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Hotel fires share tragic similarities;NEWLN:Hotel fires share tragic similarities

By CHRIS CHRYSTAL, United Press International

The first TV news pictures of flames leaping from the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico New Years Eve gave some viewers an eerily familiar jolt, 'like watching the MGM burn again,' a lawyer who sued the Las Vegas resort recalled.

Until an arsonist created an inferno in the Dupont Plaza on a San Juan beach, the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas ranked as the nation's second worst hotel fire, a blaze that revolutionized the state's fire safety codes and became a classic in fire disaster history.

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The worst fire at Atlanta's Winecoff Hotel Dec. 7, 1946, claimed 119 lives.

The Dupont Plaza and MGM Grand fires have much in common, making the end result of the San Juan tragedy predictable.

Both were located in resort cities in warm climates and had casinos. The MGM was heavily booked with a weekend crowd. The Dupont Plaza was gearing up for a big New Years Eve.

Neither hotel had a full sprinkling system or adequate fire alarms. In both disasters, the fire broke out on or near the ground floor and rolled through the casino, trapping and killing terrified guests and employees.

Both high-rises acted as chimneys, drawing black smoke straight to the roof, where survivors were rescued by helicopter. Many who couldn't reach it died of smoke inhalation.

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The death tolls were great, but could have been higher if the fires had struck at night when the casinos would have been jammed.

As it was, 96 died in the Dupont fire, mostly in the casino, and 106 were reported injured. The fire in the 20-story 423-room hotel broke out at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1986, when many of the estimated 700 guests were shopping, sightseeing or on the beach.

The death toll at the 2,300-room 26-story MGM initially was 84, but three people died later from fire-related injuries, pushing the final count to 87.

More than 1,000 suffered burns, smoke inhalation, cuts, sprains and broken tones, but firefighters said probably 1,500 lives were spared because the Nov. 21, 1980, fire occurred at 7 a.m. when showrooms were closed and few people were gambling.

Toxic fumes from burning synthetics in carpets, draperies and decorations were quickly suspected of contributing to death tolls in both fires.

The causes were different -- electrical at the MGM, arson at the Dupont -- but the effects were the same: multimillion-dollar lawsuits within days, and remorse over inadequate fire safety provisions.

Wendell Gauthier, one of the flock of lawyers who sued the MGM Grand, said deaths and injuries from the fire cost its owners and 112 other defendants, including suppliers and contractors, $210 million.

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'But now,' he said, 'the MGM is the safest hotel you can stay in today.'

Lawsuits already have been filed against the Dupont Plaza and are expected to mount, probably surpassing the MGM (renamed the Bally) because more lives were lost and the injuries were more serious, Gauthier, of Metairie, La., said.

Tourist-dependant Nevada, shocked by the MGM fire, quickly passed a tough law requiring smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers and other life-saving features to be installed in all buildings over 55 feet tall within two years.

The law applies to hotels, condos, stores and office buildings, and any building with 5,000 square feet that is used for dining, dancing or drinking.

Some 33,000 buildings had to be retrofitted at a cost of about half a billion dollars.

'We've got the strongest (fire safety laws) in the country. It's been a long road, and difficult, but our compliance ratio is 99 percent,' state Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston said in a telephone interview Friday.

Florida and Massachusetts also have passed laws requiring all high-rise hotels to install sprinking systems, U.S. Fire Administrator Clyde Bragdon said.

Bragdon, the former Los Angeles County fire chief, said Los Angeles and a number of other cities have passed retrofit requirements in recent years, but only three states have laws requiring retrofitting of hotel sprinklers.

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An American Hotel and Motel Association survey showed less than 5 percent of the 50,000 hotels are fully equipped with sprinklers, Bragdon said.

'I feel strongly the victims of the MGM Grand Hotel were martyrs in drawing attention to hotel safety on a national basis. But it's still not enough,' he said, speaking from his office in Maryland.

The MGM Grand was closed for eight months, reopening in July 1981 amid fanfare over its $100 million restoration, including a $5 million fire safety system with heat-activated sprinklers and a smoke-sniffing computer that monitors 2,800 locations at once, watches the sprinklers, and sounds alarms if anything happens.

If a hallway fills with smoke, the system can change all the air in the hotel within 10 minutes. The crew manning the computer can make public address announcements to people in specific hotel areas, or broadcast instructions throughout the hotel.

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