Written in Winter in South Dakota in Some Random Hotel
It”s 1991 and the Gulf War has just started. The nation is jittery. Our flight to Dallas was the first I’d had in which security was visibly intensified. Those green nightvision videos of high velocity rounds played in our heads as we lay down for sleep on the eleventh floor of the Westin Hotel. I was only 13. I shared a room with my friend Tes and two other dancers. We were a group of twenty or thirty and we’d come to town for a dance convention.
At two a.m., the fire alarm went off. I can still remember the woman’s voice on the loudspeaker, “Attention, Attention.” Followed by instructions, then repeated in French and Spanish. Out our doors we went and Tes and I clutched each other and ran barefoot down 22 flights of stairs along with throngs of people. Barefoot. We came out the stairwell door and clustered in the parking lot. I remember counting 22 emergency vehicles around the hotel. It was cold, but it was only Dallas.
Tonight, I’m in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in early December. All day have been reports of wind chill warnings. The sky is so crystal clear, the stars seeem to be drops of ice flung there and frozen to the black velvet bowl around us It’s -14 degrees outside and nearing -25 with wind chill. And I’m in the stairwell at the back of the hotel on the ground floor, just inside the exit door.
The alarm sounded at 2:08, with a siren that reminded me of the air raid sirens in thoe Gulf War videos and a mans voice, English only, stating “An Emergency has been reported. Please move to the exit doors using the nearest stairwell. Do not use the elevators.” A flashing strobe in my room is the only light until I click on the bedside lamp. First, I move to the room door and put my hand against it. Cool. I put my eye to the peephole. No smoke. No people. I take a moment to smell and listen. Nothing but the opening and closing of doors along the corridor.
I bend down and start grabbing the clothes, socks, shoes, hat, gloes, balaclava, and coat I’ve stashed near the door and I don them. All of them. I take a few steps back into the room to grab the room key, my phone and my Timbuk2 bag that holds my wallet, keys, and tablet. I head out into the corridor where other bewilered guests are walking around, standing at their open doors and looking at each other. I move left, to the stairwell that I already know is closest, and I begin the trek down. This time, it’s only 8 flights. Once I move into the stairwell, the people behind me start to do the same. We encounter other guests from other floors going down and surprisingly, a few people coming up. To my quizzical look they say, “This leads outside so we need our coats.”
It takes every ounce of me not to say, “No shit!” It’s 28 below zero with wind chill at 2 in the morning and you didn’t think it through more than that? You see, ever since that morning in Dallas, terrifying for a 13 year old already on edge about a country at war, I’ve kept at least a pair of shoes next to the bed if I’m sharing the room, next to the door if I’m alone. I usually have clothes laid out and outwear close by if it’s a cold time and place. I have everything I would absolutely need like drivers license, debit card, passport, car keys, and phone in one bag, also at the door.
Tonight, knowing that the biggest threat would be getting stuck outside, i was extra prepared. It’s just the way I am. Once a firefighter, always a firefighter. And sometimes, I’m a bit prescient. It scares me sometimes. I knew, when I checked in tonight, that we may have to evacuate. Now, I often get that feeling and nothing happens, but sometimes, I’m right. So tonight, I had super warm socks, warm shoes, hat, gloves, balaclava and my Arctic Expedition coat next to the door. And I put every single bit of it on. That only takes me about 20 seconds. Once a firefighter, always a firefighter. And I logically figured if there was no immediate visible threat, that I had time for that and only that.
Moving down the stairwell, I’m amazed at the level of disrobe in which some of the guests are. Many in pajama pants or nightgowns with bare legs. Many in socks or slippers. Hardly any with hats or gloves. Even if this is a false alarm, if these people accidentally get locked outside, this is quickly going to turn into a mass casualty event. And a bunch of able bodied people are going to be helpless.
And of course, since the heat in the building is cranked tonight, and I awoke with a splitting headache, in my mind, the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning is very real. Which, in a hotel this large, would truly be a mass casualty event. Eventually, after about an hour in the stairwell, we get the all clear and go back to our rooms. Upon my return, Iay things out again, but this time, I put the key in my jacket pocket. I stuff the gloves and hat in pockets too. I put my socks directly on top of y shoes and I put my Timbuk2 bag right next to everything, closer than it was previously.
I know all this seems like overkill and you’re wondering if I actually go through all that every time I sleep in a hotel. I do. That Gulf War time experience changed me because it scared me. And my career in the fire service changed me, because it scared me. September 11th scared me. I’ve been taught to anticipate and prepare for the worst as a profession. So I do.
Try to picture yourself awakened by that same alarm, but this time, no lights come on. You sit up in bed and the top of your head gets warm. You smell smoke. You hear screaming. Could you actually get out of the room and out the door of the hotel? Could you find your shoes and your coat? Could you find them in the dark? Could you find them crawling on the floor? Could you find your way to the exit if you were blinded?
When you check in, find your closest exit and remember it in turns: “Left out the door, end of the hall, right into the stairs.” Put at least your shoes by the door. If you’re in a cold place put your outerwear where you can get to it quickly and blindly. When you get on a plane, count the rows to the closest exit and the second closest exit. When you sit in a restaurant or a theater or a sporting event, find the closest evacuation route and a backup plan. If you’re in Tornado Alley, know the lowest interior room with no windows in every building you go into. And if you’re in a public place, unforutnately these days, know how you would hide from a shooter or how you would run. Don’t ever feel like a fool for leaving a place because it feels wrong.
When the planes hit the World Trade Center in NY, some of the people on the upper floors who made it out, made it out with absolutely no time to spare. And they went down 180 flights of stairs in the pitch black and heat. Those who dawdled, died. Drill yourself the next time you’re in a hotel and see how quickly you can be out the door. It may save your life. Or, hopefully, it may just give your friends a reason to make fun of you for years to come.
Robin Behl, La Cuentista