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Firefighter still chilled by MGM Grand blaze

Thirty-five years later, Clark County Fire Capt. Jon Sabol can’t escape the horrific images of the MGM Grand fire.

Flashbacks still flare up for the county’s last active firefighter who battled the Nov. 21, 1980, inferno that killed 88 and injured 650, one of the worst hotel fires in U.S. history.

“I just ran in the Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon (last Sunday),” said Sabol, still fit at age 61 and on the brink of retirement.

“Going down the Strip, I looked over at Bally’s (formerly the MGM Grand) and could still see the two columns of black smoke rising out of the showroom. And each time, I see the windows with the curtains flapping in and out,” Sabol said during an interview in his office at Fire Station 34 in southwest Las Vegas.

On the fateful day, Sabol — hired only 2½ months earlier — was driving southbound on I-15 about 7:15 a.m. on his way to Fire Station 15, at Valley View Boulevard and Spring Mountain Road, when he saw the smoke plumes growing over the MGM Grand. It would be 4:30 a.m. the next day before Sabol and many of his fellow firefighters ended their efforts.

A couple months later he was transferred to Fire Station 11, the station closest to the destroyed hotel. That meant being reminded of the fire, from demolition work through the years-long rebuild. A decade after the fire, Sabol was promoted to captain of Fire Station 11.

Some of his fellow firefighters had long-term struggles with their emotions after the fire. Sabol’s worst day came in 1994 while working at Fire Station 23 in the north part of Las Vegas. One of the victims of a trailer park fire was a 4-year-old boy.

“I had to carry him out. My boy was 4 at the time. That one’s really in my head,” Sabol said, his voice cracking and lips quivering.

Some myths surrounding the fire have never died. Atop the list is the tale that bodies were found in front of slot machines, suggesting gamblers wouldn’t leave.

“Nobody died at a gaming table or slot machine,” said Sabol, reading from the final investigative report. “They were slow in getting out but everyone got away from the tables and slot machines before the fireball came through.”

Only 18 of the 88 died in or near the vast casino. The rest were above the 15th floor. The main cause of death was smoke inhalation. Seven perished in or near an elevator that opened on the first floor, where the fire was raging. Three died at the registration desk.

“There are many urban legends of what happened to the money in the casino cage,” he said.

I showed Sabol a key from Room 1410, which was given to me in 2008 by survivor Randy Howard. I had interviewed Howard the day after the fire. The Marine in a cowboy hat survived by climbing down a rope from a 14th-floor balcony after a woman had fallen to her death while attempting it.

Sabol said some of his first-arriving firefighters made belt buckles out of slot machine dollar tokens given to them by the hotel. His only fire-related possession, he said, was a Firehouse magazine that featured an account of the fire.

“A lot of people didn’t get the recognition they deserve,” Sabol said.

“The MGM employees worked very hard to help their guests. The construction workers who were working on what is now called the west tower helped man fire hoses and backed up firefighters as well assisting fire victims from the hotel. Metro helicopter pilot Harry Christopher ended up not getting some of the credit he deserved for several rescues before taking position of directing helicopter operations above the hotel.

“There are a lot of people besides us who went above and beyond.”

The scene and heard

Celine Dion, in tribute to the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks, will perform Edith Piaf‘s “Hymne a l’Amour” at the American Music Awards tonight in Los Angeles (8 p.m., Channel 13). Piaf wrote the song for the love of her life, French boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was killed in a plane crash in October 1949, a month after the song was released.

On this day

Nov. 22, 1989: Steve Wynn opens The Mirage, a $625 million luxury resort/casino whose success ushers in a new era of opulence on the Strip. Siegfried & Roy moved their show to The Mirage, taking their show to a new level, while crowds gathered nightly to watch the 54-foot erupting volcano.


Beyonce and Jay Z, creating a buzz when they arrived at Britney Spears‘ show at Planet Hollywood Resort. … Steffi Graf, aka Mrs. Andre Agassi, popping into Dom Demarco’s Pizzeria and Bar on West Charleston Boulevard for takeout on Thursday. Minutes later, former UNLV great Stacy Augmon ordered pizza and wings to go. … Miss Nevada USA contestants, in the company of executive director Shanna Moakler, at the D, taking photos with owner Derek Stevens, a pageant sponsor.

The punch line

“There is reportedly a shortage of turkeys this Thanksgiving. So it’s official, even turkeys don’t want to spend Thanksgiving with your family.” — Conan O’Brien

— Norm Clarke’s column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 702-383-0244 or norm@reviewjournal.com. Find more online at www.normclarke.com. Follow him: @Norm_Clarke

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