Slicing through the smoke and confusion of the deadly fire, a dozen Air Force, police and civilian helicopters plucked hundreds of men, women and children to safety from the roof and upper floors of the MGM Grand Hotel today.

One battle-hardended Air Force veteran likened it to the evacuation five years ago of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as enemy troops captured the city.

"There were people piling on all the choppers," said Lt. Col. Mike Wallace. "We [Air Force pilots] took off 200, maybe 300, and the civilian craft took hundreds more. We don't know for sure; nobody kept count."

Wallace said three twin-engined Air Force Ch3s hovered low over the burning 26-story building.

Smaller police choppers swarmed nearby, directing the pilots of CH3s through the smoke to upper-floor balconies where guests waited for rescue.

"There was a lot of confusion and noise," Wallace said. "The people were on the balconies of their rooms, hollering and screaming."

There was one immediate problem. CH3 pilots, hovering next to the building, had to stay beyond the range of the propeller blades, which are 31 feet long. So the three noncommissioned officers riding at the end of 100-foot-long hoist-slings had to swing themselves out from directly under the choppers onto the balconies.

Master Sgt. James W. Connett, an Air Force reservist, said that "once on the balcony, I got off and strapped the people in. Several of them, especially the older women, wouldn't budge. We were 200 feet up and they said they were afraid of heights. I told them it was the only way out and they moved."

Swining like dead weights at the end of a pendulum, the hotel guests -- one and two at a time -- were slowly winched up into the CH3s.

"The first person in [the CH3] went straight to a corner, huddled there and started to cry," said Capt. David T. Ellis, a chopper pilot. "Then we pulled up the second and the third, and they were hugging each other.

". . . then they kissed us."

Not everyone made it.

One CH3 crew worked frantically to save a man hoisted comatose into the chopper. For 15 minutes, the Arizona Air Force reservists attempted to revive him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The man never regained consciousness.