911 caller saw black smoke, then flames erupt at hotel

As he drove east on Tropicana Avenue, passing over Interstate 15 on Friday morning, Gary Cronkhite looked to his left and saw what he now calls "a whiff of smoke."

An electrician at Planet Hollywood Resort, Cronkhite suspected the dark, hazy puff was some kind of harmless release from the nearby CityCenter construction site.

And then, just seconds later, he said, "It ignited."

The top floors of the Monte Carlo exploded into flames.

"There was black smoke and flames everywhere," he said. "I said to myself, 'Oh, my God, does anybody know it's on fire?' "

At 10:57 a.m., the 56-year-old Cronkhite, somehow able to keep his Chevy Cavalier from plowing into the cars ahead of him, made the first 911 call about the fire on his cell phone.

"I can see it," he said. "It's enormous."

The 911 operator wanted to know if there was smoke and flames.

"Smoke and huge flames," he said, "the whole top two floors on fire. Huge."

The fire 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.

Fire officials still haven't determined the cause of the blaze, which burned for more than an hour.

Firefighters have said the fire might have started on the 29th or 32nd floors on the building's exterior.

From there, the fire, fueled by highly flammable construction foam on the building's exterior, spread rapidly.

What Cronkhite didn't tell the operator was his greatest fear, that the roaring fire might be electrical and go floor to floor trapping hundreds, if not thousands.

"I'm an electrician, and that's what I think of -- that a transformer or some of that other electrical equipment they have on the casino roofs blew," Cronkhite said as he relaxed Tuesday with a brew and a burrito at Cariba Charlie's Bar & Grill on Rainbow Boulevard.

"It was so horrific, seeing that explode," Cronkite said.

"I was thinking so many people were going to be lost. I am so glad everybody got out of there safe. I'll never forget how it just blew up."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2908.