Why you should care
To survive a crisis, keep your wits about you — and get lucky.
Anthea Gerrie writes on travel, food, wine and architecture for national and international publications.
“Beware the Ides of March,” they say, but in 1990 I was running around the world from one adventure to another, an intrepid travel addict beware-ing of nothing at all. I was 39 years old and I was going to live forever. On the first of the month, I hopped a plane from Heathrow bound for Egypt, where I was due to sail down the Nile the next day. It was a press junket — 20 British beauty writers in search of a new perfume artfully hidden in the bulrushes by the London socialite who created it.
But the wind was up when we arrived in Cairo, and parched, I needed a pot of tea, which I shared with Sally and Janet, the only two women on the trip I knew personally. Sally, a young single mother who had told me the week before how excited she was to get this, her first foreign gig, seemed strangely distracted — I guessed she was missing her 4-year-old. Janet, ever-practical, chided me for wimping out of getting my shots: “You’ll regret it if you’re tempted by street food.”
We retired around midnight, and at 2 a.m. I was awoken by feet stampeding above my head. “Inconsiderate party people,” I muttered and lifted the phone to complain. But the line was dead. I opened my the door to see what was going on and quickly realized these party people were, in fact, frantic guests fleeing … a fire. A fire in my hotel. They were lucky early bird escapees, it transpired; thick smoke obscuring the corridor made it clear I wouldn’t be making any kind of normal exit from the blazing Sheraton hotel.
“Listen, the fire is fucking big … get out NOW!” he shrieked. He must have thought I was crazy, giggling when my life was at risk.
Funny the tricks the mind plays. Instead of panicking, mine decided I was in an improv and would have to devise action to resolve the scene in which I was starring. I crossed to the window, hailed a man running past in a suit, who shouted: “Can you make a rope out of your sheets?” This struck me as hilarious; I had never joined the Girl Scouts so never learned those silly knots. Now I knew why they mattered. The businessman wasn’t laughing when I giggled my Girl Scouts excuse.
“Listen, the fire is fucking big, fucking close and you’ve got to get out NOW!” he shrieked. He must have thought I was crazy, giggling when my life was at risk. Call it an adrenaline rush to the brain, which kept me present but bizarrely banished fear.
I looked down and saw a second-floor parapet on which I reckoned I could land with no worse than a broken leg. “Can you catch me if I jump to the ground from there?” I asked the man in the suit. He surely should have been encouraging me to leap for my life but instead responded, far too truthfully: “I don’t know!”
We rolled on the ground, I kissed and thanked him — the world’s fastest date.
Nothing for it — blind as a bat without them, I took 20 seconds to put in my contacts so I could see where I was jumping, grabbed my passport and my late mother’s heirloom ring, then hurled myself, robe askew, onto that parapet. Underwear was not even on my radar.
As a scaredy-cat kid, I wouldn’t even dive into a swimming pool, but faced with a hallway full of smoke and exit via the door not even an option, I had no choice. Miraculously, I jumped and landed like an acrobat, nothing broken, then threw myself at my reluctant rescuer, obliging him to break my second fall. We rolled on the ground, I kissed and thanked him — the world’s fastest date. Then I went off to look for the rest of my group.
The exhilaration lasted for hours, even as the fire raged on — running free and alive on the hotel lawn, reuniting with most of the beauty writers, being wrapped in blankets by the kind passers-by who were the only ones looking after us dispossessed hotel guests. But the euphoria paled into horror as daylight dawned. I learned Sally and Janet had perished, along with 15 other guests. Janet and Sally died from smoke inhalation, their rooms engulfed in flames.
The hotel was two stories higher than the firemen’s ladders could reach.
Cairo’s “four-star” Sheraton Heliopolis had no fire alarms or sprinklers. And management had ignored fire warnings just a week earlier to close down a barbecue inside their restaurant. Add to this, inadequate firefighting resources: the hotel was two stories higher than the firemen’s ladders could reach. Sally’s room was two doors down from mine. How did she not get out when I did? It was suggested her window, like so many in hotels, didn’t open; the fact mine did was yet another reminder of the utter randomness of life we navigate every day.
What I did next surprised me: I demanded copious quantities of Egyptian food. Though this was my first trip to the country and these were my first-ever ful medames, I devoured plates of the mashed fava beans. Most of our party sat shocked and silent, anxiously waiting for the first flight home. The rare perfume was forgotten, but I remembered I was in Egypt. I persuaded two other journalists to join me at a Cairo souk, where we saluted brides, who traditionally marry and parade through town, and smoked shisha pipes. I ate rose-scented rice pudding from a stall and celebrated the sheer joy of being alive. Until I was interrupted by a sudden thump of the heart and Janet’s voice warning me, posthumously, against the folly of eating street food with no shots to protect me from potentially fatal bacteria.
The group flew back to London the next morning, but I stayed one more night and visited the Pyramids, perhaps in an effort to make it seem real. PTSD did not kick in till a few days later, when I was safely back in the gloriously green Sussex countryside, our household exploding with my spouse’s inability to cope with my mood swings. I attended Sally’s and Janet’s funerals, but listening to fellow survivors’ experiences at crisis counseling made the fire all too real. I’d bolted from the room and never completed the course. Months of therapy ensued. For quite some time, I traveled with a full-on Walter White-like smoke hood and ran out of several hotel rooms in a state of panic.
Today, 25 years later, the fire stays with me. Upon checking in at any hotel, I nudge my windows to see if they open and always take note of fire exits. “Mindfulness” may be today’s buzzword, but it roared into my life in Cairo, saving me by keeping me laser focused and thoroughly present. For that I’m grateful. And though that night I jumped for my life, when it comes to swimming pools, I still take the steps.