Hotel Fire from Joe Dunn © 2023.

You might have read articles about how to survive a multi-storey hotel fire or high-rise building fire.


I was staying in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, USA in a hotel 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 that hotel. The plaque had been erected as a memorial on the site of one of the USA 's worst hotel fires in their history. That fire had happened many years previously, but it reminded me of something that I had witnessed on the other side of the world in Thailand in early 1997. Since then we have seen the horror at the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11th 2001 and later a fire at Grenfell Tower in London in June 2017; but the helplessness of people trapped in high-rise buildings is the same.


The following is an extract of what I wrote from Thailand at the time; but it serves as a reminder to those who take safety in those tall buildings for granted.


The ‘President Tower’ in Bangkok had approximately forty floors and was a modern, state-of-the-art, glass clad city building of the type which is common in the 21st Century. The lower levels comprised offices and a shopping centre, whilst the upper levels were a Hotel. It was just a few blocks away from where I was staying in a another hotel. The President Tower was actually built on the site of a former hotel. But it caught fire during re-furbishment, and following an investment of millions of Baht, it 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 who remembers it, in any doubt whatsoever about the danger of a fire in a modern, multi-floor building; nor the need to consider and mentally rehearse an unexpected escape; should it become necessary.


I was woken that morning by the noise of helicopter rotor blades in the sky above the city buildings. That noise was mixed with the wailing of Fire-engine sirens and Police cars 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. Moments before, were anyone to be sitting or sleeping comfortably on the tenth, twentieth or thirtieth floor above; they might understandably have dismissed the City noise as quite 'normal'. It was quiet and peaceful up on those high floors and false fire alarms in hotels are pretty common. In fact, they can be a real nuisance if one is fast asleep and feeling the effects of jet-lag or recovering from a night out.


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, G eorgia, 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, black, choking and poisonous smoke from every floor that had its windows open (or shattered by the intense heat) at the lower levels. Smoke was pouring too, from 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 at the circling helicopters from the smoky roof area of the Tower. The 'copters were were gathering like bees around a hive.Several of them were gently hovering 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 stranded escapees; maybe two or three at a time, after they had fled upwards away from the fire. These poor (or maybe lucky) souls’ ONLY option had been to move 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 smokey 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 having watched a drama like this unfolding, it's necessity is beyond doubt.


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 fails? 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 President 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 President Tower complex in Bangkok was re-opened under a different name nearly three years after this fire. It's now called The Bangkok Intercontinental.