ATLANTIC CITY - On the predawn Boardwalk on Monday, in the minutes after the Trump Taj Mahal officially shut down, with the expected but still startling reality setting in, the front doors to the casino still were not locked.
They'd never been locked in the 26 years of the storied but hobbled billion-dollar casino, once the showpiece of a dominant Donald Trump, now the white elephant of fellow billionaire and current owner Carl Icahn.
As a last crew struggled to rig up homemade wooden door jams to literally barricade the doors, hundreds of striking union workers jeered from the other side of the glass. The frustrations of a 102-day strike over health benefits that, as the chants had warned, did indeed shut the place down grew sharp. "Shame on you!" one striker said, running up to the door to bang on it, then throwing her sign down in frustration. "I am not your slave," said another.
If the last overnight hours on the casino floor were a nearly deserted affair, with an amiable blackjack dealer named Jimmy Stewart winning the last hand against a talkative regular named Shelly Orloff, whose only goal was to play that last hand, win or lose, the immediate aftermath of the stunning casino closure quickly dissolved into a noisy acrimony.
The Trump Taj Mahal, once the jewel of the Boardwalk, had become the fifth Atlantic City casino to close since 2014, the fifth casualty on the Boardwalk, and the last casino in Atlantic City to have Trump's name attached to it.
In the end, the Taj was an odd little asterisk on the national stage - the last trace of the Trump name in Atlantic City closing down even as the man himself was enmeshed in a high-stakes battle on a much larger stage.
At one time, to listen to Trump, you couldn't imagine a spotlight bigger than the one that came from the glittering chandeliers and vaulted mirrors of the Taj Mahal, where in 1990, Trump strode arm and arm with Michael Jackson to herald the "eighth wonder of the world."
But the Trump Taj Mahal, late in life, put up little resistance. It folded at 5:59 a.m. Oct. 10, a historically painful day in the life of the property, the anniversary of the tragic death of three of Trump's top executives in a helicopter crash in 1989.
Trump, as he has reminded the nation, had left any meaningful involvement in Atlantic City by 2009, when he lost final control of his company to a group of hedge funds led by Avenue Capital Group. For years, he had dominated its skyline and its headlines, fighting with widows for their houses, scheming against rival casino moguls, working city councilmen, dogging mayors, financing the opposition to a tunnel that he felt would benefit rival casino owner Steve Wynn. The tunnel was built.
In the end, it was only his name and the brand that was left at the Taj Mahal, plus a few Trump bobbleheads and mints for sale. Even the Taj had begun to distance itself from the Trump name. Its billboards in the short post-bankruptcy Icahn era left out any mention of Trump.
On Monday, casino workers held a moment of silence led by former relief cook Charles Baker and signed a large poster board proclaiming, "We held the line." They jammed that into the revolving door at the front. They chanted, "We'll be back," and workers inside and out insisted the place would reopen. They pointed to ongoing renovations, and the simple cost of mothballing the property, estimated by union president Bob McDevitt to be in excess of $33 million a year. McDevitt made no speeches Monday, standing off to the side as the workers continued to protest even after the Taj had closed.
Icahn, who took control of the company out of its latest bankruptcy, issued a statement saying, "Today is a sad day for Atlantic City. Despite our best efforts, which included losing almost $350 million over just a few short years, we were unable to save the Taj Mahal. I am extremely grateful to all of the almost 3,000 employees for their hard work, especially those that stayed loyal to us during this trying period. After our last offer, which included medical, was rejected, it was simply impossible to find a workable path forward that would not have required funding additional investments and losses in excess of $100 million over the next year.
"Like many of the employees at the Taj Mahal," Icahn concluded, "I wish things had turned out differently."
Trump told the Associated Press last week that he was sad that no deal was reached between Icahn and members of Unite Here Local 54, which represents cocktail servers, bartenders, housekeepers, and porters, and which fought Icahn over health benefits for the last two years. Trump said the closing was unnecessary but predicted that once closed, the sprawling property would be too expensive to reopen.
Many employees, union and nonunion, believe Icahn will reopen the property in the spring.
"We'll be back, no doubt about it," said bartender Bart Rodgers, 50, out on the Boardwalk, where the Hard Rock Cafe was blasting music louder than usual. The Hard Rock restaurant and bar will remain open, with an entrance on the Boardwalk.
Union leaders said 95 percent of the strikers remained on strike, though about a quarter got second jobs at other casinos while continuing to picket. "Back of the house" jobs at casinos were plentiful.
Cocktail server Sonja Tomljanovic, an 18-year Taj employee (she started after the era where servers auditioned in bathing suits), pulled the last overnight strike shift.
She said she felt sad to see it closing. The strikers were curious as to what was going on inside in the final hours, and were surprised that anyone was gambling at all.
"All my best memories are there," she said. "I made my best friends."
The Taj, which opened in April 1990, follows the Atlantic Club, Showboat, Trump Plaza, and Revel. Showboat has reopened as a non-casino hotel. There are seven casinos left in Atlantic City, which many - especially current operators - believe is plenty.
Heavily leveraged, the Taj needed to immediately bring in more than $1 million a day to keep afloat. It was in Chapter 11 within a year. Its record of bankruptcy and unpaid vendors has dogged Trump in his presidential bid, though employees generally regard Trump as a good boss. "He would have settled with us," said one.
The casino death throes, with the postmortem on the Boardwalk before the early morning cameras, the sun rising over the ocean, has become a familiar ritual in this town, sometimes punctuated by Mayor Don Guardian riding by on his bicycle. On Monday, a cold morning, he did not ride by.
Inside the casino, the last hand of blackjack was held shortly after 5 a.m., with dealer Stewart beating out Orloff on the final hand, with an 18. (Dealers were not on strike.) Stewart said he was proud to be the final dealer in a place he has viewed as his home.
"You're the last one, Jimmy," his supervisor called out. "You were always willing to stay."
"That's it," he replied, "the sole survivor."