The worst of times: I still feel I should have saved lives: Rosalind Miles talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In 1990, I went with a party of British women writers to Egypt. We met at Heathrow, 23 of us. There was a wonderful holiday spirit, it was going to be the trip of a lifetime, - going on barges down the Nile, meeting Egyptian royalty. So much had been planned.

We arrived in Cairo about 10 o'clock at night, at the Sheraton Airport Hotel. A 5am flight had been scheduled to Luxor the next day, where we were going to see the pyramids, so I went straight up to my room to sleep - and woke up a few hours later because I could hear strange noises. As I opened my eyes, I could see this brilliant orange glow all round the window, a really weird colour, it looked like no colour in nature. I jumped out of bed and drew the curtains, and the entire window was a mass of flames.

I was completely calm. I drew the curtains again, jumped into my shoes, and grabbed my coat and handbag. This line came into my head, I don't know from where, 'it's cold at night in the desert . . .'

It was an absolutely huge hotel, and the corridors seemed a thousand metres long. The corridor outside my room was full of smoke, and people were running to and fro. I saw somebody running by me, wearing a long gown, I don't know to this day whether it was a man or woman, but I just followed this person. We went left and right, and suddenly we were on a flight of concrete stairs, and we ran down and down and down. By this time there were a lot of people following us, but the strange thing was everyone was running in complete silence, like a herd of animals, and we seemed to be operating by herd instinct.

We ran right down to the basement, where we were confronted by flames and smoke coming towards us. So, as one, we wheeled around, and ran back again the way we had come.

We ran and ran until finally we came upon this delivery bay, and suddenly were out in the open air. And then we could see that the whole hotel was on fire, and that made a terrible roaring noise, and there were people howling and screaming, people in torment. Because it was an airport hotel, there were French, Germans, Dutch, all crying out in different languages, it was an absolute Babel.

It was like a battle front, there were people lying on the ground injured, and others wandering around dazed or in pain.

The fire made the night as bright as day, it was as if the hotel had been illuminated with floodlights, and we could see some people inside their rooms bashing on the windows, but some of the windows didn't open . . .

The Egyptians were doing their best, but their emergency services simply weren't up to it. For instance, when the fire engines finally came, their ladders wouldn't go beyond the second floor. There were people trapped on the roof, and there were military helicopters in a compound not a mile away, but they couldn't get authority to release them.

I met one of the women from our party, and I said we must get everybody together. We circled the hotel at least a dozen times, finding and gathering people.

Many of our group were seriously injured with smoke inhalation; the smoke and the hot air burns the lungs, and they were choking and gasping. They looked awful, as if they were going to die. It was terrible seeing these women who had been so poised and happy just a few hours ago, now dragged down, practically to the point of death. But they were all incredibly brave, nobody was complaining, it was true British stiff upper lip.

Towards dawn, the majority of our party was taken off to the other Sheraton hotel in Cairo to rest and recover. But three of our women were missing, and I said to the woman who had arranged the whole trip that we should go around the hospitals and look for them, because they didn't speak Arabic, and I thought they'd be terrified on their own.

That was another kind of hell, because of course many people had been injured and killed, and the hospitals were completely unable to cope. There were people lying in corridors with broken arms and legs, choking with smoke. We saw one English woman in her sixties who had jumped from the fourth floor and broken practically every bone in her body. It was a miracle she was still alive, but she was in terrible agony.

We didn't find the missing women that night.

As a final port of call we went to the British Embassy to see what they could do to help. For one thing, nearly everyone had lost their passports and visas in the fire. But there was very little the Embassy could do, in fact it was pathetic how little they could do. They regarded our plight as no more than a bureaucratic hiccup.

When we rejoined the rest of our party, they were still terribly shocked, weeping hopelessly, shivering and shaking. Everybody was frozen, and they were all huddled in blankets. The hotel had made rooms available to us, but nobody wanted to be on their own.

When the firemen finally got into the burnt hotel, they found the bodies of the women from our party, so we knew before we left Egypt that they had died.

Jackie was 57, Janet was 37, and Sally was 27. They'd all got children.

It was very difficult to say goodbye at the airport, and we all met up again a few days later in London. We had a dinner, and the husbands of the women who died came along.

For a long while, I found I couldn't stop thinking about the women who had died, it seemed so pitiful, and I kept thinking about their children. I started to have flashbacks, too: something would suddenly come into my mind unbidden, and then I would feel as if I was back there again. I often had nightmares.

We formed the Cairo Fire Children's fund to raise money for the children of the women who died; I was made chairperson.

Everyone had the most terrible problems afterwards. Because I was older than most of the group, I was unofficial agony aunt, and many of the girls rang me up. They had problems in their jobs, numerous relationships broke up.

It was as if all the aspects of our lives had been thrown in a pot, jumbled up, and came out differently. Everybody was very much changed by the fire.

I think it's made me stronger, calmer, and it's given me a longer view on everything. I have become a lot more philosophical in my attitude to life, and I have found some comfort in the kind of fatalism that exists in the Arab world: for you, it was not written.

But the Western side of me anguishes over that, because how did I escape? I have had a huge dose of the guilt of the survivor, and feel I should have done more to try to save their lives.

I shall feel that until I die. I know that that's irrational, but I can't argue myself out of it.

After four years it does get better, you do heal, but the other evening, there was an absolutely glorious sunset, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of red through the trees, and I immediately thought, 'Fire . . . .'

That sort of thing shakes you for a second or two.

But I was one of the lucky ones because I got away without any physical injury, and mentally I'm very strong and in control of my life, and very fortunate in my family. I don't know why I was one of the lucky ones, though, and that bothers me, I can't feel that I deserved it more than anybody else.

Rosalind Miles's new book, 'The Children We Deserve', is published by Harper Collins at pounds 16.99.

(Photograph omitted)