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Monte Carlo fire: Thousands return for belongings

28 January 2008

by John Edwards and Lawrence Mower

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Patricia Campbell returned Saturday morning to the Monte Carlo hotel room she had hurriedly abandoned about 24 hours earlier.

The 32-year-old Texan had stepped out of the shower Friday morning in her room on the 21st floor, to the sound of sirens. She walked to the window and viewed the massive fire burning unchecked on the hotel's facade, several stories up.

She quickly dressed and descended 21 flights of stairs.

"Look at the room. Somebody must have messed it up," she joked as she gazed at her clothes and luggage strewn about the room.

Campbell and her fiance, Adam Baugh, a 33-year-old contractor who was away from the hotel with a dead cell phone when the fire ignited just before 11 a.m. on Friday, were among the thousands of guests allowed to enter the Monte Carlo to retrieve belongings left behind in the evacuation of the burning 32-story building.

At least 13 people were treated for smoke inhalation on Friday, but authorities reported no major injuries from the fire.

The Monte Carlo was deemed safe and habitable by county inspectors Saturday, but concerns over the possibility of debris falling from the hotel-casino's charred exterior kept officials from signing off on it reopening. Clark County Building Department chief Ron Lynn said debris could fall on areas where people might be.

"Since all the exits cannot be used, we're going to keep the casino and the hotel closed at this point," he said.

Lynn said he will require Monte Carlo officials repair the blackened areas of the hotel's exterior or find a way to prevent debris from falling before he allows it to reopen. He estimated that with the right materials and manpower the work needed to reopen could be done in "a day and a half."

When the hotel-casino does reopen, floors 27 through 32, the section that sustained the heaviest damage, will remain closed, Lynn said.

A spokesman for MGM Mirage said he could not immediately say how long it would take to prepare the Monte Carlo to reopen. "Now that the county inspectors have completed their work, we'll begin our assessment," MGM Mirage spokesman Gordon Absher said.

Fire officials on Saturday said they hadn't yet determined the cause of the fire, which burned for more than an hour and forced the evacuation of about 950 hotel employees and 5,000 guests from the 3,000-room hotel and casino, which was at 97 percent occupancy.

Clark County Fire Department Assistant Chief Sandra Baker said it might have started on the 29th or 32nd floors on the building's exterior, because that's where heat from the flames was intense enough to burst windows and set off sprinklers inside hotel rooms.

From there, the fire, fueled by highly flammable construction foam on the building's exterior, spread rapidly. The roof, however, was not damaged, Baker said.

Damage to the hotel was "relatively minor," Lynn said. Neither company nor government officials would give a cost estimate.

The Monte Carlo met current safety standards when it was completed in 1996, Lynn said. But when repairs are made, it will have to comply with updated requirements that limit the thickness of the flammable construction foam.

Lynn describe the material Friday as "foam wrapped in fiberglass and then again encapsulated in a cementatious material, like stucco."

During repairs, the hotel-casino will be required to replace all of the foam on its exterior in order to meet current standards, Lynn said.

The building's safety systems, such as sprinklers, worked as designed, Lynn said. In one room, in the section of the building that burned, Lynn said he saw a "leather chair, four feet away from the window, (that) showed no damage whatsoever."

Guests who were staying on the 26th floor and below were the first to be allowed into the hotel to retrieve their belongings, starting late Friday and continuing Saturday. Monte Carlo management said Saturday afternoon that nearly all guests on those floors had retrieved their belongings and staff was cleaning the rooms in preparation for reopening.

Late Saturday afternoon, those who had been staying above the 26th floor were allowed into their rooms.

Campbell and Baugh, who had spent Friday night in a suite with a kitchen and built-in jacuzzi at The Signature at the MGM Grand, signed in at a registration desk in the Monte Carlo lobby. A hotel employee then escorted them to their room on the 21st floor.

Within 15 minutes they had packed their bags, signed a form stating they had no complaints about damage to their personal property and were heading out the doors of the Monte Carlo with their belonging and a few anxious memories.

Baugh said he was worried when he pulled up to the Monte Carlo Friday to see the hotel was on fire. His concern for Campbell quickly vanished when he found her standing in the parking lot, wearing a red coat.

"She's a pretty tough chick," Baugh said.

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