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December 19, 2014

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Abowitz: What fire?

At 11 this morning it looked like today would be one of the worst days in the history of Las Vegas. Flames were covering the top of the Monte Carlo with television stations around the world showing flaming embers falling down to ignite whatever was hit below the gigantic resort’s roof.

But by 2:30 this afternoon, walking the Strip, the most obvious big event going on was the World of Concrete Exposition at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Las Vegas thrives on its convention business, which is non-stop between January and March. But unlike this month's earlier conventions — the huge Consumer Electronics Show and the slightly less large Adult Entertainment Expo — the national press did not care that an estimated 85,000 people were in Vegas this morning to finish a week dedicated to talking about concrete.

So, it was no surprise that on the Strip as I headed past the MGM toward the Showcase Mall (famous for its glass Coke bottle frontage) the concrete convention was the most obvious happening: tourists carried tote bags proclaiming the importance of cement, wore badges for the Exposition, and, of course, there was plenty of passerby conversation about concrete.

One thing was certain: no one seemed to be thinking about that fire at Monte Carlo less than four hours earlier. By the middle of the afternoon, the Monte Carlo fire was clearly old news. Before reaching the front of the Monte Carlo, indeed even looking at the Monte Carlo from a distance, the Strip seemed normal — even a little slow for a Friday afternoon.

I stopped a random tourist taking a picture of the golden lion in front of the MGM. Of course, Jeff Nickerson from Massachusetts turned out to be here for the Concrete Expo. As for the fire, Nickerson was in his room at the Palms this morning when he looked out the window and saw the sight of smoke coming off the roof of the Monte Carlo.

"I brushed my teeth and saw there were black plumes of smoke and then it seemed to get worse, so I turned on the television," said Nickerson, whose first thought turned to his profession.

"My company manufactures foam products. So, this gives our industry a bad name."

On the other hand, beyond the Strip being closed briefly, Nickerson considered the fire at most an inconvenience, barely a footnote to his Vegas trip.

After a fire in which, thankfully, no one seems to have been killed or seriously hurt, Nickerson wasn't the only one thinking about business.

Crystal Colby works as a greeter at a small casino just across the street from the Monte Carlo. All day she stands at the entrance beckoning people inside her casino. The fire made her job a lot easier with all the evacuees from the Monte Carlo.

"It has been packed with people moving back and forth all day. And, they just opened the street about 20 minutes ago," said the short, dark-haired young lady with an amiable smile, typical of greeters.

Colby described the fire like a Vegas publicity stunt gone wrong: "Nobody was panicked by it. It was new to see and kind of awkward how it just caught on all the sudden."

At the small cantina next to where Colby works, Billy (who goes by only his first name) does a more unique take on the job of greeter. Billy works as a "robot statue acrobat" in his words. This means he is painted silver from head to toe while doing fluid robot inspired movements.

When he first saw the fire start he worried not about his safety, but about the impact the smoke would have on people being able to see him. But Billy quickly changed his mind and was almost giddy about the attention brought to him from across the street thanks to the flames.

"It was great. I kept working. It was good for business. Actually. I beat out the fire. People were watching me more than the fire!"

Walking across the Strip to get in front of the Monte Carlo was the first time that reminders of the morning's events were evident. For starters, though Las Vegas Boulevard was open to cars and pedestrians, the side streets on either end of the 32-story resort were closed.

There were also first responder police and fire vehicles toward the rear of the building. But interestingly it was not the police manning the barricades on Las Vegas Boulevard, but security from Bellagio, Luxor and MGM (all MGM-Mirage properties, just like the Monte Carlo) who were blocking every possible approach to the casino.

At 2:30 p.m, Keith Hastings had just reopened the ticket brokerage he works at directly in front of the Monte Carlo.

"We saw smoke at the top by the Monte Carlo sign and the smoke got bigger and bigger," he recalled. "They evacuated the hotel and then Metro arrived and directed everybody across the street. So we closed the booth."

To Hastings the day had been a business disaster. "This takes money out of our pockets. We work on commission," he said. "This is our busiest day. Friday is the check in day. In the big picture it is really important that nobody got hurt. But in the business that we are in, this is the busiest day that we offer."

Asked if thought he would be able to make most of the money back that he lost because of his shop closing, Hastings replied: "It depends on when they reopen Lance Burton."

As of now that decision has not been made. But the show is closed tonight. "This is terrible for the cocktail waitresses too," Hastings added.

His booth sits close to Diablo's Cantina, the Monte Carlo's new hotspot that usually opens at 11 a.m. Obviously Diablo's did not open this morning, but it was unclear if it still might later tonight.

In fact, what did happen — and what could have happened — will be meticulously analyzed in the coming days. This could have been a lot worse, but it was plenty bad. Despite the near miraculous lack of casualties, a dozen or so people were hurt, plus many more frightened.

But just a few hours after the flames were extinguished, Las Vegas was back to being Las Vegas. The speed with which this town responds and adapts left Anthony Smith, a visitor from London, in awe. He had been near the Bellagio when the fire broke out.

"We thought it was a big fire. There was a lot of smoke," Smith said.

But by 3 p.m. he was unable to find anything to photograph as a fire souvenir: "You wouldn't think there had been a fire in it looking at it now. It looks like a normal hotel really."



Richard Abowitz is a writer for the Los Angeles Times, the Las Vegas Weekly, and Rolling Stone. He writes the blog and print column Movable Buffet for The Los Angeles Times.

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