Flamingo safety scrutinized

Workers at the Flamingo Las Vegas cannibalized a piece of safety equipment on one guest floor to obtain a part so another floor would pass a fire inspection, according to a carpenter who gave a statement to the county Fire Department on Thursday.

John Houk, one of the man's supervisors, was suspended Friday, pending investigation, Marybel Batjer, a Harrah's Entertainment spokeswoman, said Friday evening.

The incident adds a third local Harrah's-owned resort to the list of properties found to have questionable hotel remodeling or maintenance. The other two are the Rio Hotel and Harrah's Las Vegas.

"We looked at the 26th and 23rd floors, and we looked at other floors. And we discovered (emergency fire doors) aren't all operating as they should. We will do a complete inspection of the hotel," Deputy Chief Girard Page of the county Fire Department said Friday afternoon.

"The known good system on (the cannibalized Flamingo floor) was left in a degraded condition, and guests on that floor were not properly protected," the carpenter, Chuck Gillenwater, told the Review-Journal on Friday morning.

He said his employer, Roman Empire Development, laid him off Thursday.

Batjer learned about the incident from the Review-Journal on Friday afternoon. She inquired, then reported back that the hotel made the required repairs as soon as the fire department pointed it out.

"Anything that would put into question the safety system is of utmost importance to us," said Batjer, a vice president.

She added that Roman Empire Development, a subsidiary of Harrah's Entertainment that does in-house construction and remodeling, laid off 14 workers Friday because remodeling jobs were ending. Batjer said she didn't know particulars of Gillenwater's departure.

A union carpenter, Gillenwater, 44, said superintendents asked him in mid-November to remove a component for the emergency door closure system on the 23rd floor of a guest tower, and then install it on the 26th floor.

He did so, but said he felt bad and secretly reported it to the county fire department on Nov. 30, after he had again been asked by superintendents to swap out a different safety component to solve yet another problem with emergency fire doors in a Flamingo corridor used by overnight guests.

According to Gillenwater, his bosses were "nonchalant" about asking him to swap out equipment. He said on the second request, he told them, "No, order the freaking parts. Do it right." He had been employed by Roman Empire for several months, and also worked at the Flamingo about a year ago.

He estimates safety on the 23rd floor was less than optimal for at least 10 days, from the first switch of equipment to Nov. 30, when he phoned the Fire Department.

Page confirmed Friday that Gillenwater first contacted the fire prevention bureau on Nov. 30, then came in Thursday for a more formal discussion. On Thursday, fire department inspectors were already at the Flamingo investigating those concerns when Gillenwater showed up at the Fire Department headquarters on Flamingo Road to give his account.

The district attorney's office instructed the Fire Department not to release Gillenwater's statement because it is part of an active investigation, Page said.

Fire inspectors, he added, did not shut down the involved floors or mandate a fire watch -- a 24-hour foot patrol to monitor fire safety. They found that certain emergency doors did close, but did not self-latch, which Page said did not qualify as an immediate life-safety hazard.

Page declined to discuss whether Gillenwater's supervisors intended to evade fire codes. Some sections of the Flamingo Las Vegas are old construction. And equipment, including emergency doors, can start to fail with age, Page noted.

The carpenter said he is distressed at what he took as a cavalier attitude by his immediate bosses at the Harrah's subsidiary: "You're in the limelight, and you're doing this? What bugs me, I'm the worker bee."

Gillenwater said that before going to the Fire Department he had telephoned Tom Adams, a higher-level employee at Roman Empire Development. He said they talked about the swapping of safety components at the Flamingo. He said Adams did not seem to know what the superintendents had ordered the carpenter to do.

Gillenwater belongs to Local 1977 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

In speaking of Harrah's "limelight," Gillenwater was referring to recent publicity about deficiencies in construction and failure to obtain permits or inspections for remodeling projects at the Rio and Harrah's Las Vegas, which in October resulted in closing about 700 rooms between the two properties.

Most of those rooms have been investigated for building code violations, corrected and returned to the hotels' inventory for guest use.

Friday marked the reactivation of 51 suites on the 19th floor of the Rio's Ipanema tower, according to an update Harrah's Entertainment issued on Thursday. Five suites on that floor still need inspection. Five other Rio rooms also remain out of service, on the 13th, 16th or 18th floors of the Ipanema.

At its sister property on the Strip, Harrah's Las Vegas, 237 guest rooms are still out of service. Affected are floors 19-23 in the North Mardi Gras tower, floors 29-35 in the North Carnivale tower, and floors 34-35 in the South Carnivale tower.

Contact reporter Joan Whitely at jwhitely@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0268.