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Columnist: Monte Carlo fire didn't have to happen

4 February 2008

by Jane Ann Morrison

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Monte Carlo fire may have been an accident, but it didn't have to happen

Even before Clark County announced the official cause of the Monte Carlo fire, you knew it would come down to the essentials: Laziness and lackluster supervision.

This is a town that loves gambling, and six union steelworkers gambled that no fire would ignite a highly flammable exterior.

Well, they crapped out.

The fire a week ago thankfully didn't kill anyone or even seriously injure anyone. But it sure inconvenienced and frightened a lot of folks.

It didn't have to happen.

It was an accident caused by human error. Workers failed to use something called a "slag mat," a woven fiberglass blanket that is used to shield welding or cutting torch work.

On Monday, I was told the fire was "definitely caused by welding, and if the workers had taken the minimum step of putting out a welding blanket, this wouldn't have happened."

On Thursday, county officials officially confirmed this was a preventable fire. The cause of the fire was the workers who were on the Monte Carlo's roof cutting corrugated steel products used for part of a walkway being installed on the interior of the protective wall along the perimeter of the roof.

There was no fire watch, and the workers didn't use slag mats. How easy it would have been for them to do what they were supposed to do and put down a slag mat so that molten metal from a hand-held cutting torch wouldn't fly around and catch decorative foam afire.

Five workers and their supervisor were on the roof. The supervisor was laying out the holes the others were cutting with their torches, said a source familiar with the investigation.

Sure, it was an accident. There was no intent to start a fire. I'm sure those people feel bad about what happened.

But shortcuts are so much faster.

"They had a slag mat in their job box, they just didn't use it. I suspect they didn't want to climb down the ladder to get it," the source said.

You can't even blame a failure to communicate. There were no language problems with the workers, who were welders and apprentices with Ironworkers Local 433, described as "all knowledgeable people."

So why didn't they get a slag mat? And why did the company they worked for not bother to get a hot works permit before torching holes in steel atop a major hotel?

The loser in this towering inferno is the contractor, Union Erectors, which didn't get the required permits, according to county officials.

Union Erectors issued a press release late Friday denying any wrongdoing and saying the company and its employees had "acted in a safe and responsible manner."

Union Erectors is no fly-by-night operation. The Las Vegas company worked on the Monorail, Paris Las Vegas, the Venetian, Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand and the cooling tower at the MGM Mirage CityCenter.

But it was more than just the careless failure to use a slag mat that fueled this fire. The use of foam, which doesn't meet the current code, played an important role.

The foam, an expert said, "is a disaster just waiting to happen."

And in the case of the Monte Carlo, it created "as tough a fire as you can get" because firefighters couldn't get to it from the outside but had to fight it from below.

"Those firefighters did an excellent job," the fire expert said.

The foam (Exterior Insulation Finish Systems) has been used up and down the Strip. The Review-Journal's Howard Stutz wrote that his sources said it was used outside at the Bellagio, Paris Las Vegas, Excalibur, Treasure Island, Caesars Palace and New York-New York.

Presumably it's a lot cheaper than using bricks and mortar.

Today's standard is more fire retardant than it was before 2001. Anything pre-2001, when the code changed, "probably melts and drips and burns like hell," the source said. Certainly that was true of the Monte Carlo.

The five steelworkers and their supervisor haven't been identified publicly, but they must be uneasy these days. Nobody wants to be known as part of the team that set the Monte Carlo on fire because they were too lazy to do it right.

Of course, they can always take the easy way out and say they were just doing what the job boss told them. But the boss, well, he's got some explaining to do.

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