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July 22, 2014

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From the inside: How they coped

Minute by minute, drama unfolds as workers and guests learn hotel is burning

Image

Sam Morris

The charred upper floors of the Monte Carlo show where a fire broke out Friday, Jan. 25, 2008.

Fire at the Monte Carlo

Clark County Fire Chief Steve Smith answers questions about the Monte Carlo fire and guests share their reactions to the evacuation process.

Monte Carlo Fire

The charred upper floors of the Monte Carlo show where a fire broke out Friday, Jan. 25, 2008. Launch slideshow »

Business as usual

A mid-morning fire at the Monte Carlo did little to disrupt life on the Las Vegas Strip Friday afternoon.

Monte Carlo Burns

Smoke engulfs the Las Vegas skyline as the Monte Carlo burned for about an hour Friday, Jan. 25, 2008. Las Vegas and Clark County firefighters were able to contain the three-alarm fire that touched off on the top floors of the 32-story resort. At least seven people were injured in the nearly full 3,002-room hotel — the 13th largest in Las Vegas.

Monte Carlo Quick Facts

  • Rooms: 3,002 (13th largest in Las Vegas)
  • Casino sq. footage: 102,197 (18th largest in Las Vegas)
  • Slot machines: 1,650
  • Tables: 75
  • Poker tables: 15
  • Sports book sq. footage: 5,628
  • Convention square footage: 23,000
  • Parent company: MGM MIrage
  • Year opened: 1996
  • Branded restaurants: Diablo’s Cantina, Andre’s French Restaurant, Monte Carlo Brew Pub, Dragon Noodle, Market City Caffe
  • Top exec: Anton Nikodemus, president
  • Headliner: Magician Lance Burton

Fires on the Strip

See a history of casino fires »

There’s plenty of excitement in the air at Monte Carlo on Friday morning, its lobby filled with people arriving for a great weekend on the Strip. George Thorogood is at the House of Blues, the Miss America pageant is at Planet Hollywood, Ashanti is hosting a party at Pure, and the American Society of Safety Engineers is meeting at the Flamingo.

In the travel industry, the 11-year-old Monte Carlo is considered an overflow hotel, the kind of place tourists go if their first choices — the Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mirage and Venetian — are filled.

Tiffany Nelson, 21, has flown in from Dallas to celebrate a friend’s birthday and is just now opening the door to her room after having checked in downstairs, in an elegant lobby of gold and marble.

Ruth Santiago, who’s been on the housekeeping staff at the Monte Carlo since it opened, is cleaning rooms on the seventh floor. She’s one of 950 employees working at that hour.

Lynn Briggs of Amherst, N.H., is in town for the pageant — she’s the coach for Miss New Hampshire. She’s already checked in to her 28th-floor room and has decided to go for a walk up the Strip.

And there’s a fire on the roof of the 32-story hotel, offering a thickening column of black smoke against the winter sky.

Nobody inside knows. There aren’t any fire alarms on a roof.

But the flames are drawing gasps from pedestrians and motorists.

It’s three minutes before 11, and the Clark County Fire Department is now getting calls from all over. The Monte Carlo is on fire! There are fire and smoke on the roof!

The first call from the fire dispatch center goes to Fire Station No. 11, seven blocks away — surrounded by palm trees next to the Bali Hai Golf Course. The place empties out.

As they approach and see what’s burning, the first units call in the news: Skip the second alarm, this is a three-alarm fire. That triggers even more of a response. They pull up to the Monte Carlo at 11 a.m. Others are right behind: Engine 18, Engine 218, Engine 15. Two rescue trucks, a hazardous materials unit, a paramedic supervisor and a battalion chief are among the first to arrive. Within minutes, 35 pieces of equipment, and 120 firefighters, will be en route.

In Metro Police’s communications bureau, dispatchers start scanning their screens to get an idea of which officers are closest to the scene. Available officers are ordered to head for the hotel, which is sandwiched between New York-New York and and the under-construction CityCenter. The same company — MGM Mirage — owns them all.

Nelson, from Dallas, has started emptying her suitcase and has turned on the television. The screen shows the fire and she does something of a double-take. The caption on the screen says Monte Carlo. The flames are at her hotel, 10 floors above her. That’s really strange, she thinks; have I even heard a fire alarm go off? Nothing is happening in her room. She steps into the hallway and hears a voice coming from ceiling speakers: Please evacuate the building, it orders in measured and patient words.

“I personally think we were one of the first people to know about it,” she says. She and her friend duck back inside, assemble what few things they had unpacked and leave the room with their luggage.

They are surprised to see the housekeeping staff still tending to their chores. “There were maids, still cleaning and mopping. We were like: ‘There’s a fire. Come on, you gotta go.’ ”

The hotel’s president, Anton Nikodemus, happens to be at the hotel and is startled when he glances out a window and sees his roof on fire.

This is the thing about the hotel’s fire alarm: It is activated in zones — the floor where a fire is detected, and the floors below and above it. So even if an alarm had been activated automatically, most of the hotel would not have heard it.

Nikodemus gets on the phone and orders alarms throughout the hotel to be activated and the premises evacuated.

Annoying strobe lights flash up and down hallways, an obnoxious klaxon sounds in harsh electronic bleeps and, in stark contrast, a calm male voice coming from barely detectable speakers in the hallways and rooms orders guests, in measured tone, to leave immediately.

On a walkie-talkie, Nikodemus puts into play a long-rehearsed drill among security guards and engineers. He sends 200 of them to go knocking each of the hotel's 3,002 guest rooms, and to enter rooms where there is no response, to make sure everyone heeds the evacuation order.

There’s a reason for that: At a typical Las Vegas hotel, 20 percent of guests are in their rooms during the day. Some may be asleep. Some may be hard-of-hearing. Some may be drunk.

On the seventh floor, Santiago hears the alarm like everyone else. She parks her maid’s cart and does what she and her coworkers also have been trained to do.

“We just started knocking on doors,” she says.

It was the first evacuation of her career. But she said the employees had practiced the procedure before.

At 11:04 a.m. a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper sees the fire and gets on his radio. The Highway Patrol shuts down the northbound off-ramps at Tropicana, Flamingo and Spring Mountain. Traffic turns ugly. People arriving from Southern California are getting a lousy start to their weekend.

Metro Officers rushing to the scene know their drill. The first ones clear the street of vehicles, and the next group of officers blocks Las Vegas Boulevard South, keeping the street empty for emergency vehicles.

There’s a crowd gathering now, and other officers are out of their vehicles, waving pedestrians to stand clear. They are collecting across the street, taking photographs and videos with camcorders and cell phones. Man, what a picture, a Strip hotel is on fire. They’re held back by yellow crime tape.

One of them is Bob Heath, 27, who was driving in from Summerlin to play poker at Hooters. He heard there was a loose game and he wanted some of the action. Then he hears of the fire on the car radio. “I want to see this,” he says to himself. How often does big Strip hotel catch fire?

Briggs, the New Hampshire woman, is obliviously walking up the Strip when she gets a call on her cell from her hometown fire department, where she serves as an emergency medical technician. “They’re, like, ‘There’s a fire in the Monte Carlo.’ I said, ‘No. I just left.’ They said, ‘Turn around and look.’ ” It was on national television.

Five miles away at University Medical Center, Dr. David Slattery is examining a patient in the emergency room — overflowing with patients — when he hears someone pipe up, “Hey, look at the TV.”

That’s the first notice that UMC may be in for a busy day. It’s Southern Nevada’s only Level One trauma center and the state’s only burn center. For any disaster, it’s the region’s primary medical destination.

On any given day, about 90 ambulances from MedicWest and American Medical Response, which are owned by the same parent company, are on the street, ready to respond. Ten of then are dispatched to the MGM Grand Garden Arena, across the street from Monte Carlo, where a triage area is quickly being established.

Ambulance dispatchers issue an “All Call” page for more ambulance operators and paramedics. Sixteen more ambulances are soon on the road.

Word of the fire is now getting out to all local hospitals and emergency responders, through the Southern Nevada Health District’s emergency management system. Valley Hospital Medical Center puts its ER medical director and doctors on standby, alerts 10 ER nurses to be ready, and advises that it can take 30 patients.

UMC knows its role, too, most recently having been triggered into action by an overturned bus on Interstate 15 carrying hotel employees to work.

At the hotel, employees are still going room to room, floor by floor, to help direct the evacuation. One guest asks about grabbing luggage and is told there’s no time for that unless he wants to risk his life. The guest doesn’t appreciate the remark and says it adds to a sense of panic. Others say the evacuation seems orderly.

In the lobby, guests are directed to the parking lot. Some of them don’t want to abandon their slots.

Inside, firefighters are combing through the hotel, making sure it is empty. They declare the Monte Carlo empty of guests at 11:42. The elevators are operating to within two floors of the roof. A few firefighters take a larger service elevator to the 27th floor, then carry their hoses the last four floors to the roof.

The flames are still spreading, creeping along the large facade that hides rooftop ventilation equipment from view. The fire is devouring the elegant script of the hotel’s name. Flashes of fire erupt from a kind of polystyrene that is a popular material for carving out shapes and forms that are then painted over. Some of the blazing, melting foam falls onto a ledge below, giving the illusion that lower floors are afire. The flames scorch the side of the building.

The fire department has ordered media helicopters to stay clear of the hotel, worried that the turbulence from the blades will spread the flames.

Firefighters, frustrated they can’t reach some flames from the roof, bust out windows from guest rooms, lean out and direct their hoses on hot spots. They’re secured by webbing and held by fellow firefighters, and television viewers watch in awe.

Magician Lance Burton, who’s really good at making doves disappear and looks great in his tuxedo, cancels his evening show.

At UMC, Chief Nursing Officer Vicki Huber sees the big picture. Of UMC’s 588 beds, 559 are occupied. The first step in the internal disaster plan is to triage patients by discharging them or moving them out of intensive areas to open beds.

Slattery, down in the ER, surveys his 60-bed slice of the world and sees no room for new patients. This is normal. People are on beds in hallways attended by two nurses. About a dozen beds are filled by patients who are deemed suicidal but are mostly healthy otherwise. That’s a constant frustration in Las Vegas emergency rooms.

At UMC’s Lion’s Burn Care Center, Manager Melody Talbott has only one of her 25 inpatient beds open, though she can care for about 200 outpatients. She begins assessing patients to see which are healthy enough to shuffle to other parts of the hospital to make space for potential victims of the Monte Carlo fire. She figures she can make room for 15 patients, if necessary.

But shortly after noon, the fire is all but out. There are no major injuries. Thirteen people, mostly firefighters, are treated for smoke inhalation.

About now, investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrive, to help fire inspectors with the Clark County Fire Department.

They work into the evening.

Hotel employees are given word by the company: Even if parts of the hotel where you work are closed down for a while, don’t worry about your pay or benefits. We’ll take care of you.

Dislodged hotel guests settle in at other MGM Mirage hotels, and wait to be reunited with their luggage.

Tiffany Nelson from Dallas gets together with her friends and has a lot to talk about.

Ruth Santiago starts her normally scheduled weekend, and it doesn’t come soon enough.

And Lynn Briggs hopes that Miss New Hampshire gets the crown tonight.

Sun reporters Marshall Allen, Alexandra Berzon, Brian Eckhouse, Abigail Goldman, Steve Kanigher and Mike Trask contributed to this reconstruction of events surrounding the fire Friday at the Monte Carlo.

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