October 09, 2003 10:23 AM

On Oct. 4, less than 24 hours after Roy Horn was mauled onstage on his 59th birthday by one of his own tigers, he sent a heartening message to the shell-shocked friends holding vigil in his hospital room. Though he did it in silence. “I went over to the bed and said, ‘Roy, can you hear me?’ ” says Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn. ” ‘I’m holding your hand. If you can hear me, squeeze.’ And he did. I said, ‘Okay, one squeeze is yes and two squeezes is no.’ I told Roy, ‘Your body took a terrific shock. You lost a lot of blood. The doctors have had to do surgeries on you. Can you handle this?’ And Roy squeezed my hand once for yes.”

By Oct. 7 Roy’s neurosurgeon Dr. Derek Duke had to agree with his patient: While still in critical condition after undergoing three operations, the Vegas showman was, against the odds, fighting fiercely for his life. “It’s all but miraculous that he’s alive at this time,” Duke told reporters. “A contributing factor to his current condition is his extraordinary will and strong physical attributes. (But) it will be quite some time before the extent of his recovery is known.”

In the days after hundreds of fans gathered outside the hospital for prayer, Roy’s partner of nearly 45 years, Siegfried Fischbacher, 64, was at his bedside nearly around the clock, kept company by a stream of friends and colleagues. Although Wynn describes him as “devastated,” the first few days – “If you looked at his face, you got it; it was frightening” – Siegfried has begun to take charge of the situation. “Siegfried has unconditional faith,” says Bernie Yuman, who has managed the duo for 28 years. Adds magician Lance Burton, who has spent time with Siegfried at the hospital every day: “He’s held up through all this unbelievably well.”

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the duo’s show, which, after a storied 13-year history at the Mirage, was closed indefinitely following the Oct. 3 disaster. Before a full house at the Siegfried & Roy Theatre at the Mirage, the tightly paced 95-minute extravaganza – the costumed dancers, the zaps of laser light, the mechanical dragon, the gasp-inspiring illusions performed by Siegfried and those gorgeous white Bengal tigers and white lions trained by Roy – was running like clockwork. It was during one of the least spectacular segments of the show that Roy came onstage with one of the white tigers, a 7-year-old male named Montecore, to explain his work protecting and preserving these rare animals. Ordinarily, Montecore lies down, then stands with his paws on Roy’s shoulders and gives him a sort of embrace. Not this night.

Instead, says one fan who has seen the show 100 times and witnessed the mauling, the normally placid Montecore unexpectedly growled. Roy chided it – “No, no” – and pulled on the tiger’s chain. “Roy told the tiger to lay down,” says another audience member, Dagmar Rethmann, from northern Germany, “and he didn’t.” Wynn, former owner of the Mirage, says Siegfried believes Montecore was somehow distracted by a woman up front. Roy swiftly moved to block Montecore’s view and get him to return to his well-rehearsed script. At that point Montecore grabbed Horn’s arm with his forepaws – or possibly with his mouth, says one fan. Roy disciplined Montecore by bopping him on the nose with a microphone once, twice, as many as five times. Then, witnesses agree, Roy stumbled, and the cat pounced, biting into Roy’s neck. Seconds later, reverting to routine, Montecore exited stage left, dragging Roy by the throat. Backstage, the crew – trained for such an incident, the first in a career total of 30,000 performances, says the pair’s manager – sprayed the cat with a fire extinguisher. Releasing Roy, Montecore retired to his cage, then was whisked back to the Mirage’s small zoo.

The audience, meanwhile, was stunned, unsure whether what they had seen could possibly have been part of the act. Ten-year-old Quentin Rohrbacher, a visitor from Britain, sank his face into his mother’s sleeve. “I tried to tell him it would be okay and that it wasn’t real because this was supposed to be magic,” says Mary Alice Rohrbacher, 40. But then Siegfried returned, visibly distraught, and told the audience the performance was canceled. In the days after, says Rohrbacher, her son couldn’t forget the scene: “He keeps saying, ‘You said it wasn’t real, Mummy.’ ”

There’s no reality more painfully concrete than an angry 600-lb. tiger. Roy had worked with Montecore onstage for more than five years, raising him (and the tiger’s mother) at the Jungle Palace, his opulent nature compound and home. (Siegfried lives apart in a gated community.) And he was wary of the dangers, says his friend, former Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous host and FOX entertainment reporter Robin Leach: “There’s a mantra that Roy always repeated: ‘Never turn your back on these animals.’ Every night he realized he took his life in his hands.”

Even that was no safeguard. Although Siegfried and Roy “are known for the care they give to their animals,” says John Seidensticker, a tiger specialist with the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, “tigers are specialized predators of large mammals. No matter how well you know your animal, there are circumstances that can set this off.” That night it was – the woman? the microphone? “I would bet that Roy, being a perceptive animal trainer, probably knows what caused this tiger to react,” says Seidensticker. “If and when he comes out of this, he’ll sit and think of what it was.” The tiger was definitely annoyed, says Mel Sunquist, a carnivore specialist at the University of Florida, “but if this animal had intended to kill Roy, Roy would now be dead. There is no doubt.”

Montecore came close: Backstage after the attack, with a gaping puncture wound to his neck, Roy’s life was seeping out on the floor: “There was a lot of blood,” says dancer Mike Davies. “A lot.” Roy managed to gasp, “Don’t shoot (the tiger).” While some crew members formed a circle and prayed, others used their fingers to stanch the bleeding while awaiting the medics.

By the time Roy arrived at University Medical Center’s trauma unit seven minutes later, “he was still talking, still breathing,” says Robert Leinbach, public information officer for the Clark County Fire Department. “We tried to get a tube down his throat, and he fought it, which is good, it means he didn’t need it. He could breathe on his own. He talked about his throat hurting.” While famous friends called the hospital – Liz Taylor, Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even reportedly Mick Jagger – Roy’s condition was too fragile to allow anyone by his bedside other than an inner circle that includes Roy’s brothers Alfred, 70, a retired businessman who flew in from Scotland, and Werner, 65, Roy’s groundskeeper. By press time Roy had suffered two strokes.

This is an online excerpt of PEOPLE magazine’s cover package.


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