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Burning Memories : Ten years later, survivors continue to relive the MGM Grand fire. 'Once you've been through an experience like that, it stays with you forever.'

November 18, 1990|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the morning of Nov. 21, 1980, the sound of sirens stirred Rafael Patino from bed. "Usually when you hear sirens, they come and then they go," he said. "But these were coming and staying."

When he looked out the window of his 16th-floor room, he realized that the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel was on fire.

"I woke up my wife and we got dressed to leave," said Patino, an Irvine sales executive. "But when we walked out of the room, we couldn't see anything. The hall was pitch black with smoke. My wife and I lost each other for a minute in the dark. I called to her and she found me, and we went back into our room."

Fortunately, Patino had brought his room key with him. Many victims, as their doors slammed behind them, discovered that they had locked themselves out of their only refuge.

Ten years later, he still has room key 1675--a memento that possibly saved his life.

Eighty-five people--10 from Southern California--died in the fire that turned the opulent, high-rise resort into a suffocating chimney. The second most deadly hotel fire in U.S. history--after a 1946 Atlanta blaze that claimed 119 lives--the MGM Grand fire would leave a lasting mark on both the survivors and on American building safety standards.

Today, fire codes throughout the country are much stricter because of the MGM Grand tragedy. In 1980, many high-rises were not equipped with smoke detectors--much less sprinkler systems. The year after the disaster, both the Nevada and California legislatures beefed up state fire ordinances.

But that hasn't prevented survivors from suffering panic attacks over the smell of smoke. Or from compulsively looking for fire escapes when they enter strange buildings.

Among those survivors were employees and spouses of Printronex, an Irvine-based computer firm that had sent 26 people to a trade show at the MGM Grand. Rafael Patino and his wife were among that group. A Printronex manager and his bride, who had called the Las Vegas excursion their honeymoon, died in the fire.

Bob Kleist, founder and president of Printronex, believes that the fire left psychological scars on his employees and financially hampered his company at a time when it was just hitting its stride and for "at least a couple of years afterwards."

The fire "was a deep trauma to the company," he said. "My suspicion is that it had a deeper effect (on the people) than was obvious on the surface."

Said Rafael Patino: "I was very nervous about small and stupid things for a long time after the fire: the smell of a barbecue, lighting the fireplace, going to hotels. I don't know if I'll ever completely get over it."

The night before the fire at the 2,076-room 26-floor hotel, a group of Printronex employees and spouses went to a late show starring singer Mac Davis. Then they visited the MGM Grand's lavish casino.

While hotel guests pulled slot machines and played blackjack, an electrical wire shorted in the nearby delicatessen. For hours, a small fire smoldered unnoticed inside the wall and ceiling cavity.

About 7 a.m., a ferocious blaze suddenly burst into the kitchen and literally chased waitresses and breakfast customers out of the deli.

When firefighters arrived a few minutes later, flames already were rocketing through the 50,000-square-foot casino, consuming its plastic decor at an unstoppable pace.

"The fire traveled at 17 feet per second," recalled Clark County Fire Chief Roy L. Parrish. "Four minutes after it exited the deli, it hit the lobby's front doors and blew out their glass."

Firefighters managed to keep the flames to the first two levels, but the fire's lethal byproducts--smoke and carbon monoxide--drifted up the elevator shafts and air-conditioning ducts.

While a war raged below, all was quiet on the upper floors. Guests peacefully slept through the commotion, their rooms unguarded by smoke alarms.

About 8 a.m., they gradually began to awake to the faraway sound of sirens or screams.

Trapped inside their room, Rafael and Luz Patino assumed that they would die. "We prayed and prepared ourselves for death," he said. "Then we started talking about our kids and wondering what would happen to them."

The couple, then in their 30s, had a 6-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son at home in Irvine. Thinking about their children galvanized the Patinos to fight for their lives. "We wanted to be there for them. We said, 'Wait a minute--we are not going to give up,' " he recalled.

They stuffed towels under the door and over vents to block the smoke that had started to pour in. They moved furniture and flammables to one corner, hoping to preserve a safety zone.

When they yanked off the curtains, they discovered a balcony. "The air outside was much better than inside," Rafael Patino said. "A lot of glass was coming down (as window panes were broken by hotel guests above them). So we took one of the drapes and made a tent and covered ourselves. Some of our friends down on the street were waving to us and telling us to stay calm."

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