One New Year’s Eve a couple years ago, I woke up at four in the morning to the sound of fire alarms. I was staying in a hostel in Launceston, Tasmania. Cranky, I briefly debated about whether to bother getting up. I cursed the drunken fool who tripped the alarm. But the people in the four other beds in the room started moving, motivating me to do the same. Suddenly we heard the sound of breaking windows and running footsteps from upstairs, along with a kid yelling, “Jump. JUMP!” The guy from the room across from us stepped in and said, “Guys, it’s real. We gotta get out!”
This is real
It sounds strange, but I still didn’t really think anything was wrong. Surely people were overreacting to what would end up being a small incident. Perhaps it was still too early in the morning to think straight, but I’m sometimes reluctant to accept that really bad things can happen to me. I threw on a fleece, jeans and flipflops; walked out the rear exit. Once I cleared the building, I looked up. I could see a faint wisp of smoke at the roof. Two firefighters started heading toward the building with a thick hose. Other than that, there wasn’t much activity, except for a few other confused individuals standing around.
I decided to walk around the block to see if there was anything at the front of the building. As I headed toward the corner to the façade, I saw an orange glow on the front of an ambulance. A crowd was gathering. The full extent of it hit me as I rounded the corner; the entire front of the hostel was ablaze. Flames were coming out the roof. A lone firefighter hung on top of the truck ladder, not able to do much. The entire building was going to be destroyed.
A boy limped past me with a twisted ankle. A couple stood across the street wearing nothing but sheet togas, gathered from their beds. Three stragglers were being encouraged to jump from the second story, mitigating a rather big drop by hanging from the balcony bars. Some people were being loaded into an ambulance.
I felt lucky to have been able to escape unhurt. But I also realized that I had nothing. I was an American woman in Australia with no passport, credit cards, or money. I didn’t even have a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee. Besides the clothes I was wearing, all of my belongings were safely secured in the locker next to my bed. For all I knew, they had disappeared in the fire.
The Red Cross looked after us for the rest of the day. They offered money, trips to purchase clothing, food and counseling. The police came by with lists of people; and everyone was gradually accounted for, with the exception of one young man. Some man didn’t make it out of the building, for whatever reason; rumors had it that he had been drinking the night before, but it was hard to believe that the alarms wouldn’t wake him. It was a tough afternoon. We were further astounded to learn that the blaze was a result of arson. Apparently, the troubled new night manager had started a fire in the storage room, which quickly got out of control, spreading up the stairwell and throughout the upper floors.
Late that afternoon we were taken back to the hostel, which had been rendered an empty brick shell. People’s belongings were placed in the parking area to the rear of the building, while firemen completed their work inside. People rifled through their suitcases, looking for cameras and papers, but almost everything had become globs of melted goo and soot.
I was very fortunate at the end of the day. Not only did I escape alive and unscathed, but I also recovered all of my belongings. I had been given what would ordinarily have been the worst room in the hostel; a concrete cell on a lower level next to the laundry. After the fire, though, this room was one of the few spaces still in tact. I collected my things and moved on in my travels with little more than a heart flutter, and a sad New Year’s Eve.