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Joan Whitely
 

Monte Carlo: No citations in fire at resort

26 March 2008

NEVADA -- The Clark County Fire Department has decided to issue no citations in connection with the Jan. 25 three-alarm fire at the Monte Carlo, which led to the evacuation of 6,000 people and cost almost $100 million in damage and lost business.

"We reviewed all the information, and we didn't feel it was intentional," Fire Chief Steve Smith said Tuesday of the mistakes that led to the fire. The department's legal counsel, from the civil division of the district attorney's office, concurred in the decision not to cite, Smith added.

The department identified the cause as stray bits of molten metal, called slag, produced as workers used a cutting torch on the roof of the Monte Carlo.

Smith had said in a Jan. 31 news release that workers at the Monte Carlo had failed to use protective "slag mats" as they cut corrugated steel to build a rooftop walkway. In the end, investigators got conflicting stories from workers about the use of mats, the chief said Tuesday.

In January the fire chief had said workers also had failed to post a "fire watch" worker to detect chance ignitions resulting from slag dropping on burnable materials, including the roof's rubber membrane and the building's foam upper facade.

On Tuesday he said an investigation revealed there was an "ineffective" fire watch, at best.

As to the lack of a so-called hot work permit from the county, Smith said, the workers lacked a valid county permit but had thought an in-house permit system at the Monte Carlo sufficed.

Union Erectors was the company whose workers were cutting steel at the Monte Carlo on the day of the fire. Afterward, the contractor claimed its workers had followed safety procedures.

Smith downplayed the benefit of citing any party in connection with the fire, which was costly but caused no major injuries.

"The penalty, or consequences, are minor," he said, explaining that a citation for breaking the fire code is only a misdemeanor.

Rather, Smith said, he wants the message from the blaze to be the "importance of getting a hot work permit." He believes planners of the walkway project could have prevented the fire by getting the required county permit.

Doing so would have allowed officials to review the job and site plans, and remind personnel of proper safeguards, including how to run a worthwhile fire watch.

When asked whether the decision to forgo citations means that Union Erectors or the Monte Carlo or its parent company, MGM-Mirage, will face less liability should they be defendants in a civil suit related to the fire, Smith said, "I can't speculate on any theory." Citations are a criminal finding.

The existence of a citation also might affect the future costs of insurance for the resort, according to Terry Taylor, an independent fire investigator in Northern Nevada.

Commenting on the fire safety industry in general, not on specifics of the Monte Carlo fire, Taylor said some jurisdictions place more emphasis on education than enforcement.

But Taylor believes vigorous enforcement is a useful tool for gaining compliance with safety codes.

If a property owner is usually compliant but suffers a fire, Taylor said, "They've soiled their trousers in public, so to speak. So do I come in with a stick and beat them on the head? ... Or do I say, 'They're in so much trouble with their insurance company, their investors, do I cut them some slack?' "

In another development involving safety questions that touch tourism on the Strip, the Paris Las Vegas has closed six high-roller suites after county inspectors found steam saunas installed in bathrooms without permits or inspections for plumbing and electrical work.

Inspectors wrote up violation notices for the saunas, on the 33rd floor of Paris on Tuesday and Friday.

Inspectors had fanned out Friday to check past remodeling at the Paris and a number of other Strip hotels also owned by Harrah's Entertainment.

The inspectors visited sites on a list of suspect remodeling projects, which Harrah's voluntarily developed by comparing past budgets for capital improvements with permits it had on file. Some of the projects took place under the prior owners of hotels Harrah's now owns.

Marybel Batjer, a Harrah's executive, said Tuesday that she just received the violation notices but would research how recently the Paris' high-roller suites were remodeled.