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Gold Strike Hotel goes up in flames

Employees wake up guests after automatic alarms fail to sound

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Fire sprinklers and alarms at the Gold Strike hotel near Boulder City did not go off immediately during a blaze that destroyed the casino early Tuesday.
And, fire inspectors said portions of the casino that fueled the four-alarm fire were inspected under safety codes dating to 1977, which were less stringent than today's state and county requirements.
Hotel employees who helped evacuate hundreds of guests had to go door to door to warn people of the fire. Guests staying in the hotel's 17-story tower then navigated their way through smoky hallways and descended several flights of stairs to safety.

An aerial photo of the Gold Strike shows the magnitude of devastation resulting from a four-alarm fire that raced through the property Tuesday morning, gutting the casino. No injuries were reported.

There were no injuries. Damage was estimated at $20 million to $30 million.
"Why didn't the alarms go off?" said guest Charlene Smith of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Arizona, who was sleeping in her room on the ninth floor when the fire started. "There was definitely enough smoke to set them off. If a person was a sound sleeper, who knows if they would have known what was going on."
Clark County Fire Department spokesman Steve La-Sky said employees of the hotel-casino on U.S. Highway 93, just outside of Boulder City and near Hoover Dam, reported the blaze to authorities at 1 a.m. It appears the fire started on the outside of the casino facing the highway, possibly in construction materials. The flames quickly climbed a wooden wall of the casino's facade and into the roof of the gambling hall, leaping over the casino's fire detection systems
Boulder City firefighters were the first to arrive at the scene and quickly called for assistance from firefighters from Henderson, the National Park Service and Clark County.
"By the time we got there the fire was going pretty good on the facade and also burning strongly on the roof," Boulder City Fire Department Chief Dean Molburg said. Firefighters sprayed the blaze with single lines supplied with water by a 6-inch pipeline leading from Boulder City.

The water from that pipe alone, which transfers about 1,400 gallons of water a minute, was not enough to fight the blaze, Molburg said.
"If it was in the city of Las Vegas or even Boulder City, we would have more than one water source," Molburg said. "But with only one water source, there are limitations."
Firefighters also accessed a 1 million gallon water reserve stored in tanks at the Gold Strike. But when the roof of the casino collapsed, the hotel's sprinkler system ruptured. That rupture caused thousands of gallons of water to drench the burning casino at once, draining the hotel's water supply.
"Once that roof came in, it (the water) was basically being wasted," Molburg said.
When county firefighters arrived, there was little that could be done to put out the fire, La-Sky said. The 100 or so firefighters on the scene were forced to contain the blaze by spraying the exterior of the hotel's tower and also an adjoining three-story section of rooms.
"When we got here the fire was already fully involved and we had to go into a purely defensive mode," La-Sky said. "It was basically a case of surround and drown the building."
La-Sky said the problems with water pressure and access delayed extinguishing the hot spots for several hours. Firefighters used about 1.5 million gallons of water to fight the flames, and the fire was controlled by 4:30 a.m.
The casino was destroyed. La-Sky said at least eight rooms in the three-story extension were damaged by smoke, fire and water. The hotel tower was relatively undamaged.
Authorities have not determined a cause of the blaze.
"It could have been a cigarette butt tossed into debris, or it's feasible it could have been intentionally set," La-Sky said. "Unless the investigators find something really unusual, there may be no real way of telling."
Gold Strike executives have scheduled a Friday job fair for the property's 400 employees, with representatives of Circus Circus Enterprises Inc. attempting to find jobs for the displaced workers at Circus Circus properties. The Gold Strike is owned by three men who are principal owners of Circus Circus.

"How do we help these 400 employees who have been so loyal?" said Dave Belding, a Gold Strike co-owner and Circus Circus executive. "That became our primary concern after we knew there were no injuries."
La-Sky could not provide the number of guests evacuated but estimated it was in the hundreds. Most guests were relocated at the Monte Carlo under the guidance of the American Red Cross.
"There wasn't much time to grab anything," said Yuma, Ariz., resident Jerry Taylor, a Bureau of Reclamation employee staying at the hotel overnight. "I grabbed my briefcase and my laptop and got out of there."

Kenneth Clopton of Houston and his wife, Patsy, walked from their room down several flights of stairs to safety after a hotel employee knocked on their door at 1:20 a.m. Kenneth Clopton questioned why no alarms sounded as they left the building.
"The alarms should have gone off," he said. "Every time I went to a different floor, I didn't know what to expect."
Bruce Way and his wife, Beatrice, of Fort Myers Beach, Fla., said because they heard no alarms, they didn't take seriously the initial warnings of hotel staffers.
"There was a man knocking on the doors and he didn't speak very good English -- we really didn't understand him," Bruce Way said. "At first we didn't think anything of it. We just thought it was some drunk."
The hotel's alarm system was eventually manually pulled by an employee, Molburg said. The time that elapsed between the evacuation of the rooms and when that system was deployed was not immediately known.
Clark County has some of the most stringent fire and building codes in the nation. The codes have evolved primarily because of past tragedies, including the MGM Grand fire in 1980 that killed 87 and injured 650. Three months later a fire at the Las Vegas Hilton killed eight, prompting changes in building and fire codes.
The Gold Strike is inspected quarterly by two private businesses hired by the hotel under state guidelines: The company that inspects the sprinkler system is Las Vegas-based Tri-State Fire Protection; Statewide Automatic Fire Electronics inspects the alarms.
A spokeswoman for SAFE declined comment. Larry Campbell, president of Tri-State, said the Gold Strike was always diligent in meeting fire and building codes.
"Their maintenance crew is so tuned in to fire protection because they knew the vulnerability they had with lack of response time and very limited limited resources," Campbell said.
Campbell said it appears the wood portions of the Gold Strike's roof, along with extensions from the hotel's facade, fueled the fire early on. Portions of the current fire and building codes address the deployment of sprinkler systems in such areas and also require that methods be used to reduce combustibility.
However, part of the Gold Strike's roof was inspected based on fire codes dating to 1977 -- and not the most recent code, Campbell said. Under state guidelines, the Gold Strike would have had to take certain precautions such as covering exposed wood beams and installing Sheetrock only if it were to begin a significant remodeling or addition. The latest addition to the hotel was in 1995, before some of the codes were modified, Campbell said.
"They (the new fire and building code provisions) were grandfathered in," Campbell said.
"In my opinion, with the nature of the fire being on the facade and roof structure, it could bypass the sprinkler system and overwhelm it," Campbell said. "With the new building codes, they've increased some of the requirements and are a lot more stringent. They (install) Sheetrock, cover exposed beams. In this case all this exposed wood fueled the fire."
Campbell said the Gold Strike already had placed sprinklers in several canopies of the casino, but some small wooden protrusions at the roof "would have fallen into a different category" of regulations.
In addition to the private inspections, the county Fire Department conducts regular inspections of all resorts, Deputy Fire Marshal John Hall said. The last county inspection of the Gold Strike was conducted in 1997.
"Just on a cursory review of our records, I don't see any problems out there," Hall said.
Molburg said a variety of safety issues, including why the alarm and sprinkler systems did not immediately go off, will likely be addressed in the fire investigation.
"We will have all those answers," Molburg said. "We just don't have them right now."

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