On Feb. 10, 1981, just 90 days after the devastating MGM Grand Hotel fire, Clark County Firefighters rolled out to see flames 22 stories high: the Las Vegas Hilton was burning. The blaze broke out Saturday evening, shortly after 8 p.m. Ironically, the hotel was being retrofitted with more modern fire safety equipment at that time.
Firefighters, employing the knowledge they had learned from the MGM fire, used local television news to notify people to stay in their rooms and not go out to the halls and stairwells. In part because of the lessons learned, significantly fewer people died or suffered injuries compared with the MGM Grand fire. Still, eight people died and more than 200 were injured in the Las Vegas Hilton fire.
One of the hotel’s guests on that tragic day was Natalie Cole. As hundreds of others, she was trapped in her hotel room waiting to be rescued.
Sadly, the fire was no accident. The person responsible for the death of eight people, the suffering of hundreds of others, and property damage amounting to millions of dollars was Phillip Bruce Cline, a troubled 23-year-old. Cline worked at that time as a room service busboy. At first, he appeared to be a true hero – running from room to room warning hotel guests about the flames and trying to extinguish the fire with a waste basket filled with water.
A joint effort involving Clark County Fire Investigators, Metro Police and the local office of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was able to pinpoint Cline as a prime suspect. In his statement to police Cline made a Freudian slip. He wrote that he had grabbed a trashcan and filled it up with “fire”. The homicide detective in charge of the investigation asked Cline to take a polygraph test. During the test, Cline broke down. He confessed that he had ignited the fire but claimed that it was an accident. He testified that a curtain caught fire while he and a friend were smoking marijuana in an elevator lobby on the eight floor of the hotel.
Fire investigators tried to duplicate this scenario but couldn't get the drapes to burn. Another problem with Cline's story was that investigators found not one, but four points of fire origin, on four different floors. This was strong evidence supporting the arson theory. Moreover, despite all efforts, no one ever located his friend.
A jury found Cline guilty. He was convicted on eight counts of murder and sentenced to eight consecutive life terms without parole for the deaths, plus 15 years for first-degree arson. For the past few years, Cline has been kept in the Nevada State Prison at Lovelock.
As tragic as the Las Vegas Hilton and the MGM Grand fires were, they prompted changes in fire safety that have saved thousands of lives. In fact, the deaths caused by the Las Vegas Hilton fire were the last high-rise fire related deaths in Clark County. New fire codes and safety measures put in place since 1980s make Southern Nevada one of the safest places to live and visit.