When the Duty Manager said Come with me, I assumed we were being rounded up for a speech. I thought someone was receiving an award or the Chairman had something meaningful to say to us. I was thinking cookies, not catastrophe.
But instead of ushering us to a conference room for a holiday message or a gathering in honor of someone retiring from the casino after blah, blah, blah, the Duty Manager led us to the exit and sent us outside. Employees from other departments streamed across the parking lot to the evacuation zone east of the casino.
This is a drill, I thought, annoyed I didn’t grab my wallet or my phone. But it wasn’t a drill. I could tell by the worried faces of the back-of-house workers—phone operators and administrators and cubicle types who only go outside to smoke cigarettes. The Duty Manager seemed particularly manic as he buzzed about, stressing the importance of accurate head counts.
Crossing the lot to our evacuation area, I caught a glimpse of fire trucks and tribal security vehicles gathered at the casino entrance. I looked to see if there were any helicopters flying over the reservation, as they typically do whenever there’s a fire or a standoff with the police, but there was only a hawk, turning circles in the sky.
I conferred with my coworkers. The last time we were evacuated like this, the filter for one of the dryers down in the laundry caught fire. We were out of the casino for 20 minutes that time, our only inconvenience a lingering odor. This event seemed more serious, but we had nothing to go on but rumors.
As the lunch hour approached, the novelty of the interruption wore off. We were hungry. We were cold. Most of all, we were fed up with explaining to every employee who showed up in the evacuation zone/parking lot why they couldn’t go inside the casino and, no, we don’t know what was going on.
After nearly an hour outside in the cold, the Duty Manager moved us to the training center, a flimsy outbuilding a few hundred feet from the casino that looked more like a shed then a structure. We gathered in one of the classrooms and stared at the empty dry-erase boards. What do a bunch of casino employees do when they have free time on their hands?
We played games. A dealer broke out decks of cards and various games of chance started up. The dealers dealt poker hands. The finance people played spades. The admin types dabbled at Go Fish and Old Maid. I got into a spirited game of War with a graphic designer, who railed at the unfairness of the game, how he kept getting screwed on the ties, that it was just the dumb luck of the draw, no skill involved.
“Dude,” I said, “you work in a casino.”
“I know, but still.”
Someone fired up a laptop and found some Christmas music. One of the managers brought in baskets of cookies reserved for our VIPs and opened them up. The dealers joked about using them as chips. The admin types ate them before this idea could be implemented. People laughed and told stories and commented how this was exactly what they would do when they went home for the holidays: play cards with their families and eat too many cookies—only without the fire trucks and bomb squad.
Bomb squad? The festivities dried up when the Duty Manager returned to tell us a suspicious device had been discovered in the mailroom. We pressed him for details, but that was all he could tell us. Someone, apparently, had tried to send Thunderclap an early Christmas present. And what were the guests doing while we were having our evacuation party?
Gambling, like always, dumbly sitting at their machines while the non-essential staff got the hell out. But they would have been evacuated if they’d really been in danger, right?
Maybe, maybe not. But guessing from what went down at a San Diego County casino a few days later, I’m guessing not.
At around 10 a.m. on December 29, a former employee drove onto the Barona Casino & Resort complex and went into the gaming commission office with a shotgun. He ordered all the employees out of the building save one—his former supervisor—whom the gunman shot and killed.
Four hours passed before authorities determined the gunman had turned the weapon on himself and was no longer a threat. Until that determination was made, there was a great deal of speculation as to whether it was a hostage situation involving casino employees or if the gunman had infiltrated the casino proper. Erroneous reports flashed across the Internet. Casino managers across the state monitored the situation, keeping one eye on their numbers to see how the situation was affecting the action on the floor.
Located in rural San Diego, Barona is one of the most successful Indian casinos in the country, and known throughout California for its aggressive advertising campaign that used to feature Kenny Rogers as its spokesman, a fact that prompted insensitive (yet hilarious) message board comments on local newspaper and network affiliate news sites, such as “Kenny Rogers snapped.”
Casino manager Rick Salinas insists that casino guests were never in danger, which is why they weren’t evacuated. In fact, Barona shut down its main entrance, and prevented guests from leaving the casino. The only road to and from the resort was also closed. The incident, Salinas pointed out, was confined to the gaming commission office, which was in a building separate from the casino, much like the training center where we held our evacuation party.
As the drama at Barona unfolded, the tension at Thunderclap was palpable. After all, we never did find out if the suspect device was a credible threat or not. I don’t know if there was more security on the floor or if they were simply more visible, but they all looked deadly serious. By now everyone knew the shooter was a former Barona security guard. If the mood on the floor was tense, it was down-right grim in the employee spaces. No one wants to think about shotgun-toting ex-coworkers coming back for a visit during the holidays, especially not with a full moon coming, and on New Year’s Eve no less.
A few hours after the shooting, a message was sent to all employees with e-mail accounts, reminding us to immediately inform security if we saw anyone in the employee-only areas without a gaming license (i.e. badge). The e-mail didn’t tell us what to do if we were approached by a former co-worker in the hallways. I wondered how I would react if I saw one of the many, many people who have been laid off from Thunderclap, including three former supervisors, come walking down the hall Terminator-style. I suppose instinct takes over and you know when to walk away, know when to run.