• Of Global Interest


Diary of a Trekker VI: The Fire

The Last Adventure

March 17, 2001

I can’t sleep. The whole building smells of smoke. I sit here on my hotel bed. My shoes are on. I am dressed. I can’t think to go to sleep. It’s 12:45 AM. My heart is racing to absorb the reality that has just passed. My headlamp around my neck lights this paper. If the electricity were on, I think I’d see smoke in the room. Just moments ago I saw a beam of smoke cast in the light of another guest’s flashlight out in the hall.

Without this headlamp the world is black. Perhaps I shouldn’t write and instead conserve batteries. No, I refuse to sit in the dark. The evening began with a pleasant dinner at the Third Eye Restaurant with Russ and Megan, my second two trekkers. We were walking back to the hotel at about 10:00 PM, a little sad to find the ice cream shop was closed.

My headlight is dimming!

Just in time! I ran downstairs to the front desk and they gave me a candle which is now lit, stuck to the bottom of a blue glass ashtray. Its single flame innocently lights the room and this pen. The fire now stands still. Odd to have a piece of such potential torment right here next to me.

I think about what the Buddhists believe. The flame of the butter-lamp is the light of wisdom which dispels stupidity, ignorance and suffering. I witnessed something else tonight. A flame gone mad, in rage and destruction, a frantic signal of distress from earth to the gods.

When Russ, Megan and I approached the hotel this evening we found the red blinking lights of police cars and fire trucks blocking the street next to the hotel. A large crowd was gathered at the scene. We saw the smoke that filled the sky and fire-truck water ran through the gutter. A serious situation was blazing only two doors down. We asked at our hotel. A young man working the night shift began to explain, “The fire started in the shop. No one was there. Maybe incense. Now it’s big.”

I suggested climbing to the sixth floor roof for a bird’s eye view. Megan, Russ and I headed up the tiled staircase. Immediately at the rooftop terrace door I could see the problem. “Oh my God,” were my words.

Flames as big as elephants roared into the night sky. We were at least fifty feet from intense heat and more than fifty feet off the ground. The usually vivid stars were now totally blurred by billowing smoke. Our building was far too close. Sparks drifted up, floated, and disappeared in the air. Others just as easily could land somewhere. We looked over the wall.

Three fire trucks flashed in the street below where now a huge crowd gathered. The people clogged the passage of cars, and the police were busy trying to control the mess. The fire was completely out of control. The situation seemed hopeless. Only the water from an Olympic sized swimming pool, dumped by helicopter might possibly make a dent in the horror. Would the neighboring hotels and houses be next? Such a fire needs tons and tons of water — fast.

Then the building popped. The explosion was enough warning. We headed for the door — the stairs. Instinct spoke, “We better get out!” Panic mode set into my skeleton, not a feeling I have often felt. At this point the electricity in the building was out. The stairwell was black, the slick, cold staircase blacker. Each of us felt for the railing. Totally blind with eyes wide open, we wound our way down and down as slowly as children afraid in the dark.

The movement of flashlights on the ground floor signaled that our rooms were one floor up. We went into the dark hallway feeling the walls, feeling for the doorways, the door knobs and the big metal keys. Mine was hidden in darkness in my backpack.

Once inside my room, I went right to my headlight and took two of my bags leaving most of my things behind. Megan and Russ, in the room around the corner, also grabbed what they could.

Hotel employees were on each floor banging on doors, walking up guests, yelling for everyone to evacuate. “Leave your things in the lobby,” one man instructed.

With the guidance of our headlamps we went down and left our big bags in the lobby. On the street the crowd now filled the pavement and the entire narrow intersection nearby. Police officers pushed the gawkers back. We moved with the flow along the shop facades. Each store was covered with metal garage-type gates, all closed for the night. What a helpless feeling it was, sitting, standing, sitting, standing on the shop steps that line the street.

My candle is half gone.

Many tourists were in the crowd carrying their trekking backpacks and other luggage. Why hadn’t we brought our bags out with us? Instead they were at a distance in the lobby. I thought about the video camera I left on the bed in my room.

Megan, Russ and I discussed the possibilities of the next twelve hours. Should we go to another hotel? Would the firemen ever have it out? The fire trucks looked like they were built in the 1950s. We pondered the fact that the last fire hydrant any of us had seen was somewhere in America.

Russ went to check on the situation and reported. Many hotel guests were waiting in the lobby with their luggage. We decided to join them, in a better position to salvage our belongings if things got worse.

Inside, a hotel employee passed out candles which he stuck with wax directly to the wooden coffee tables and window sills. About 15-20 tourists from all over the world sat in the lobby chairs conversing in every language. In the dim glimmer of firelight, I studied the shape and intimate space of the room. The painted detail at the edges of the ceiling wrapped around the thick rafters and columns: a Tibetan design.

A hotel employee said the burning building was a trekking shop and I quickly remembered which one. It was big compared to most other shops in Kathmandu. This one was full of down jackets, fleece pullovers, tents and flammable items like camping stoves, propane cylinders and oxygen tanks. The third and fourth floors were storage which explained the explosion we saw from the roof.

Thinking back, I am so amazed to be sitting right here right now. The scene is calm. I have never been so close to such a monster. All night sirens were screaming back and forth across town. Now they’ve gone to sleep. How did the men put it out? I want to shake their hands. I went to the roof just now to check. The smoke is fading, nearly gone. A while ago it was in every small corner, in every space, all around!

How ironic to be able to sit here so peacefully — with this candle! I’ll sleep in my clothes — if I can sleep at all. It’s 2:30 AM.

The candle has less than an inch to go.

How fragile life is. I feel like hugging someone. I feel an overwhelming sense of love. I hope no one was hurt.

Thank God, no one was hurt.

The next day I studied the remains. The narrow concrete building of four or five stories was now totally gutted, black and burned through all the windows. Charcoal remains of sleeping bags and backpacks pushed through the broken glass on the third floor. Broken bits of the windows were spread evenly, covering the street.

That sunny morning a crowd of about 50 stood gazing at the aftermath with me. The sound of draining fire-hose water trickled down to the street from two pipes on the second and third floors. I remembered the firemen the night before, with every muscle flexed, dragging large and heavy hoses.

After reading the paper, I learned there were FOUR big fires in Kathmandu at the same time. One downtown in a shopping center was much bigger than this one. Also eight homes were burned the night before in a village in the far west. Two children and many animals had died there. The Kathmandu fires were all in modern buildings, all businesses, and occurred at roughly the same time, 9:00 PM. Luckily, no one was hurt.

A mystery. Some theories suggest the cause was the dry season. “There are always fires at this time of year.” Others say it was probably an electrical short or they could have been accidents. A few people whispered it was a political group in need of attention.

Who knows. I’ll keep reading the paper.

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