A busboy at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel was arrested last night in connection with a savage fire that burst out of an eighth-floor window and roared up the side of the immense hotel.
At least eight people died and 200 were injured Tuesday in a night of terror that resembled a scene from a disaster movie. Giant flames shot up the length of the 30-floor casino-hotel to the roof in minutes as screaming guests broke windows, climbed down makeshift ropes of sheets and crowded into the stairwells to escape the suffocating smoke.
Homicide detectives said last night they had charged Philip Bruce Kline, 23, who they said was the first person to report the blaze to the fire department.
"We determined that probable cause exists to charge him with first-degree arson and eight counts of murder," said Deputy Police Chief Erik Cooper. Cooper said Kline was questioned for two hours, and that he had been in the hotel when the blaze broke out.
The fire erupted about 8 p.m. with an explosive force on the eighth floor of a wing that had neither fire detector alarms nor sprinklers -- an eerie coincidence with another huge fire there last Nov. 21 in the MGM Grand Hotel, which also lacked adequate safety systems. Eighty-four people died in that fire.
Las Vegas Fire Chief Roy Parrish said investigators had determined that four separate fires broke out in the 2,700-room Hilton resort, the largest hotel in the nation and the second largest in the world. The main fire was set near the elevator lobby on the eighth floor and smaller fires were lighted later on the second and third floors.
"The arsonist cut the nozzle off the fire hose in the fire hose cabinet and stuffed combustible material into it," Parrish said.
Although the wing where the fire occurred did not contain sprinklers or smoke detectors, Parrish said yesterday that building codes "were not a factor in the point of origin or the spread of the flames." Nevada Gov. Robert List defended the hotel management, saying, "All the fire codes and training in the world could never guarantee personal safety when faced with a criminal act. . . . Arson is a capital offense and the punnishment for arson is death."
The gambling casino was full, and four conventions were housed in the fully booked hotel when the blaze broke out: gatherings of the Inter-Mountain Veterinarian Association, Savings Institution Marketing, National Shoe Fair of America and the Association of Drilling Contractors.
One of the eight victims jumped out a window, according to the Clark County coroner, and the seven others died of smoke inhalation. Helicopter crews evacuated people from the roof as flames leapt up through the elevator shafts near them. Ambulances screeched through the city and frantic guests were advised to shove wet towels against the door cracks and sit tight until they were rescued.
Among those admitted to hospitals was singer Natalie Cole, who had performed at the hotel Monday night and was overcome by smoke in her room. Six people were reported in critical condition, including one firefighter.
Hundreds of refugees from the blaze still sat huddled in blankets yesterday at an emergency facility set up in the convention center, while guards ringed the locked hotel and investigators combed the wreckage.
The first-floor casino was untouched by the blaze. While flames terrified the guests on the floors above, security guards had to shoo some gamblers away from their tables with shouts of "this is definitely the last hand, please."
Although the fire appeared to be a frightening replay of the MGM one, the blaze was far worse, injuring 700 people in addition to the 84 deaths. Resulting lawsuits involve nearly $1 billion. Arson was not suspected in that case.
Damage to the Las Vegas Hilton was estimated yesterday at $10 million, and Hilton Hotels Corp. announced it is offering a $100,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the fire.
Henry Lewin, the hotel's president, said the hotel switchboard had received two bizarre telephone calls at the height of the fire. "Is the fire still on?" Lewin said the caller asked the operator. The caller also asked if Lewin were in the hotel, he said. Lewin and his wife had been rescued from their 29th-floor suite by helicopter.
Two other recent arson attempts have mystified police here and last night officials here declined to link them to the Hilton fire. Attempts to touch the Dunes Hotel in January and the Royal American last December were made by someone who used matches to ignite drapes and bedspreads. Both fires were extinguished before they caused extensive damage.
When the fire broke out at the Hilton last night, Andy Williams and Juliet Prowse were among the performers waiting to go on stage. "The thing that really terrified me was looking out the back door and seeing that whole east wing elevator shaft on fire and people waving electric lamps out the window, a lot of torn sheets tied up," Williams said.
Joseph Adolf, a Chicago conventioneer, described the blowtorch of flames that shot up an elevator shaft to the roof where more than 100 people waited to be rescued. "When we got to the roof we saw flames coming up the shaft through the building," he said. "We ran over to the other side of the roof. When we saw flames there, we started to get nervous."
Another guest, Deborah Sawyer of Key West, said, "We looked out the window and it was awful scary seeing the chopper and the lights. We saw windows breaking and people screaming. We felt trapped."
Ed Knowels, a Toledo bank executive, said no fire alarms were activated during the fire. "My wife heard a commotion in the hall and went to the door," he said. "People were going down the fire escape. We heard people coming down the hall saying the hotel is on fire."
Knowles said the hook-and-ladder equipment could not get above the 10th floor. "There was one woman . . . they had broken out a window. . . . He husband had his arms around her from the back in a bear hug. She was completely hysterical. She wanted to jump out. He had to restrain her. I saw that go on for 20 minutes."
Other guests, such as Laura Arkin of Merrick, N.Y., were in the lobby when the fire broke out and where able to leave without difficulty. "When we got outside," she said, "there were flames shooting up the side of the hotel. It looked like the movie "Towering Inferno.'"
The dead included Dr. and Mrs. Harry Gaines of Hollywood, Calif. Gaines, an optometrist who had recently retired, and his wife, Lorraine, were in Las Vegas on a short vacation to celebrate his retirement.
The others who died were Dennis Emery McFarland, 32, of Boone, Iowa; Frank Alan F. Greenfield, 22, of West Bloomfield, Mich.; Robert Nichols Leach, 54, of Honolulu; Zeny Santos Carvalho, 64, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Jack Turninsky, 41, of Anchorage, Alaska, and Bruce Glenn, 47, of Plymouth, Minn., who is believed to have jumped or fallen from the 16th floor.