Each week, the Western Springs Historical Society brings us different historical tidbits from Western Springs. In this edition, we look at how a Las Vegas fire devastated the Western Springs’ community.
It promised to be a great weekend getaway for five young men, mostly volunteer firefighters from Western Springs and LaGrange. Bill Gerbosi, Dave Potter, Kurt Schlueter, and Dave and Perry Beshoar, all in their 20s, were sharing a $200-a-night room on one of the upper floors of the 26-floor MGM Grand Hotel.
After spending a Thursday night at the hotel, the five awakened, ready to explore the town.
While Gerbosi and Potter were still getting dressed, the other three went downstairs to get a table for breakfast. But, just as they were sitting down, a security guard informed them that there was a small fire next door in the hotel’s deli. It was 7:15 a.m.
Being trained volunteer firefighters, they asked where the fire extinguishers were located. But, there were none in the area. So, as the fire grew, they began helping other hotel guests out of the restaurant.
The fire, which was caused by an electrical short, had smoldered for some time before being discovered. But, moments later, a fireball roared across the adjacent casino floor, some three football fields in size. Seven people were immediately killed as the fireball seared everything in its path.
According to those present, fire alarms were never activated. But, soon afterwards, the hotel’s 5,000 other guests began awakening to the odor of the thick, black smoke which was being spread upward by the hotel’s faulty ventilation system. Some guests stayed in their rooms, others raced down smoke-filled stairwells, and still others headed to the roof. For the next two hours, helicopers lifted hundreds of frightened guests from the roof.
It appears that during the first few critical moments, William Gerbosi and David Potter had stepped onto an elevator, not even realizing that a fire was engulfing the hotel. And, once the power failed, they were trapped with no escape route. Ironically, since both were trained firefighters, they would have never entered an elevator had they known what was unfolding. They would be among the 84 guests who would perish that morning. Another 700 would be injured.
The following week, funerals for both Gerbosi and Potter were held at St. John of the Cross Church in Western Springs. The services were attended by literally hundreds of Chicago-area firemen, as well as local residents. In the words of one resident, “It was standing room only.” A youth choir sang at the funerals and flower-bedecked fire engines led both funeral processions.
During the days that followed, flags flew at half staff in both villages. But, the tributes did not stop there. Residents recalled that, besides serving the fire departments in each village, both young men had done a great deal more during their short lifetimes.
Acquaintances mentioned how Potter had served unselfishly as the athletic director for St. John’s basketball league and that Gerbosi had served as a referee every week. The athletic department would create a scholarship in their honor. Others recalled how Potter would dress up as Santa Claus during the holiday season and visit the homes of LaGrange and Western Springs firefighters.
Both men had also belonged to the local Rotary Club, which inducted both men’s mothers as Paul Harris Fellows, one of Rotary’s highest honors. A special memorial service was held at the Grace Lutheran Church of Western Springs, while the Lyons Township Board also honored the two young men.
Although a sad chapter in our village’s history, it serves as a powerful reminder of how such citizens have contributed to making our village a truly special place.
Each week, the Western Springs Historical Society presents a “Blast from the Past.” To view prior stories, visit www.westernspringshistory.org.
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