Cowboy survived MGM Grand fire

Over the years, I’ve collected keepsakes from my travels and assignments.

There’s a bomb-scorched rock I found in a crater next to a German pillbox above Utah Beach in Normandy, France; media credentials from the 1989 earthquake World Series in San Francisco, and a shiny black rock from the Colosseum in Rome.

The most personal addition to my collection is a gold-colored key with 1410 etched into it. As in room 1410, MGM Grand, Nov. 21, 1980.

Two years ago it was given to me by one of the most colorful survivors of the fire, Randy Howard, aka the MGM Cowboy, who escaped the 14th floor via a rope provided by Nellis airmen.

When November rolled around each year, I kept promising myself I would someday meet Howard and close the circle on one of the iconic survivors of the fire.

My only contact was a 10-minute conversation the day after the fire. As a reporter on The Associated Press’ fire coverage team, I had tracked him down in Illinois.

When I moved to Las Vegas in 1999 to join the Review-Journal, my goal became something of an obsession. Starting with the 20th anniversary, I mentioned him in my column and made it clear I wanted to talk to him.

Thanks to the Internet, word got back to him; but he wanted nothing to do with that chapter of his life, he later told me.

In May 2008, though, I got a call from one of his friends, with the message, “Randy is ready to talk to you.”

As his e-mails poured in, it became clear why he was reluctant to reveal everything.

He was a tough hombre with a shady past, a Marine veteran who got into trafficking marijuana. He was running away from trouble — problems with women and drugs — when he arrived in Las Vegas a day before the fire.

In his suitcase was $170,000 in cash, drugs and a .357 Magnum. He planned to lie low in Mexico.

Hung over from a hard night on the town, Howard was awakened by a commotion outside his room about 7 a.m. The fire that claimed 87 lives and injured 650 was fully involved.

After hitting dead ends at every turn, Howard prayed for divine intervention and, within a minute, found himself on a balcony looking at a gift from above, the rope.

Below was the body of a man who didn’t make it down the rope. Some men on the balcony tried to dissuade Howard from trying it, but he leaped off the balcony and grabbed the rope.

On the way down, his cowboy hat was knocked sideways. He paused, adjusted it and continued. A minute or so later, a large shard of glass glanced off the brim of his hat, another miracle, as far as Howard is concerned.

Two years ago, I flew him out to Las Vegas, hoping he would find closure.

We returned to the scene, now Bally’s. After a few emotional minutes, he took something off his key chain and handed it to me. It was a key to his room. Other than his clothes and his hat, it was all he escaped with.

A haunting reminder of the tragedy, to be sure, but I accepted it in the spirit that it represents one man’s courage, the extraordinary will to survive and friendship.


Contempory art icon James Rosenquist, on hand for Saturday’s unveiling of his 20-foot-by-10-foot oil painting titled “Cervello Spazio Cosmico” (Italian for brain space) during a private dinner at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Steve Wynn commissioned Rosenquist to create the piece for Larry Ruvo, the man behind the brain institute. … Bruce Bochy, who managed the San Francisco Giants to their first World Series title since 1954, dining Friday at N9NE Steakhouse (Palms). … Former Nevada first lady Dawn Gibbons and Tri-Star Chairman Scott Karosa, dining Friday at Sinatra (Encore) after chatting with Wynn.


“Charlie Sheen went through airport security and was patted down. After he was done, he said, ‘Do you take American Express?’ ” — David Letterman

Norm Clarke can be reached at (702) 383-0244 or Find additional sightings and more online at

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