Casinos are not immune to the dangers of fire, and that's concerning considering the number of people that frequent them on a daily basis. Just this week, emergency crews responded to an out-of-control blaze near the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, located 67 miles from Los Angeles. The casino, owned and operated by the Serrano Mission Indians in the town of Highland, was spared any damage thanks to the quick work of the responders. After consuming about 20 acres of land, the fire was halted, though not completely put out, by the firemen.
High winds helped spread the blaze, which was originally thought to span only one acre of land in the foothills of the San Bernardino National Forest. The wildfire quickly advanced to the outskirts of the San Manuel reservation, where it touched on a parking lot and threatened to invade peoples' homes. Thankfully, no injuries were reported.
Throughout history, some notable fire emergencies have taken place in casinos. The following is just a partial list of some of the many fire-related tragedies that have occurred in the Las Vegas area.
1980 MGM Grand Fire
Guests at the Las Vegas MGM Grand in 1980 were not as lucky as the members of the San Manuel tribe. A casino restaurant electrical fire broke out and quickly spread to other parts of the MGM building. Approximately 5,000 patrons were at the hotel and gambling center when the tragedy struck; 85 were killed and 650 were injured. All but four of the deaths were attributed solely to smoke inhalation.
The absence of emergency sprinklers in some parts of the hotel was thought to have spurred on the blaze. MGM wasn't breaking any rules by omitting the sprinklers; at that time, facilities that operated 24 hours per day were exempt from standard fire sprinkler regulations. Since the time of the MGM fire, however, government inspectors have tightened up their safety requirements considerably.
1981 Las Vegas Hilton Fire
Three months after the devastating MGM Grand fire, a convicted arsonist by the name of Philip Cline is said to have started a blaze at the Las Vegas Hilton. Only eight people perished in this incident, seven of whom suffered the consequences of smoke inhalation. The smaller number of victims was thought to be a result of some important pedagogical lessons learned by fire fighters during their previous battle with the MGM blaze.
Cline was found guilty and sentenced to eight life sentences in prison. In 2011, he gave an interview to reporters claiming that he never meant to hurt anybody. “For no reason,” he said, “I lit the curtains on fire.” Prior to this crime, Cline had been found guilty on charges of both theft and embezzlement.
2008 Monte Carlo Casino Fire
In 2008, welders accidentally sparked a fire at the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas while working. Over 3,000 guests were inside the hotel and casino at the time; 17 did not make it out alive. Nevada's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, pursued legal action against the contracted workers who started the fire, saying it was the workers' negligence and multiple safety violations that caused the incident. In the end, however, an OSHA review board exonerated the contracting company of eight of the nine safety violation charges, resulting in only a minor fine of $3,500 for the company.
2003 and 2009 Fires at Moulin Rouge
The historically significant Moulin Rouge hotel and casino was devastated by arson in 2003. At that time, the structure had been closed for many years. A group called the Moulin Rouge Development Corporation bought the property in 2004 with the intent to breathe life back into the cultural icon, but those plans never panned out. In 2009, the property was ravaged by yet another fire.
The Moulin Rouge played an important part in black American history and the evolution of African American rights in the U.S. It was the first hotel/casino complex to permit black entertainers to stay on its premises. In its heyday, the Moulin Rouge would house black entertainers who were on tour in Las Vegas.
2013 Key Largo Casino Fire
Last year, the vacant Key Largo Casino caught fire and was destroyed. Authorities reported that a criminal act caused the blaze, which resulted in damages to the tune of $4.5 million. Apparently a man was attempting to steal copper wiring from the abandoned building when he caught on fire. The suspect, who sustained burns on over 80 percent of his body, did not realize that the power was still turned on when he attempted the theft. The Key Largo had been sitting empty for almost a decade at the time.
How to Prevent Tragedy
The Cintas Corporation of Ohio, supplier of numerous products to multiple North American businesses, produced a checklist of fire prevention tips for casino staff. These tips can easily be translated to other businesses as well. They include the following:
- Work with a certified fire protection company. This type of company provides an invaluable service; they inspect and test prevention equipment like life-saving fire alarms, extinguishers, and sprinkler systems.
- Train employees to use extinguishers. Educating staff members about prevention measures is vital.
- Create a fire prevention plan. This plan should include procedures for handling hazardous materials and a list of hazardous materials for employee review.
- Assemble an emergency response team. This team should be well-versed in emergency preparedness and know how to help others in case of an emergency.
- Maintain a fire-safe environment. This includes disposing of hazardous materials in a safe manner and/or storing them in a safe place.
People who go to a casino are interested in having fun, not experiencing a life-threatening emergency like fire. When fire occurs in a crowded public place like a casino, the threat to human life is great. Fortunately, casino proprietors have learned some lessons from these past tragedies. This knowledge will help them put their best foot forward when it comes to fire prevention.
Smoke rises from the Monte Carlo on Jan. 26 after sparks from torches that were being used to install a catwalk started a fire, according to reports by OSHA and the Fire Department.
By Alexandra Berzon
Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Monte Carlo Burns
Smoke engulfs the Las Vegas skyline as the Monte Carlo burned for about an hour Friday, Jan. 25, 2008. Las Vegas and Clark County firefighters were able to contain the three-alarm fire that touched off on the top floors of the 32-story resort. At least seven people were injured in the nearly full 3,002-room hotel — the 13th largest in Las Vegas.
The construction company cited by the state for worker safety violations in connection with the January fire atop the Monte Carlo was largely cleared of responsibility in an appeal decision this month.
The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration had fined Union Erectors, a structural steel company, $18,000, saying the company had violated nine workplace safety laws.
But the OSHA Review Board — made up of labor and management representatives appointed by the governor, including an MGM Mirage official who recused himself from the case because the fire was at one of his company’s resorts — overturned all but one of Union Erectors’ citations, reducing the fines to $3,500.
The review board’s reversal follows a pattern. The Sun reported Monday that nearly all violations by employers that have been brought before the OSHA appeals body have been overturned this year.
In this case, the board’s decision was based largely on testimony by Union Erectors workers that contradicted Clark County Fire Department findings that the company had caused the fire by not following proper fire prevention procedures.
On Jan. 26, Union Erectors employees were using torches to install a catwalk on the roof of the Monte Carlo. Sparks flew onto a a nearby wall, igniting a blaze that spread to the exterior facade and upper floors of the hotel, according to the Fire Department and OSHA report of events.
“Sufficient precautions were not taken to guard against a fire,” OSHA’s May 1 report noted.
The internationally televised images of flames leaping from the Monte Carlo were dramatic and so was the monetary damage: MGM Mirage’s risk management department estimated $80 million in damage, with total losses expected to exceed $200 million, according to a report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The report also noted that 5,000 customers and 950 employees were evacuated from the building, while “about 11” people were transported to the hospital for smoke inhalation — all observed and released.
The Fire Department concluded that Union Erectors did not have adequate monitoring to make sure nothing caught fire and did not have fire-retardant blankets to protect flammable materials from the molten metal created by the torch work.
The Fire Department also said Union Erectors had not obtained the proper work permit. If the company had, that might have led to the discovery and correction of some of the fire code violations. But the Fire Department decided not to cite or fine the company because the permit problem appeared to have been unintentional.
Despite the Fire Department and ATF determinations that Union Erectors had caused the blaze, the lawyer who represented the company in the OSHA case maintains that Union Erectors “had nothing to do with the fire.”
“We don’t know what did, but that’s somebody else’s burden of proof,” the attorney, Bruce Willoughby, said Monday.
Union Erectors had previously stressed that it was not responsible for the fire, in an informal conference with OSHA inspectors after OSHA issued the citations. Following that meeting, officials of both the Clark County Fire Department and the ATF told OSHA officials they stood by their original findings and did not plan to change their reports.
OSHA was responsible for dealing with whether the company had put workers in danger, not with determining the underlying cause of the fire. But in issuing its citations, OSHA leaned heavily on the Fire Department findings regarding violations of fire code, which OSHA said exposed employees to danger.
Like the Fire Department, OSHA said Union Erectors didn’t have someone adequately observe the entire work area to watch for flames and said Union Erectors should has assigned additional people to the job as needed. OSHA also said the area did not have appropriate shielding to prevent sparks; the company did not take precautions on areas under the torching work where sparks could land; openings in walls and floors weren’t covered, allowing sparks to travel; and the area wasn’t properly inspected.
Union Erectors appealed, and at the review board hearing, OSHA inspector Tanisha Solano was tripped up under cross examination about the specifics of fire prevention. Union Erectors employees, meanwhile, offered testimony to rebut each allegation. The burden of proof was on OSHA.
The board found in connection with all but one citation “insufficient facts and competent evidence to establish that the employees of respondent were exposed to the identified hazards due to a failure on the part of the employer to comply with the standards.” It upheld the citation that pointed to Union Erectors’ failure to take precautions against fire spreading below the work area.
The company has appealed that in a letter to the board, Willoughby said.
MGM Mirage spokeswoman Yvette Monet said MGM Mirage’s insurance company is addressing the cause of the fire, and she pointed to the Fire Department report that held Union Erectors responsible.
In a separate report, the county building department in August analyzed the building materials the county said helped fuel the fire. The county is requiring MGM Mirage to hire a fire protection engineer to come up with solutions, which could include painting some areas or replacing some decorative pieces.