Most historical events are ones I’ve read about or seen on TV. And regardless of my level of familiarity with them, there’s still a certain sense of detachment that tags along. After all, I wasn’t Philadelphia when the Declaration was signed. I wasn’t at Marpi Point. I never met John Wayne, and I wasn’t in Johnstown when flood waters all but obliterated it.
And on the morning of November 21, 1980, I wasn’t anywhere close to Las Vegas, Nevada. So I wasn’t in the MGM Grand Hotel when an electrical short started a fire in the walls of one of the hotel’s restaurants.
The fire was discovered by an employee who tried to contain the growing blaze, but was unable to. Just 15 minutes after the fire was discovered, the first emergency crews arrived on scene, but what greeted them was a raging inferno. By the time the fire was contained, smoke and toxic fumes had killed 85 people and injured hundreds more.
But while I wasn’t a witness (much less a survivor), the events in Las Vegas had a more personal dimension for me. I was a 6th grader and, the following morning, our teacher told us that one of our classmates had a father that was one of the 85 victims. The teacher informed us that the girl would be gone for a while and, when she came back, we should act like nothing had happened…just treat her like we did before that November morning.
I don’t recall how long she was gone (too many years have gone by), but when she came back, I don’t think anyone said anything to her. I know I didn’t. She and I went to the same high school for the next six years…she sat adjacent to me in class on several occasions…and still I took my 6th-grade teacher’s advice. Never once did I ask her about the fire or the loss of her dad. I’m not sure I would have known what to ask or even say. I hope some of her friends were braver than I.
Every historical event touches people somewhere. Usually it’s not me. But on this occasion, it came close.