Las Vegas Sun

November 23, 2014

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Tower fire rained debris

It wasn't the typical Las Vegas light show.

But a fire that began early Sunday morning in the unfinished Stratosphere Tower next to Vegas World drew hundreds of onlookers anyway. Flames from the blaze licked the sky as debris and ash fell to Las Vegas Boulevard below.

A huge crane being used in the construction of the town was left inoperative by the blaze, listing to one side. Orange ashes fell like heavy rain from the top of the tower as occasional fireballs of had-been lumber barreled to the ground like miniature comets.

A helicopter circled as clouds of thick smoke churned from the top of the tower, and the blaze could be seen for miles. Many watched the spectacle from behind yellow police tape on Las Vegas Boulevard, side streets and even Interstate 15.

Many others had little choice: Hundreds were evacuated from the adjacent 1,049-room Vegas World Hotel when the flames and debris became too much of a threat.

"It was raining fire," said Richard Johnson, an employee of Alarmco who works across the street from Vegas World. "The back side was on fire, and within a matter of 15-20 minutes the whole thing was engulfed."

Johnson said the fire shook loose debris that burned through netting strung around the tower's waist and just above the ground-level construction yard.

"It was shooting part of the scaffolding onto the casino and onto the ground," he said. "Thank God the winds weren't blowing too hard."

A team of fire investigators, crane specialists and workers from Perini Building Co. went into the 510-foot tower Sunday afternoon to examine the crane and they found it inoperative but stable.

"The crane's in pretty bad shape," said Evert Wilson, adding that plans to use the machine to clear debris would have to be scrapped. "I don't think there's any danger of it falling."

The same crew will be going up into the tower again today to clear debris such as large tool boxes, an acetylene cylinder and an air compressor, and to secure the crane with cables. After that, the fire investigation can begin.

"Safety first. Once we get a safe place to work, we'll start the investigation," Wilson said.

The cause of the fire and the amount of damage that it caused have not been determined.

Guests at Vegas World found the next-door blaze a harrowing experience.

Patricia Fessell of Tracy, Calif., said she called Vegas World telephone operators about midnight from her 20th-floor room when she and her husband heard sirens and saw firemen below from their hotel window.

"They said, 'Don't worry, the tower next door is one fire," Fessell said.

Minutes later, the couple saw burning embers flying past their window facing Las Vegas Boulevard and placed a second call to the hotel's desk.

"They said, 'Don't worry' and then, all of a sudden, the lights went out and we looked out the window, and it looked like it was right on the roof," Fessell said.

The Fessells and another couple, armed with a flashlight, bolted down the hotel hallway, pounding on doorways as they went to roust the others out of their rooms. They exited the floor through the stairwell but were caught in a jam of fleeing guests near the third floor.

Patricia Fessell said employees bounced her and others from exit to exit, no one quite knowing where to send them.

Rebecca Piorko of Philadelphia, a guest on the hotel's fifth floor, said she called an operator at 12:50 a.m. to request a wake-up call.

"They didn't say anything to us," said Piorko, who, at that time, didn't know of the fire. Moments later, her mother, town floors down, informed her of the fire. Piorko called the operator and again was told not to worry.

"We made out own brilliant deductions, packed our stuff up and took it with us," Piorko said.

As she and her family were leaving their rooms, smoke was creeping onto their floor and the hotel was dark, Piorko said.

"There was no light," she said. "They (hotel employees) should have been more on the ball.

As happened in the November 1980 blaze a the MGM Grand Hotel, several Vegas World visitors were none too pleased at the idea of having to leave table games and slot machines when told of the hotel evacuation, employees said.

Eighty-four people were killed in the MGM fire, caused by an electrical problem, but there were no major injuries reported in the Stratosphere blaze.

Vegas World, packed just before the evacuation, was touched with panic when news of the fire spread, accompanied by a couple of loud booms, one employee said.

One woman tore through the casino, screaming, "Bob Stupak did this for the insurance money!" two employees said. "She was hysterical. She was screaming," one said.

Dealers raced to close down table games so they could be locked under plexiglass, an employee said.

Dale Fisher, a dealer, lauded employees for the evacuation.

"As far as I'm concerned , there was absolutely no danger in the casino whatsoever. They evacuated it very, very promptly."

In 1980, Fisher was leaving the MGM Grand Hotel when he saw a stream of fire engines and other emergency vehicles racing toward the casino. He turned around and realize he has narrowly escaped the raging blaze that tore through the hotel.

"That place was mass hysteria," he recalled.

Two Vegas World employees who asked not to be named agreed that Sunday's evacuation went well but said hotel employees there have no training to system for evacuating guests in emergencies.

Outside the casino, where clumps of soggy soot lay on streets, sidewalks and cars, a man sitting on a curb with his family held a sleeping child. Several women walked around in floral pajamas, and many displaced guests clutched backpacks and suitcases they had grabbed from their rooms.

About 3:30 a.m., someone used a bullhorm to tell guests that accommodations were being worked on.

Comedian Marty Allen, who performs at Vegas World, drove to the hotel as soon as he learned of the fire. He and his wife watched the blaze with the crowd and entertained the gathering as best they could.

"When something like this happens," Allen said, "humor can play an important part."

"They kept saying, 'It's a hot act, you're a hot act,'" he joked.

When guests were allowed back inside the hotel about 4 a.m., they streamed through the entrances and quickly resumed activity at the slots and other games as an overpowering air freshener was pumped into the casino to stifle the smoke.

Chris Graves, a police reporter with the Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul, found the fire a chance of pace. For once, she didn't have to cover the fire.

"This was the prettiest fire I've ever seen," said Graves, who, despite the fact she was on vacation, busied herself taking notes. "The whole thing was just on fire. It was just like a volcano. It lit up the sky."