A Veteran’s Reminiscence: Fire at The MGM Grand 1980
By: Daniel R. Jaramillo
November 19th, 1980 Luke AFB just west of Phoenix, the 302 Special Operations Squadron is getting three HH-3E helicopters ready for a week of war games at Nellis AFB, just north of Las Vegas. The HH-3 helicopter is Viet-Nam vintage, first seeing duty in the early sixties. It is large enough to carry twenty five fully equipped troops and was nick named, “the jolly green giant”. The military exercise at Nellis is called Red Flag and every branch of the service participates.
November 20th, our first full day starts. Two helicopters are tasked with taking twenty Army Rangers into a remote area of the high desert plains so they can sneak up on an enemy camp and destroy a radar site. The flight will take us about three and a half hours. Before dropping the Rangers off, in the middle of nowhere, a briefing is held and we agree on a pickup time, they have a five minute T-O-T, (five minute time on target) and the GPS coordinates for the pickup location. The Rangers will have to travel about twenty miles from the point we drop them off, to where we will pick them up on the 22th, they will not get any sleep.
We return to Nellis AFB from our mission about six in the evening. Some of the guys are heading into Las Vegas to do some gambling and catch a show. My good friend Flech and I decided we are to tired from the day’s work and will visit a couple of small bars just outside the front gates of Nellis, we don’t have to pick up the rangers till late in the afternoon the next day.
Flech and I hook up with some Phoenix Fire men who are also Air Force Reservists participating in the Red Flag exercise.
We start playing pool, have a few drinks and around three in the morning head back to the base. I am so tired, just cannot wait to hit my bunk.
I had just fallen asleep when there was a loud knock at the door. I thought for a minute it can’t be time to get up, my god, I felt like I just got into bed. My roommate got up and opened the door. It was the unit’s First Sergeant. I worked with the big Irishmen in the civilian world, a Lieutenant with the Phoenix Police Department.
I got up and walked outside, I was in my long-john pants and a t-shirt, the temperature is right at 30 degrees. The First Sergeant said one of the buildings on the strip was on fire, I walked from my room, around the building to the stairwell and looked out toward Las Vegas. I could see a large black cloud of smoke hovering over one of the high rise buildings. It was a mushroom shaped cloud of black smoke, like you see on those old atomic bomb films.
I went back into the room, I looked at my roommate and said yea, there’s a fire alright. I was dressed and out the door in a matter of minutes. After a quick pre-flight inspection of the helicopter we took off. I stood in the doorway of the helicopter as we lifted off. I could just hear the Commander in my headset asking the tower for instructions as we headed for the Las Vegas strip.
As we cleared the last building over Nellis I could now see downtown Las Vegas and the strip. The black mushroom shape cloud of smoke hovering over and around a glass tower, the MGM Grand, looked even larger, it was unbelievable. As we moved closer to the building you could actually see thick black smoke coming from the roof of the casino area and from several of the rooms throughout the hotel tower.
I had to swallow twice to get my heart out of my throat and back in to my chest.
As we made our first pass high over the hotel roof I could see there were several people and a couple of firemen near one edge of the towers roof.
I advised the pilot that there were several other helicopters in the area, most of them belonging to the news media. The pilot contacted the airport tower and asked for instructions. The tower advised that we switch our radio to a local frequency and contact the police helicopter that was attempting to keep control of the sky over the MGM Grand Hotel. Beside the three helicopters we brought there were at least eight other military helicopters, five or six media helicopters and four or five fixed wing media planes flying a very tight pattern over the MGM Grand.
I hung out the door to the limit of my safety belt, that means from the waist up I was outside the helicopter, I could barely hear the pilot, the rotor blades were cutting into the thick morning air at such a high angle, the sound was deafening. I directed the pilot down toward the building. There were antennas everywhere and we were unsure if the roof would hold up the weight of the helicopter so our decent had to be very slow. As we approached the edge of the building we were hit by a sudden gush of very hot air, smoke filled the helicopter cabin, my eyes watered and it took a second to clear my lungs, I started to cough uncontrollably. The smoke cleared a bit as we approached the roof top two firemen ran toward the helicopter.
The firemen advised they had several people that needed medical attention.
I swung the door ladder down and helped the firemen bring on six very scared passengers, dirty, injured and pale they looked like zombies as they sat starring out the We were able to get the right main landing gear to sit on the edge of the roof. The helicopter windows. We brought them straight down to a medical setup in one of the parking lots. The police pilot came over the air and related that there were several people injured and stranded on the balconies on all sides of the building. There was no way any of the helicopters flying around the build at that time could get to them. They asked the Commander, my pilot, if there were anything we could do with the hoist unit on the helicopter.
I asked the pilot if it would be possible to hover at an altitude above the building. There was an eight foot over hang at the edge of the building so we wouldn’t be able to get a rescue hoist up against the building. But, with the helicopters hovering over the edge of the building we could swing the hoist toward the building, like a pendulum and get on the balconies. The Commander agreed.
I unbuckled my gunners belt and pulled the rescue device between my legs, I secured the strap around me, turned toward the cockpit gave the Commander a quick salute and out the door I went. The hoist operator lowered me away from the helicopter. I looked up and pointed toward the building and we slowly moved forward. For some reason I again looked up, my God I had to be a hundred and fifty feet below the aircraft. I yelled up at the operator, what the hell are you doing that’s enough cable. Of course there was no way he could hear me.
I gave him the stop down signal and another universal signal to let him know he should be paying closer attention. Here I am hanging about a hundred and fifty feet below the helicopter, sitting on a platform that is about four inches wide being held by a half inch cable attached to a thirty year old helicopter.
I don’t think the odds makers here in Vegas would have given me much of a chance. The balcony areas were small, and there were several people that were in need of help. I’m facing the MGM Grand Hotel, the only sound I hear is the faint cracking of the spinning helicopter rotor blades off in the distance above me. For some reason I’m no longer cold, all though we are moving ever so slightly forward, it was very calm, it was like a dream.
We are now hovering about fifty yards away from the building, I’m looking at what appears to be hundreds of people standing out on these small balconies waving towels and sheets at me with a look of desperation on their faces that is scarred into my mind. Off to my right, my attention is drawn to a young girl standing on the outside of a room balcony rail, she is reaching down with one leg as if trying to climb down onto the balcony below her. There is no way she can make it. I point in the direction of the girl and we start moving toward her. She must hear the sound of the helicopter coming toward her but she continues to try and stretch her body down toward the other balcony.
I’m thinking, please, look this way, hold on, I’ll be there in a few seconds. She continues to stretch her body downward, now hanging on to a rod at the bottom of the balcony with one hand. She looked back toward me, looked up at the helicopter and then back at me, our eyes locked. I could see her big brown eyes, swollen and red from crying, tears and black eye shadow streamed down her cheeks. She was very pretty, her dark brown hair blowing in the wind across her face.
I thought for a second that I had her I couldn’t be more than ten feet away, I have started swinging so I can clear the overhang, not taking my eyes off of her, I reach out toward her, my hand just a few feet away from grabbing her, suddenly, she was gone, she let go. I just couldn’t look down I froze, my heart lodged in my throat, I grabbed on to that half-inch cable as if my life depended on it, and for a moment I was paralyzed, confused, not sure of what to do.
We started to move to the right and then stopped. I looked up and noticed the hoist operator pointing toward the building just above me. I caught sight of two men and a woman. The woman had to be in her ninth month of pregnancy, she was huge. I gave the operator the up signal and then directed the helicopter further right about twenty feet. I then started to swing myself back and forth under the helicopter. On the third attempt I hit the outside of the balcony chest high, I hit it hard, and it knocked the wind out of me. I grabbed the railing and at the same time was grabbed by one of the men who assisted me onto the balcony.
The woman was in hysterics, it took a couple of minutes to calm her down as I desperately tried to catch my breath and act like this was routine, I was sure I had broke some ribs, I assured the women I would come back and get the men. The woman wasn’t too happy with the plan but the men convinced her it would be best.
I then strapped the women to the rescue hoist and strapped myself in the seat across from her. Her stomach was so big she just did fit on the seat of the rescue device.
I grabbed her hands and told her I would hold on to her. I asked her if she were ready, she shook her head yes, the tears pouring from her eyes, she gave her husband a kiss and I signaled the hoist operator to pull us up. The two men assisted us in clearing the balcony rail and off we went. The hoist operator brought us up to the helicopter cabin door and then helped us inside. I helped the women to one of the helicopter seats gave her some water and told her everything would be OK.
Because of her condition we brought her to the ground right away and turned her over to waiting paramedics.
We went right back up and headed toward the middle of the building where the pilot had spotted two men frantically waving towels over there head. As we approached I looked up and watched the front of the helicopter disappear over the roof of the building. I started swinging and signaled the hoist operator to stop our forward motion. As I reached the level of the balcony I gave myself one more big swing back and headed toward the two who men reaching for me. I over estimated my forward momentum and the bottom of the hoist hit the upper edge of the balcony railing. I was flung forward so hard I hit the glass door and busted through landing just inside the room.
The two men looked back at me and shook their head, reaching to help me up. I was a bit stunned, it took me a minute to gain my senses. One of the men pointed to a third man sitting on the floor who was having trouble breathing. I brought the young man out and hooked him up to the hoist off we went.
The unit was credited with seventeen saves. Unfortunately, eighty two people lost their lives and more than seven hundred were injured.
After flying over the MGM Grand for almost six hours we went out to retrieve the Army Rangers. You just don’t keep Army Rangers waiting. We finished the mission around six that evening. We arrived back at the base and all I could think about was a hot shower and going to bed. The right side of my chest felt like I had been hit with a baseball bat.
When we walked into base operations we were greeted by an Air Force General who related to our Commander that he wanted the crews involved in the MGM Grand rescue to report to the Officers Club for an informal debriefing. We were thrown into a frenzy of reporters and military brass. I must admit that after a few beers my chest started feeling a little better and I did start to relax.
The media blitz continued into the next day, I must have done a dozen interviews including Good Morning America. When we arrived home to Luke Air Force Base there were television cameras from every news station. The interviews continued for several weeks I would get calls from radio stations in New York City, Miami and little towns in Kansas, it was really crazy for a while. Two other flight engineers and I did a half-hour take on the show, “That’s Incredible”.
The Air Force awarded me the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The real consequences of the mission over the MGM didn’t hit me for several days. The nightmares started, I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I saw the face of the young girl. She still visits me to this very day. There were no psychological or stress incident debriefings.
I took a few days off sick, still coughing up soot. I closed myself off from the world barricading myself in my bedroom for as long as my family and friends allowed, a couple of days. I then put on my Phoenix Police Officer uniform and hit the streets. It was very stressful for several months.
I’m proud to have served sixteen years in the U. S. Air Force Reserve, working both Special Operations and Air Rescue, it was never just a part time job.
I joined the U. S. Air Force in February of 1972 and served four years of active duty service. I returned to my home town, Flagstaff, Arizona to finish college at Northern Arizona University. In May of 1978 I was hired by the Phoenix Police Department where I served in various assignments. I retired after thirty one years of service. In 1978, I also returned to military service with the U. S. Air Force Reserve. I went back on active duty during Desert Storm for six months.
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