LAS VEGAS — A two-alarm fire that investigators say was intentionally set raised suspicions of arson Thursday at the downtown Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino after a man was found barely alive in a locked 22nd floor room where he wasn't supposed be.
Guests were evacuated from upper floors and the man, identified only as a hotel guest, was hospitalized in critical condition after firefighters found him unconscious in the room amid heavy stored boxes of smoldering linen and bedding, fire spokesman Tim Szymanski said.
"They couldn't see a thing in the room. Smoke was that thick," Szymanski said.
Sprinklers had completely doused the fire just inside the door, Szymanski said, and firefighters never used hoses. But they had to force their way past a wet mess of piled material to find the man moaning near a window.
With the man still in intensive care, it remained unclear how he got in the room, why he was there and whether he started the fire, Szymanski said.
The cause of the fire was not immediately disclosed. Damage was estimated at less than $1,000.
The man was a guest at the hotel, Golden Nugget spokeswoman Tiffany Hauck said, although his name wasn't immediately made public.
Witness Rudy Boteo was in a parking structure between the casino's four towers when the first fire engines arrived about 8:30 a.m. Minutes later, paramedics wheeled a gurney with the injured man out of the 25-story Rush Tower. He was taken to University Medical Center in Las Vegas.
"I looked up and saw smoke coming out," said Boteo, an auto rental company worker who photographed the scene with his cellphone. "Then I looked down and saw them bring this guy out."
Ground-floor casino play was not interrupted. But about 60 people evacuated the 21st floor, and nine more left suites on the top floor of the newest tower in the hotel, Golden Nugget spokeswoman Amy Chasey said.
The 22nd, 23rd and 24th floors were vacant pending renovation, with no fixtures or furniture, Szymanski said.
Houston residents Brian and Julie Fenske and their two teenagers descended 24 flights of stairs after security told them to leave their 25th floor suite. They took the evacuation in stride.
"It would have been worse going up," Julie Fenske said outside the hotel.
But the Fenskes reported about 15 minutes of confusion during which alarms gave conflicting instructions to remain in their room and then to evacuate before officials arrived at their door.
Hauck said an all-clear was given after hotel officials were initially unable to find a fire, and the evacuation order was given after fire was found.
The alarm brought dozens of firefighters from Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County to the 2,345-room casino in the center of the downtown Fremont Street casino district.
It was the second fire in seven weeks at the Golden Nugget.
Automatic sprinklers quelled a Jan. 27 fire in a dishwashing unit in a fifth-floor banquet area of the hotel. Officials said at the time that smoke from that fire prompted the evacuation of hundreds of people for about 30 minutes, but little damage was reported. The fire was ruled accidental.
Hotels in Las Vegas and Clark County are required to install fire sprinklers by tough fire codes instituted following two deadly high-rise hotel fires on the Las Vegas Strip more than 30 years ago.
The MGM Grand hotel blaze in November 1980 killed 87 people and was the nation's second-deadliest fire at the time. An arson fire at the Las Vegas Hilton nearly three months later killed eight people.
A spectacular fire in January 2008 burned the outside facade of the Monte Carlo resort on the Las Vegas Strip. Some 6,000 guests and employees were evacuated, and officials reported 17 people were treated for minor injuries and smoke inhalation. That fire was blamed on a welding accident.