LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Randy Howard had just about given up hope of escaping the blazing inferno that killed more than 80 people at the MGM Grand Hotel as a rope swung by the window of his 14th-floor room.
Another man had fallen to his death from the rope. But it was salvation for the 26-year-old Howard, who lowered himself to safety, hand over hand.
Howard, of East Moline, Ill., raced in and out of four smoke filled rooms until he found where the rope had come to rest, dangling in front of a balcony. It was none too soon.
'I was almost passed out when I got on the rope,' Howard said Friday in a telephone interview with the Moline Daily Dispatch. 'I was light-headed from inhaling so much smoke, so it was everything I could do to keep holding on.'
His ordeal began, as it did for all the more than 4,000 occupants of the hotel, shortly after 7 a.m. He was awakened by people yelling and banging in the hallway.
'People were running up and down, screaming and crying,' he said. 'Some were carrying suitcases and some were in their nightclothes. I was very scared, but I didn't want to panic. I just kept thinking there might be a way out.'
Howard said he, like the other hysterical guests, ran from room to room, searching in vain for fire exits or relief from the smoke quickly filling the hall.
'Old women, with that desperate look in their eyes, were grabbing younger men and begging for help. The smoke was getting so thick ... the only time you could see was when you ran into someone, then you looked right into their eyes.
'I was sure we were all going to die.'
The first of some 20 people who died on the 14th floor succumbed to the smoke when he saw the rope.
'I was getting weak, I felt sick to my stomach. I prayed to god for a miracle to get me out of there ... and 30 seconds later I saw a rope swing by the window from right to left.'
He ran from room to room until he found the rope, hanging from a balcony. A few feet away were six people, he said, crying and pointing to the body of a man lying on the ground 14 stories below.
'They had been with him, and they said he'd tried to use the rope, but his hands had slipped and he'd fallen.'
He began his descent. As he passed each floor, panic stricken guests called to him for help.
'I almost felt guilty coming down that rope. I knew the others on the balconies were going to die if they didn't try it, and you could see from their eyes they knew it too.'
Once on the ground, he sighted the bodies of the man who had fallen and a woman who had jumped.
'It was awful. I knew they were both dead. They had their eyes open and were lying in a pool of blood.'
Feeling ill and still in a state of shock, Howard said he ran into the nearbythe Royal Palms Hotel.
'When I came in they ... gave me a room, and when I went inside, that's when I broke down and started crying. That's when it hit me.'