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Search teams returned to the blackened MGM Grand Hotel...

By CHRIS CHRYSTAL

LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Search teams returned to the blackened MGM Grand Hotel today to hunt for victims of the smoky flash fire that killed more than 80 people and investigators tried to determine the cause of the tragedy.

Authorities said an electrical malfunction in a gambling machine may have sparked the blaze, which sent dense smoke pouring through the luxury high-rise, injuring more than 500 people and forcing more than 1,000 guests to flee to the roof, where they were ferried to safety by a fleet of helicopters.

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Clark County Coroner Otto Ravenholt said today 82 bodies had been recovered from the hotel-casino but rescue workers expected to find additional bodies in the fire- and smoke-ravaged building.

Ravenholt said a partial list of the victims would be released later today, but some gamblers trapped in the gutted ground floor casino were so badly burned it could take several days to positively identify all of the victims.

Guests in the huge hotel, built in 1973, said no alarm sounded when the fire erupted. Some said they first learned of the blaze by radio or TV.

'We always knew that one day something like this was going to happen,' said County Fire Chief Roy Parrish.

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'There would have been less life lost' if the hotel had installed an automatic alarm system, as was required in all resort hotels built after 1975, Parrish claimed.

A team of county building and safety inspectors prepared to comb the hotel today, looking for code deficiencies.

'We'll be looking for violations of the building codes or anything that will give us a clue as to how this could have happened,' said Danny Sanchez, chief electrical inspector for the county.

Authorities told UPI a reported electrical malfunction in a gambling machine located in a delicatessen near the casino may have caused the blaze, which roared through the casino's flammable trappings early Friday and sent thick smoke seeping throughout the 26-story tower.

A cook told investigators he saw a keno board in the deli restaurant sparking and burning. He went to get a fire extinguisher, and when he returned, the deli was full of smoke.

The fire rapidly burned through the ceiling and within moments, at 7 a.m., a sheet of flames collapsed onto the casino, where terrified gamblers and employees fled for their lives.

The crystal-chandeliered casino became a raging inferno, trapping and killing at least 10 people, but the flames did not go beyond the first floor. Most of the victims, trapped in their upper floor rooms or the corridors by the choking smoke, died of smoke inhalation or cardiac arrest, the coroner said.

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At least three people died of injuries suffered when they fell or jumped from upper floors of the high-rise, he said.

Ravenholt said 60 of the victims were found between the 19th and 24th floors of the hotel. The bodies of nine guests were found trapped in elevators -- two halfway up the skyscraper and one near the ground floor. Most of the fire victims' white-cloaked bodies were loaded into three refrigerated semi-trailer trucks and taken to the coroner's office, where staff members spent the night unloading and examining the corpses.

A casino official at a nearby hotel said the MGM 'probably had millions of dollars' in bets and markers which were destroyed in the fire.

Scores of guests, believing they were trapped in their smoke-filled rooms, broke the windows to get fresh air and choked to death on heavier smoke that rushed in from outside.

More than 500 of the hotel's guests and employees were treated for smoke inhalation and shock and more than 1,000 fled to the roof for rescue by helicopter.

A giant wave of fire rolled out of the hotel's majestic front entrance, setting astroturf in front of the hotel afire and making torches out of palm trees.

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Precious moments elapsed while 4,500 to 5,000 hotel guests, most of them still asleep or in nightclothes, were unaware that one of the worst hotel fires in history was burning below them. No alarms sounded.

'We found out about the fire when people were running down the hall screaming 'We're getting burned,'' Carolina DeSada, a visitor from Mexicali, Mexico, said in Spanish.

Desperate guests burst through exit doors to the stairwells, letting smoke into their only escape route, as they ran down the steps to safety. Some of them panicked when they tried to re-enter the corridors through the stairwell exits which do not open from the outside for security reasons.

An eyewitness in an upper floor room at the Barbary Coast Hotel next door said he saw at least one woman leap to her death from an upper floor and a man climb down a rope, which snapped, dropping him about nine floors and killing him instantly.

'When he hit the pavement, it was unbelievable,' the witness, who asked not to be identified, said.

Firefighters, who waded through water up to their knees in the casino, and evendeeper in the basement, were hampered in their frantic rescue effort by darkness, water, and broken glass.

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Authorities said no alarm sounded and they believe the amplifier on a general buzzer alarm system, in the basement of the 2,300-room hotel, was burned out. But it could not have been heard in the individual hotel rooms anyway.

The MGM, which cost $106 million to build and opened in December 1973, was constructed before county fire codes required smoke alarm systems and sprinklers to be installed in high rise hotels.

The hotel's sprinkling system was confined to some of the restaurants off the casino and the 26th floor where a lavish private casino for high rollers was built but seldom used.

Nevada Gov. Robert List, who toured the gutted casino and smoke-blackened rooms, said he would appoint a panel of experts to determine if the state's building and fire safety building codes are adequate.

'The MGM was in full compliance with the standards at the time (it was built),' List said.

Firemen could not estimate the damage, but they said it was obvious the loss would be in the millions.

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