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December 20, 2014

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Expert says disaster averted at Monte Carlo

The Monte Carlo fire was disaster averted, according to casino crisis experts.

Larry Barton, a former UNLV professor who has studied more than 60 casino disasters, says the factors at play during today’s fire were some of the most dangerous a high-rise building can face, starting with the location of that first spark.

A top-floor fire spells nightmare for a 32-story building like the Monte Carlo, since the flames extend beyond a fire ladder’s reach, Barton said.

The speed with which the fire appeared to take over the building’s roof compounded this problem, he said, and forced firefighters to attack the blaze from above while casino officials evacuated everybody below.

Black flames could be seen streaming from the building from miles away, and the risk of smoke inhalation is another serious risk factor. If people can’t breathe, they can’t leave. The same holds true if that smoke prevents people from seeing their way to an escape route, Barton said. This was a problem during the 1980 MGM fire, where 84 people died and 679 were injured. Barton has seen images from the MGM fire of people crawling through black smoke, lost.

Early reports indicated seven people were sent to the hospital, the majority for smoke inhalation complications.

And even if the smoke isn’t that bad — does anybody really know where the nearest fire escape is? How many hotel guests, after all, check into their room and make an immediate beeline to the escape route map? Not many, if any.

Then there are the sleepers. At any given point in the day, upwards of 20 percent of guests are probably sleeping in their rooms. This means that

casino employees have to run from door to door, knocking to make sure nobody is inside. It’s the “do not disturb” problem, Barton says — saving a life can mean violating privacy. This is complicated by people who take sleeping medicine, or are intoxicated, and need more than just are courtesy knock on the door to rouse them from their sleep.

Monte Carlo officials confirmed that hotel staff were dispatched to knock on all 3,002 hotel rooms.

Hotel fires have a propensity to be the worst of any industry, because of the sheer number of people inside the building. During the MGM fire, Barton

recalls gamblers continued to play the slots and throw dice, “even as fire and even as smoke were literally coming towards them.” This taught casino owners a valuable lesson: As soon as the fire stops, turn the games off and close down the craps table.

“Highrise casinos pose a very significant risk,” Barton said. “This had several of the ingredients of a nightmare catastrophe for Las Vegas. This had the stuff of disaster.”

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