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Fire rips Vegas hotel but never gets on a roll

Crews quickly douse the blaze, some by leaning out windows. Thousands flee, but no major injuries result.

January 26, 2008|Ashley Powers and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

LAS VEGAS — A fast-moving blaze charred the top of the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino on Friday, forcing thousands of tourists and employees to flee the 32-story hotel as firefighters leaned out windows to douse the flames.

Firefighters knocked down the blaze in about an hour by punching through suite windows and drenching the 3,000-room hotel. No major injuries were reported, authorities said, though a dozen people were treated for smoke inhalation.

It was unclear what sparked the blaze, though workers were on the roof before it ignited. Firefighters attributed the inferno's speed to the decade-old hotel's foam-like facade, which building officials said was legal when built but was several inches thicker than current codes allowed.

The material "melted off the side of the building and started a few fires below," said Clark County Fire Chief Steve Smith.

"It could have been very serious," he told reporters at a news conference near the Y-shaped structure, which was modeled after the Place du Casino in Monaco.

About five floors were damaged by sprinklers and firefighting efforts. To reach the fire, crews broke some windows and leaned out with hoses as comrades held them.

"It was definitely something we normally don't do, but we had to take extreme measures," said Clark County Fire Capt. Warren Whitney, who was among the first responders. "The fire was quickly progressing, and we had to stop it."

Officials were unsure when the Monte Carlo, owned by MGM Mirage Inc., would reopen; it must first pass a floor-by-floor inspection. The thousands of guests were taken to other MGM hotels in the city. Guests were expected to be able to gather their luggage and other belongings after authorities checked the building's fire system late Friday.

The fire's quick dousing relieved authorities in a place where the memory of a deadly 1980 blaze is still strong. More than 80 people were killed in the early morning inferno when the hotel alarm system and sprinklers failed at the then-MGM Grand (since rebuilt as Bally's).

Since that blaze, stronger fire codes and smoke detectors have cut the number of hotel fires annually from about 12,000 to 4,000, said Lorriane Carli of the National Fire Protection Assn.

The swift emptying of the Monte Carlo on Friday, she said, was an indication that smoke alarms were used successfully. The hotel-casino opened in June 1996.

Shortly after 11 a.m., a fire alarm went off on the 29th floor. The first firetrucks on the scene saw the plume of smoke and immediately called for backup, Smith said. Inside, smoke choked the hallways; outside, debris tumbled from windows.

Many floors had been emptied by employees who pounded on doors, yelling, "Fire, get out!"

Tobbi Monroe, 27, of Denver was in the lobby when a woman ran to a guard and gasped that the hotel was on fire.

"He told her, 'It's OK, we'll take care of it. Go sit down by the slot machines,' " Monroe recalled. Minutes later, Monroe -- who was in Las Vegas for the World of Concrete convention -- was rushed outside. With ash falling, she borrowed another woman's cellphone to round up her family members, who had been scheduled to leave town Friday.

Tourists in bathrobes and pajamas streamed into the resort's parking lot, where they snapped pictures and waited for shuttles to other MGM Mirage hotels. Casino officials handed out bottled water with labels promoting the Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity.

The throng was eerily quiet as flames singed Monte Carlo's cursive sign. Several helicopters buzzed above the black plume, and a few guests sobbed.

Bryron Thomas, 49, of Austin, Texas, watched the blaze in a white cotton robe, flip-flops and sunglasses. He clutched a bag that held his pants. He had been in the spa steam room when alarms started blaring, and figured it was a fire drill.

"That's why I didn't bring my shoes," he said.

Thomas and his wife, who were celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, didn't have time to grab their laptops, cellphones, driver's licenses and credit cards -- all in their room on the 32nd floor.

He pointed to the window he thought was his and said, "I think it's all burning."

Jean Cote, 31, of Ontario, Canada, hopped on a shuttle from the Monte Carlo to the MGM Grand Garden Arena, which became a de facto command center for displaced guests. In the rebooking, all 5,000 of the hotel's rooms and suites in its newly built towers were filled.

Cote's roommate had roused him that morning with a string of expletives after looking out their 18th-floor window and seeing smoke. "I probably would have slept right through it," he said, lugging two suitcases and wondering where he would sleep.

On Friday evening, tourists continued to trickle into town. A weary Kathy Colin, 33, walked up to the reception desk at the Hotel at Mandalay Bay after a five-hour drive from San Diego.

With a room booked at the Monte Carlo, she had considered turning around, but the promise of nickel slots was too much to resist.

"I'll be taking photos tomorrow," she said.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

--

Times researcher Stuart Glascock in Seattle and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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