February 10, 1981
On February 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 8:00 PM. 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
The Hilton in flames
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