Hotel  Fire from Joe Dunn

Many people of my vintage will have read articles in the past about how to survive a hotel fire; however those of you who are a bit younger may not have seen these articles.


I was staying at a hotel in downtown Atlanta in a room on the forty-third floor in the late 1990's. Whilst out and about during my stay I came across a plaque close to my hotel. The plaque had been erected as a memorial on the site of one of the USA’s worst hotel fires in their history to date. The fire had happened many years ago, but it reminded me of something which I had watched not that long before on the other side of the world. Of course we have witnessed the horror in New York on September 11th 2001 since then; but the helplessness of people trapped in high-rise buildings is the same.


The following is an extract of what I wrote at the time; but maybe it will serve as a reminder to those who take those tall buildings for granted.


The ‘President Tower’ in Bangkok had approximately forty floors and was an ultra-modern, state-of–the-art glass clad building of the type which is so familiar to many of us who travel for a living. The lower levels comprised offices and a shopping centre and the upper levels were a hotel. It was just a few blocks away from where I was staying in a hotel in Bangkok and was built on the site of a former hotel. Following millions of pounds worth of investment, the ‘President Tower’ was to have had a ‘grand’ opening in the Spring of 1997.


The news from Bangkok on Sunday, 23rd February 1997 did not leave any one of us who remember it in any doubt whatsoever about the danger of a fire in a modern, multi-floor city-centre hotel; nor the need to consider its implications and mentally rehearse what such an occurrence could mean, were any one of us to be involved in this type incident, either when visiting on business or on holiday.


I was woken that morning to the clatter of helicopter rotor blades from high in the sky above the city buildings, mixed with wailing fire sirens from the busy streets far below. The panoramic view from my room on the twenty-sixth floor of the Amari Watergate hotel in Phetchaburi Road was of an inferno of unimaginable intensity in the President Tower 's lower floors, just a few blocks away. Whatever the cause, the fire had apparently started on about the fifth or sixth floor during mid morning.  Moments before, were anyone to be sitting or sleeping comfortably on the tenth, twentieth or even the thirtieth floor or above; they might understandably have dismissed any fire alarm as false. It was quiet and peaceful up there and false fire alarms in hotels are quite common. They can be a real nuisance if one is fast asleep and maybe feeling the effects of jet-lag.


Within a period of only a few minutes, the fire had spread from one small area on one floor of the ‘ President Tower ' to totally engulf five other floors above it. It was even a big enough event to come to the attention of the CNN TV News Desk many thousands of miles away in Atlanta , Georgia in the USA as they beamed the story across the world. The news bulletin portrayed a solid wall of impenetrable fire and smoke raging within the colossus.  In less than an hour, the building became like a chimney of thick, gushing, black, choking and poisonous smoke from every floor which had its windows open or shattered by the intense heat at the lower levels. Smoke was also pouring, from what was presumably the air conditioning exhaust area on the top of the roof hundreds of feet above the city. Smoke was also billowing continuously around the outside of the building.


  I saw people waving frantically from the smoky roof area of the tower at the circling helicopters which were gathering like bees around a hive.  There were several of these machines busily revolving around the upper levels of the building in quite an orderly fashion in the hazy morning sunshine. Thank heavens is was not night time for each helicopter in turn had to approach the roof area through the billowing smoke to pluck off the stranded captives maybe two or three at a time; for they had fled upwards from the fire. These poor (or maybe lucky) souls’ ONLY option had been to walk or run upwards; not down towards the burning lower floors.  Sometimes helicopters would land those rescued on the roof of Bangkok's nearby World Trade Centre (now renamed The Central World Plaza) and sometimes they sped off towards one of the local hospitals. Their pilots kept returning to the roof until no-one else came out. 


It may seem to be a pretty tedious routine to check out the location of the fire fighting facilities and escape routes when checking into a hotel after a long flight; but when you watch a drama like this unfolding in front of you, it suddenly becomes very relevant and is certainly food for thought.


I reflected as I watched the fire develop and the stranded people in their helplessness. Should they jump ? Some did; and died. Should they chance the use of a high speed lift before electrical power failed ? Absolutely NOT. Other questions are less easy to answer and there is no correct solution.  Should they have run down or walked up the emergency stairs, assuming that they could find the stairs in the dense smoke ?  Should they have stayed put in their rooms in the hope of a later rescue ?  Should they break their window glass to get more ventilation and risk showering those below who were trying to fight the fire with shards of deadly glass ? I don’t think so. Every window which happened to be open in the multi-story building was ‘drawing’ copious amounts of thick black smoke from the guts of the dying building and exhausting it through the open windows to the atmosphere.  Should they have sealed their rooms with wet towels or blankets around the door and filled up the bath with water to cool down later when the heat became intolerable ? Should they somehow block up their personal air-conditioning grilles to prevent choking to death ?  Not much of an option, but possibly the best one because there are no guarantees of a rescue before the fire comes up to meet you !


The air conditioning system ducting was, I believe, filled with smoke at all levels.  The main fans would have failed long before as they shorted out with the fire or water from the automatic sprinkler system. If the sprinkler system was operative within the tower, it may have eventually put out the fire, but it could never have stopped the smoke quickly enough to save life.  It was a stroke of luck that the fire brigade could just reach the burning levels with their hoses on high-lift cranes brought to the street below.  Had the blaze been at a higher level who knows what would have happened.  You cannot extinguish a furnace with a watering can !


Only a few elements are very certain about this particular type of tragedy. You are almost totally on your own in the scenario; to make your own judgments using your wits and your own reactions. You have no time to waste if you are going to get yourself out and alert your colleagues; before that option is quickly lost.


Following extensive repairs, the hotel tower complex was re-opened under a different name nearly three years later. That hotel building is now called The Bangkok Intercontinental.