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Analyzing Toxicological Data- What we learned from the MGM Grand and Dupont Plaza Hotel Fires

On November 21, 1980, a fire broke out in a non-sprinklered restaurant on the first floor of the 26-story MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. The fire quickly spread throughout the first floor of the hotel pushing smoke into the upper floors. In total, 85 people died. The majority of decedents, most of whom where located on the upper floors of the building, died from smoke inhalation. A comprehensive investigation report by the Clark County Fire Department included the toxicological data for the 85 victims. The data showed that the majority of decedents had lethal levels of carbon monoxide and cyanide, either singularly or combined.

Six years later, on December 31, 1986, an incendiary fire broke out in the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico resulting in 96 deaths. The fire started in the hotel ballroom in stacks of corrugated boxes containing furniture. Different from the MGM Grand Fire, however, the majority of decedents in the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire were located on the main floor. In comparing victim blood toxicants from both the MGM Grand and Dupont Plaza Hotel fires, Levin et al found two trends: 1) those intimate with the fire had significant burns but below lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide and cyanide in their blood, and 2) those remote from the fire had non-lethal burns but lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide and cyanide in their blood. Levin's findings are the same as those found by Purser et al in analyzing UK fire victim autopsy data and investigation reports.

The findings from the MGM Grand and Dupont Plaza Hotel fires highlights the correlation between victim location and fire origin as well as first material ignited and blood toxicant concentrations. NFPA 921 requires that the fire investigator test their origin and cause hypotheses against all the known facts and data. In testing a hypothesis, the fire investigator must also consider the victim's autopsy and toxicological data; to often, however, the importance and relevance of this data is overlooked. The origin and cause of the fire must be consistent with the autopsy data. Otherwise said, the fire must be capable of producing the heat and toxicants necessary to cause the victim's burns and blood toxicant concentrations. To learn more about the use of forensic toxicology in fire origin and cause investigation, download our Fire Technology article or contact us.

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