Top executives of MGM Grand Hotels Inc., facing the heat of public outrage, today impassively defended the hotel's safety provisions and insisted that they met and even exceeded legal requirements that applied when it was built in 1973.
"Certainly you can improve any building . . . but the fact remains that we complied with the code in existence," said Fred Benninger, chairman of the board, at a news conference, as reporters peppered him with questions as to why the company failed to heed the safety urgings of fire officials.
The officials say they have urged MGM and other hotels in the area for years to voluntarily install smoke detectors, additional sprinkler systems and automatic alarm systems even though the hotels are not required to, because they were built before tougher codes were enacted.
Benninger questioned whether such improvements would have made any positive difference in the results of Friday's disastrous fire, which killed at least 83 people and injured 500 others. The blaze started in faulty wiring over a delicatessen at one end of the hotel's huge casino and swept the area within a few moments, according to fire officials.
The failure of the hotel's alarm system, which must be triggered by hand, "may have been a blessing in disguise," Benninger told a roomful of reporters and TV cameras at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
"More people would have gone into hallways and suffocated" if the alarm had sounded, he suggested. "They were much better off to stay in their rooms."
The amplifiers for the alarm system were destroyed by the fire in the opening moments, so that they would not have been heard even if someone had triggered them, fire officials believe.
More than once, reporters shouted angrily at Benninger and demanded that he stop "hiding behind legalism" and admit that better safety features would have saved lives.
"Obviously hindsight is better than foresight," he responded at one point. "If there was any way I thought that with six different alarm systems a life could've been saved, then I would've put it in."
The MGM Grand, which was one of the largest hotels in the world, will reopen next year, with July 1 as the target date, Benninger said. The long-planned addition of 760 rooms, which would make the hotel the world's largest, will also be completed.
The gutted, blackened casino, where the fire started and ended, will have to be completely rebuilt. But other areas, including the showrooms, convention halls and jai ali fronton [arena] were "virtually undamaged," he said. The 26-story hotel tower also "had little or no structural damage."
Fire department sources and some guests have stated that there were no fire instructions posted on the floors telling guests how to get out of the building, which is a maze of curving corridors.
Benninger contended there were fire instructions on each floor. When asked to explain, he said, "All exits are clearly marked."
Flanked by Alvin (Al) Benedict, president of the corporation, and Bernard Rothkopf, president of the Las Vegas hotel, Benninger repeatedly refused to say unequivocally whether the entire refurbished MGM Grand will fully meet the most stringent, modern fire safety standards when it reopens.
"We'll meet the codes in effect as of any date that may be applicable," he said. At one point Rothkopf interjected that the reporters were misunderstanding Benninger's statements. "We will abide by the new code and whatever things are needed to make it more safe," Rothkopf said.
Benninger said that the sprinkler systems that were in place in scattered areas on a few floors of the hotel, some of which apparently failed to function, were not required under the code that applies to the hotel but were installed voluntarily by the management. He added that in any case it is not yet clear that having more sprinklers would have done any good.
No official estimates were available today on the cost of the fire to MGM, though estimates have put losses in the millions.
No estimates were available, either, on how much the suggested fire safety improvements would have cost the hotel.
MGM Grand Hotels Inc., with the hotel here and one in Reno, showed profits of $33 million last year, Benninger said.
On related topics, Benninger denied a report published in the Las Vegas Sun, which quoted sources who said that counting room personnel used a secret door to escape the fire with more than $1 million in cash. Gaming officials have said they will investigate, since the existence of such a door would violate their internal control requirements.
There was no secret door, according to Benninger.
Except for 10 people burned beyond recognition as the fire swept the casino area, almost all of the fatalities in the fire were caused by billowing black smoke that carried poison gasses created by the burning of plastics used in the interior decoration of the casiono. Survivors reported that no warnings were given by the hotel that a fire was in progress.
Fire department officials have for years urged the MGM Grand and other major hotels to install sprinkler systems, as well as smoke detectors and other safety features, the officials say.
"They just don't want to put out the money," said former county fire marshal Carl Lowe. "Fire prevention is one of the hardest things in the world to teach people."
Some questions were raised by reporters about problems in the construction of the hotel in 1972 and 1973 that caused it to be given low safety ratings by insurance investigators. The problems concerned the steel used in the structure of the building, according to sources familiar with the situation.
After extensive investigation by insurance officials, "they were satisfied, and they then came out with an insurance rating," Benninger said. In any case, he said, the structure of the hotel "was and is stable. We believe none of the deaths were due to structural failures."
In a statement at the beginning of the news conference, Benninger expressed "heartfelt sympathy to all our guests" and their families and friends, addings that "words are inadequate to express our angish." Earlier this year, MGM was split into two companies with the hotel operation becoming part of MGM Grand Hotels Inc. The movie-making operation went to Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Film Corp.