For 2 1/2 hours, Judy and Howie Topal, young honeymooners from Brooklyn, N.Y., slept soundly in their 14th-floor room as a hellish fire and poisonous smoke took lives all around them and destroyed much of the once-luxurious MGM Grand Hotel.
Nothing woke them until two firemen pounded on their door at about 9:30 a.m., in masks and equipment that, the bride said, "looked like Star Wars." The firemen led them through blinding black smoke to safety.
Today -- the final day of their two-week honeymoon -- the couple stood for hours outside the ruins of the hotel with a crowd of MGM refugees. A forest of hands anxiously waved room keys over their heads to attract the attention of the hotel staff, who were escorting the survivors in small groups to their rooms to recover what was left of their belongings.
"We came here hoping to make a killing at the tables, maybe pay for the trip," said Topal, an accountant. "We weren't lucky at the tables. But the way we feel, lucky is getting out with our lives."
Others were not that lucky, among them Emil and Elaine Knick of College Park, Md., among at least 15 Marylanders staying at the MGM Grand.
Elaine Knick was in the habit of calling her young daughter, Carrie, every night when she was out of town. When she didn't call Friday night, relatives began to prepare for the worst. This morning it came. The Knicks had died in their 23rd-floor room.
Three other Maryland couples, who did not know the Knicks, also had rooms on the 23rd floor, but escaped serious injury. Richard and Joanne Bartlett of Silver Spring, Lynn and Beverly Vandercook of Olney and Robert and Norma Snyder of Beltsville, who were vacationing together, were led to safety by firemen.
Two Howard County couples staying on the sixth floor said they escaped uninjured minutes after the fire started, thanks to one of them, Walter F. Fullwood, an Ellicott City truck driver and early riser, who spotted smoke about 7 a.m.
Fullwood and his wife, Marilyn, and their cousins, August and Loisann Abicht, were in adjoining rooms directly above the hotel's marquee, from which smoke was billowing.
"I woke up about 6:30 and I laid in bed for a while. I looked out the window and I said to my wife, 'Gee, I don't believe it, there's a fire in our hotel,'" Fullwood said. "All of a sudden smoke was pouring out the front door and we were right above it. . . . We went and banged on everyone else's door. That's the only way people on our floor realized it was a fire." e
"People were screaming like you wouldn't believe," Fullwood said. "All you heard was people from the 11th floor up screaming for help in their nightgowns and they didn't have ladders that could go up that high.
"And all we could do was stand in the street and look up and cry. There wasn't a thing we could do."
Many of the 4,000 hotel guests were asleep or just rising when the fire broke out. Some learned about the danger from radio or television, from the shouts of other guests or bystanders on the street below. Some were roused by maids or security guards.
At least seven hotel guards and an undetermined number of other hotel employes are counted among the dead. Late today, firemen were still looking for bodies believed to be lying under the debris and possibly under water standing in the basement.
Mildred Sapata, a gray-haired tourist from Elmwood Park, Ill., stood in the confetti of broken glass near the hotel in her bedroom slippers and a long green nightgown. She had spent the night at a new hotel across the street from the MGM that has not yet officially opened for business.
"The hotel people were just beautiful. They served us coffee, tea. They looked after us so nicely," she said.
All over this Sin City in the desert, mixed with anger at the lack of alarms and other safety provisions in the hotel, there was praise for the swift and generous response from the community.
"It seemed like sky opened up and gave us everything we needed." said Norma Dickens, a nurse. Friday, as she tended the injured brought to the city's convention center, she learned that her fiance, MGM security guard Joe Dell Hudgins, had been killed in the blaze.
"I've always thought of Las Vegas as being a negative town until yesterday. But no more," she said, as she waited at the morgue to make arrangements for the body.
When the constellations of neon turn on the bright Las Vegas night, the black hole of the burned-out MGM stands out like a missing tooth on the Strip.
But in casinos up and down the fabled strip, the name of the game was business as usual. Even before the flames died, dealers reported that some gamblers routed from the MGM came hurrying into the Barbary Coast Casino next door to nurse a winning streak. Among them was one man dressed only in a woman's skirt.