Monday, July 20, 1998 | 9:42 a.m.
A Las Vegas vacation erupted into a holiday of panic for more than 2,200 Palace Station guests after fire blasted through the 21st floor during a torrential thunderstorm.
Authorities were speculating that lightning may have ignited the four-alarm blaze that sent employees and guests running en masse out of the 20-year-old Station Casinos resort about 6:45 a.m.
A team of more than 75 firefighters were able to confine the disaster to the 21st floor, the north-facing exterior of which Las Vegas Fire Department Chief Mario Trevino said sustained extensive damage.
At least four people were reported injured, including one person with a broken finger and two people with heart problems who depleted their portable supplies of oxygen, authorities said. None of the injuries were considered life-threatening, and at least two of the victims were transported by private ambulances.
"The fire was beyond the reach of our 150-foot ladders, so firefighters had to spray the outside of the building with their hoses," Trevino said. The blaze was put out in about an hour.
"There's certainly a likelihood ... that lightning (could be to blame), but we won't even take a guess (at this point)."
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joined fire investigators surveying the damage and searching for the cause. A damage estimate was not available this morning.
Structural engineers were also at the site along with fire personnel utilizing thermal imaging cameras to check for lingering fires in walls and floors, authorities said.
Trevino said preliminary reports had determined that the hotel-casino's safety systems did function properly, and that sprinklers located near the fire activated.
David Wilson said he heard the alarms, but the terror didn't set in until the Newport Beach guest opened the door from his room on the 18th floor.
"Think about it -- you open your door and all you see is smoke," Wilson said. "That'll get your attention."
Wilson grabbed his 4-year-old son and, with his wife, rushed down 18 flights of stairs to get out. They took with them only necessities -- wallet, valet parking ticket, and the clothes they had on -- leaving behind the luggage they came with when they checked in Sunday.
Sheila Lardonita, in for a week from Cleveland, Ohio, was angered because it took a call to the hotel's operator to find out why she saw people running through the parking lot from her fourth-floor window.
"We didn't hear any alarms, nothing," she said, standing near the hotel-casino's parking structure with her sister-in-law who escaped in a gown and short green silk robe.
"We had rain pouring in our window since early this morning. We really have not been pleased with our accommodations."
The valley was drenched overnight in the downpour which flooded intersections, knocked out traffic lights and power to thousands of residents, and saw lightning strike trees.
Total rainfall estimates this morning have reached almost three inches in some parts of the valley.
Glenn Christenson, executive vice president and chief financial officer for Station Casinos, had yet to receive confirmation this morning, however, that the heavy downpour indeed caused a portion of the casino's roof to collapse about 2 a.m.
"You can see the sky through the casino," Christenson said of the hole near the awnings above the northeast casino pit that forced more than 200 gamblers to evacuate the area.
Guests staying on floors as high as the 15th floor were being permitted to return to their rooms about 8:20 a.m. Other guests, including those whose rooms suffered fire and water damage were being relocated to other Station Casino properties, Christenson said.
But there was still confusion among the throngs of guests, including a senior citizen who lost his wife in the shuffling crowd and a Detroit man concerned about the plane tickets sitting on the counter in his 19th-floor hotel room which he'll be needing today to catch the plane home.
"I just want to know about my nickels," said Marlene Runbert. "I was playing the nickel slot machine in the casino and I'd hit all sevens. My card was in the machine and the (computerized) message kept saying, 'Congratulations Marlene, congratulations Marlene.' There must have been at least 2,000 nickels in there that are mine."
Gaming Control Board officials and casino staff were expected to assist guests like Runbert later today who were forced to leave winnings behind during the forced evacuation.