The lines of staring tourists thinned out yesterday as 45-mile-an-hour desert winds whistled through the hulk of the MGM Grand Hotel, showering papery, ashen, debris from the Friday's fatal blaze along the Strip like telegrams from hell.
At least some managers of the other behemoth resorts here had already gotten the message.
"I've had calls from 10 different hotels around town this morning," said Howard Herrick of Master Protection Inc., which sells and services alarms and other safety equipment. His business is suddenly booming.
"They want new, modern safety systems. They say, 'We want it done now,' and they are not concerned with costs."
There are 1,000 fires a month in hotels and motels nationwide, for an annual loss of about $90 million, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
"We lose 160 lives a year, double the loss in the MGM fire," said USFA Director Gordon Vickery. "But we usually lose them in ones and twos, and people don't pay much attention. It takes a disaster like this."
If the national mood favors getting big government off the backs of the people and letting them make decisions closer to home, the country's current approach to fire prevention and control seems a model of that approach.
No federal agency has anything to do with the imposition of laws or regulations for fire safety on any community.
Vickery's agency in Washington, and such organizations as the Boston-based nonprofit National Fire Prevention Association make recommendations, collect data and try to educate the public.
But the people of each community decide how safe they want to be from fire.
Some states, including California, Washington and Oregon, and a number of major cities have enacted relatively stringent codes, Vickery said. But referring to the MGM fire, to which he sent five investigators, he added, "everybody has some problem areas . . . . Every city has an exposure of this kind."
And in many communities, "People have just never been concerned enough to pass the kind of ordinances that are needed."
The use of certain materials and building and interior decoration, such as the plastic that produced toxic gases in the MGM fire, could also be controlled by local ordinance, Vickery said.
The use of furniture containing synthetics such as polyurethane, however, can be controlled only by federal law, according to some fire officials. State laws can be skirted by bringing in furnishings from other states.
The fire that broke out in the MGM casino area last Friday morning killed 84 people and injured more than 500 others. The alarm failed to sound and all but one of the few scattered sprinkler systems failed, according to fire officials. Fire doors did not do their job. Although 10 persons were fatally burned and three jumped or fell to their deaths, most of the victims in the supposedly smokeproof hotel towers died from inhaling smoke and poisonous gases.
Most of the post-mortems in Las Vegas this week have focused on the refusal of MGM managers to upgrade their fire safety system merely because they were not legally required to do so. In Las Vegas and Clark County, as in many areas nationwide, new, tougher safety codes have not been applied retroactively to existing buildings.
"Some people say you can't pass a law that applies retroactively," Vickery said. "Well, it's difficult, but not impossible. We did it in Seattle as a result of some bad hotel fires."
A veteran firefighter, Vickery was chief of the Seattle fire department before he moved to Washington.
The cost of bringing an old hotel up to the standards of new fire safety codes can be up to twice as much as installing the same system in a new structure as it is being built, according to fire safety equipment specialists.
A first-class alarm system installed in a new hotel under construction might cost in the neighborhood of $100,000, Herrick said.
At least three of the older hotels on the Strip -- the Sahara, Caesar's Palace and the Landmark -- had begun to upgrade their fire safty systems before the MGM fire, he added.
The largest single cost in a modern safety system is the sprinklers, according to Barney Franich of Grinnell Fire Protection Systems. The sprinkler system his company installed recently throughout the relatively new MGM Reno, sister hotel to the one that burned, cost $2 million, he said.
The Flamingo Hilton, just north of the MGM Grand, has in its two gleaming new towers precisely the sort of snappy, modern alarm system that all the hotels ought to install, according to county fire officials. The Flamingo towers were built in the last year or two and were required to meet the new, tougher standards.
Smoke detectors and intercoms in each room, an automatic alarm system and sprinklers are among the system's features.
But Flamingo general manager Horst Dziura says the system is almost too sensitive.
"A cigar can set the system off. A high wind like we have today can blow dust through the window and set it off. We have so many false alarms it comes to a point where everybody gets too relaxed about it. It's like crying VIP [the Las Vegas version of crying wolf]," he said. "You cry VIP all the time, when a real VIP comes, he is no more VIP."
In fact, the hotel has had six fires, including three last year set by a dissatisfied maid, Dziura said. Each time the system functioned properly.
In the new spirit of caution, Harrah's Reno hotel and casino evacuated 1,500 people after a kitchen fire broke out Sunday night. It was extinguished within 10 minutes and no injuries were reported.
Like the MGM Grand and many other Nevada hotels, Harrah's was built before new codes were enacted and has sprinklers only on the first floor. Unlike the MGM, however, it has a smoke detector and alarm system which functioned, although by the time the alarm sounded the brief fire was already contained, according to fire officials.
Meanwhile, MGM executives and their insurers are braced for a barrage of wrongful death and other lawsuits. One Las Vegas attorney told the San Francisco Chronicle he has alredy been asked to file suit on behalf of families of three victims. The suit would charge "breach of an implied warrant of habitibility" and "negligent construction and design," he said. It might include fire alarm and electrical companies as well.
Many of the hotel's 4,500 employes are expected to be forced to go on unemployemnt benefits until the MGM reopens next year. The fire threw them out of work at a time when the recent nationwide recession and high travel costs had already dented the city's economy.
The impact of the loss of the hotel's business will be "very far-reaching," according to Nevada Gov. Robert List. "The MGM is one of the largest employers in the state . . . . Its closing . . . will leave a gaping hole in our sources of revenue."
Firemen today were still searching through pools of water in the hotel basement, some as deep as six feet in places, to make sure there are no more bodies to be found.