running around your hotel.  You have to worry about every part of your hotel.  So…to think that you’re going to have reasonable human beings…at 4 o’clock in the morning…who got drunk at a bachelor party…make rational decisions, is ridiculous.  So…of course…you have to treat every person…you have to think, for every person, at their lowest common denominator.  You have to think that every single person in the world is at a bachelorette or bachelor party…that every person is looking to just let go of their day-to-day responsibilities and let loose.  They don’t want responsibilities for cleaning…they don’t want responsibilities for fire-safety…they don’t want responsibilities for who is going to clean their throw-up.  They want…completely 100%…freedom from their everyday responsibilities and, as a hotelier…a good hotelier…you take that responsibility seriously…you don’t mind that responsibility.  And you have to train, implement and think of procedures, policies and people in a way that they are prepared to react when other people aren’t going to react.  So…the answer is you’re never going to get away from it.  You’re a hotel employee and you tell me that you get pissed…guests are so annoying…they throw up.  Guess what?  You’re in the hotel business.  You’re not in the church business.  Every Sunday, at 10 o’clock, or at 12 o’clock…the mass I go to…everyone’s on their best behavior.  I’d like to see those same people, at 12 o’clock on a Saturday night, 12 hours before they go to church!  People are partying…people are having a good time…and our responsibility is to keep them safe.  Our responsibility is not to hold them accountable…you have to be prepared for their mistakes.  You know, when you bring a baby home from the hospital…even before they can crawl…you have all of the electrical outlets with safety plugs.  They’re not getting out of the bassinette for quite some time, but you already have your house safety-proofed.  You know what I’m saying?  The baby can’t lift his head up yet, but you’re anticipating the baby’s needs.  It’s the same thing.  We have to treat our guests…not disrespectfully…but rather as people who aren’t going to take responsibility.”

Gary Levine:   Last question…considering what we have learned from the MGM Grand fire…knowing about smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning…what standards and/or fire safety changes would you like to see in place on an national and international level.

Anthony Melchiorri:  “That ALL high-rise fire safety policies and procedures should be at the same level as they are in New York City.  New York City has the highest level of fire codes for high-rise hotels, I think, in the country…and, probably, the world.  And I’d like to see those codes implemented throughout the world.”

I am hopeful that each of the aforementioned hotel tragedies has, somehow, served as an opportunity to improve hotel fire-safety.  35 years after the horrific MGM Grand Hotel fire, despite improvements in fire-retardant furnishings and materials, with more rigid codes in place, consumers still need to be judicious when selecting hotels and vigilant when lodging.

As always, I sincerely thank Anthony Melchiorri for taking time out of his overloaded schedule to chat.


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