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Local women escape 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire

40 years ago, 1980

Six local women were survivors of a devastating fire that stole away The Vindicator’s headlines for days.

The MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas ripped through the building’s 26 floors, killing more than 80 people and injuring 650. Reports flooded in that there was no warning when the fire broke out in the kitchen and rapidly filled the hotel-casino with flames and smoke. No alarm sounded when the fire started around 7:15 am as flames had destroyed the amplifiers on the manually operated alarm system.

Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation after the “wall of fire” tore through the casino. Firefighters could only reach the ninth floor by ladder and only a few floors had a sprinkler system. Authorities estimated that there were around 8,000 people in the hotel at the time, including both staff and guests.

“I was scared, I was so scared,” Elaine Palisin said, “I was one of the fortunate ones; I got out early.”

Palisin, a resident of Hermitage, Pa., spoke over the telephone with a Vindicator reporter. Her voice was hushed and she coughed throughout the interview, a reminder of the acrid smoke that had filled her lungs. Five other local women, all members of a bridge club who had known each other since their college days, were at the hotel. Betty Alter, Edith Jamieson, and Ada McMullen of Brookfield, and Emily Kroko and Lucille Dolan of Sharon, Pa. along with Palisin, had traveled to Las Vegas for a five-day trip.

Palisin continued: “Ada and I were asleep in our room on the 19th floor, it was about 7 a.m., Las Vegas time, and we heard a lot of noise. We laid there a while, and the noise got so loud … we had no warning at all, no alarms, no phone calls, nothing at all. We were totally without any advance warning. We grabbed the first clothes we could and ran into the hall– it was filled with smoke — and began banging on the doors of our friends’ rooms. We had three rooms together. All in a matter of two minutes the hallway filled with dense smoke.

“We ran to an exit door on our floor — about 50 feet down our hallway — and by the time we had descended to the 17th floor, the stairwell was filled with black, thick, toxic smoke. We started to climb back up, but at the 19th floor we couldn’t get back in, the fire door had closed and it was locked from the hall side. By that time, I was alone and I couldn’t find my friends. There was pandemonium everywhere, people panicking, falling down. I thought to myself, I can’t believe this is the way I am going to go. I said I was going to make it and that’s what helped me. I prayed and it gave me that extra strength I needed to reach the top floor.”

There were hundreds of people already on the rooftop. “The boys in the helicopters were just great, they were magnificent. They kept coming and taking us off the roof — but it was so hectic.” Palisin was taken to the Desert Springs Hospital and treated for smoke inhalation and an irregular heartbeat caused by the fumes. All six women were treated at local hospitals with varying degrees of injuries.

Betty Alter found herself trapped on a 17th floor balcony with six other guests. She noted after that, “it’s the shock, more than anything else, that gets to you.” She praised the response by emergency services, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” The women were unsure when they would be able to return home, noting that they had no luggage since everything was left in their rooms. “And I wouldn’t go back there even if they had elevators,” Alter added. She hoped that volunteers would be allowed to reclaim items left behind.

Youngstown native Maryellen Cirelli Cichansky was also at the MGM Grand Hotel. She and her husband were in Las Vegas with friends for their wedding. Though she was living in Chicago at the time, she was back in Youngstown with her mother after the ordeal. The fire proved to be one of the worst hotel fires in U.S. history. The Las Vegas Convention Center was transformed into a Red Cross treatment center where hundreds of survivors were taken. Investigations found that the hotel was severely underprepared for such a disaster, with barely any of its systems up to code. As a result, nationwide reformation in fire codes and safety guidelines took place.

•Compiled from the archives of the Youngstown Vindicator by Traci Manning, MVHS Curator of Education

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