Wednesday 11 February 2009

I hope the post-fire inquiry is better than this one

On the opening night of the 2000 ski season, there was a fire at the Thredbo Alpine Hotel. I know all about it, because I was there in the hotel.

I did a bit of Googling tonight and found this report from the NSW Fire Brigades into the fire. Whilst I am sure the technical details about how the fire started and spread are correct, the rest of it is fiction. Total fiction.

That is not terribly surprising. When I eventually got home, I looked up the news reports on the fire, and all of them might as well have been reporting on a different event as far as I was concerned.

A bunch of us went down for the opening weekend, and we were staying in rooms near the fire. As was our usual practice back then, we all gathered at one person's house in Sydney on Friday night, went to bed early, and then started driving around 2am - the idea being to reach Thredbo in time for the opening of the ski lifts at 8.30am. We took turns doing the driving, but none of us got much sleep in the car that night.

We then hit the slopes like demons, skiing like madmen all day until we were dropping with fatigue. When the slopes closed, we checked into the hotel, and then started drinking. We had quite a few drinks in the bar that contained the fireplace that was the cause of the fire.

I don't know what time I went to bed, but I do know that I totally crashed out, utterly, utterly exhausted.

I remember dreaming about a ringing bell, and then I heard banging on our door - something like "you have to get out" was yelled, and that was it, followed by the sound of running feet going up the corridor. Dames staggered out of his bed, stuck his head out the door and muttered something about smoke. I was too delirious from fatigue and booze to really comprehend what was going on. I'd been through a few false alarms with fire alarms before, so I figured that if we had to evacuate into the cold, open air for a false alarm, I'd at least dress for it.

Dames and I took a minute to climb into our ski gear and warm boots, a few seconds to grab our keys, wallets and phones, and then we opened the door into a scene from hell.

The corridor was completely full of smoke. It was impossible to see more than a few feet. The alarm was still blasting away, and we couldn't see any signs indicating which way to get out. We kind of worked out that the fire was coming from our left, so we went right.

The Alpine is one of those buildings that meanders this way and that. We ended up getting lost, and took much longer to get out of the hotel than we should have. We went up and down various corridors and stairs, trying to find a way out. Being drunk and disoriented didn't help. I think we walked straight past a couple of fire exits.

We eventually staggered outside and found the evacuation point.

The hotel became smoke logged and one hundred and forty guests were successfully evacuated from the structure. On-duty hotel staff assisted by other staff who returned to duty (on hearing alarms or sirens) ensured that the practiced evacuation procedures of the hotel were fully implemented.

That is crap. There was no "practiced evacuation". Talking to staff afterwards, we found that many had only started work that week, and they'd had no fire training. They were as much in the dark as we were. Confusion was the order of the day. The staff were well meaning, but befuddled and leaderless.

Once outside the hotel, evacuated guests were confronted with sub-zero temperatures and snow on the ground. They were eventually marshalled into indoor areas where refuge from the cold outdoor temperatures could be provided. Accounting for the guests and providing refuge from the extreme climatic conditions created some challenges and resulting from a debriefing after the fire, hotel management revised evacuation plans including a full review of marshalling areas.

Dames and me were the only two not in pyjamas. Some people had slippers on, but others were barefoot - and it was extremely cold. I was warm and dry and comfortable, but 138 other guests were miserable. What happened is that some guests simply walked off and knocked on the doors of apartments where they had friends staying, and they crashed the night with them.

By the time the Police arrived and took control and did a headcount, they found that instead of having 140 guests (as per the manifest), they had about 40. The first thing the Fire Brigade had to do was axe down every door in the hotel to ensure there was no one left inside. It took the Police until about 9am to account for everyone.

There is a timeline on page 6 worth looking at. The "fire brigade" that arrived 10 minutes after the alarm went off was the local volunteer brigade, which consisted of a drunken chef in a ute with a small fire pump on the back - something suitable for small bush fires, but not a multi storey hotel fire.

There were two people taken to hospital (one staff member and one security officer) as a result of smoke inhalation. Initially, occupants were marshalled outside but this strategy was revised due to the cold weather and they were moved to an area inside the structure. There were some negative comments from guests regarding the process of relocation from the original marshalling area as there was reportedly some migration back through the lower level and through light smoke.

I probably should have gone to hospital as well. Being the last person out of the place, I inhaled a hell of a lot of smoke. I inhaled even more when the staff marched us through the hotel, which was on fire, to another location on the other side of the hotel. It was surreal being walked through a lobby full of smoke, where there were firemen walking around in breathing apparatus. A few gave us very odd looks as we stepped over their hoses.

Further staff reports indicate ‘disoriented people’ not following evacuation signs even though some people were quite close to nominated exits. In part this may have been due to smoke coming from the fire room located next to an exit on level three. More discussion is contained in the section titled ‘basic human behaviour in fire data’.

We were disoriented because we were pissed as parrots and tired as hell. A lot of Schnapps was imbibed that night.

In my opinion, this report is a snow job. It is a typical, modern, politically correct document designed to offend no one. It is polite. There are no barbed comments. The shambolic, diabolical nature of the evacuation and follow up is not discussed. The fact that fire trucks could not get close enough to the hotel to effectively fight the fire is not discussed - especially galling in that they could not get close because guests had double parked in the driveway, and they'd all left their keys in their rooms, so they couldn't move their cars. Dames was the only guest who walked out with his car keys - but his car didn't need to be moved. Until the Police took over, the evacuation and management of guests was chaos personified. The staff were utterly clueless.

It also appeared that the trucks that attended were old and underpowered for the terrain that they had to tackle. On the way home in the morning, we passed one struggling up an incline outside of Jindabyne. It's no wonder they took so long to arrive from Cooma and Jindabyne - and no mention is made in the report of how long it took those trucks to arrive, only the distance they had to cover.

I didn't see any staff trying to fight the fire, but then again, I was hammered.

I hope that the Royal Commission into the Victorian fires does not go down this path. I really hope that all those people didn't die for this sort of soft-soap rubbish to be produced in their memory. If a lot of people are not offended and upset by the findings of the report, then it won't be worth the paper it is printed on.

I'm happy to tell you that I fucked up big time. Instead of getting dressed, which took time, I should have split as soon as our door was banged on. Sure, standing around in the snow is no fun, but it beats collapsing from smoke inhalation in a corridor and dying. We were bloody lucky to get out in one piece, and I know that. The difference between life and death can be seconds, and we used up some of those precious seconds through bad choices.

I was the only evacuee to get any sleep that night. We were eventually dossed down by the Police in the local community centre. We were given a blanket each, and as there were no beds, we had to sleep on the carpet.

After 7 years in the infantry, sleeping in some of the most horrible conditions nature can throw at you, I had no problems conking out in about 15 seconds flat. Trouble is, all the smoke had really aggravated my propensity to snore, and I snored so loudly, the other 139 guests got not a single wink of sleep between them. We were fed a free breakfast at a restaurant in the morning, and I heard many a bleary-eyed person complain about that "bloody snorer".

He he.

As far as I am concerned, two good things came out of the hotel fire.

I never trusted the media again. The reports on the fire were even more of a fantasy than this Fire Brigade report.

I always check the fire exits now whenever I check into a hotel. I always watch the safety briefings when I get on a plane. I'm never going through that sort of crap again.

1 comment:

Margo's Maid said...

A fine yarn BOAB. The 2008 Victorian bushfire inquiry was riddled with pussyfooting of this nature. Everyone was oh so careful not to offend, especially govt departments.