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The Hostel Fire Holiday
By Helen Georgia Stoddard
Editor's Note: The writer was one of the survivors of this April 2013 hostel fire in Inverness, Scotland.
We played the role of idiot, fresh into adulthood while travelers on holiday. We were seven French boys, one English boy, one Greek boy, and two Americans, including myself. It was our first night on our four-day, three-night road trip up to various parts of the Scottish Highlands, which are so much ranted and raved about. If you aren’t from Scotland or haven’t visited, you probably think that Scotland is just filled with crags and castles and kilts and drunkards necking whisky bottles every night of the week—well, you’re half-right. So here we were, the ten of us, squeezed into two hire cars, with three of us unable to speak a lick of French, while the other seven barely spoke English. Before the road trip, please keep in mind we went to a Cadbury’s bakery outlet and stocked up on six kilos of biscuits—these biscuits will come back later on in the story.
Our first destination was Stirling, and then St. Andrews, where we spent a couple hours wandering about the beach, where the sea breeze ripped through with cold gusts, and the tidal pools were filled with shells but hardly a live creative. We stopped in Stonehaven to lie on the cliffs several hundred feet up from the rough ocean waters to admire Donan Castle and the natural cave underneath the Castle grounds, surrounded by steep downhill slopes which took us to sea level. Our final stop, just in time for nightfall, and our first sleep of the trip, was in Inverness. Our following day plan was to, of course, like all tourists catching a glimpse of the Highlands, go try and spot the famed Loch Ness monster, Nessie. We never got the chance to scope her sweet little self out, because we were interrupted by an event we never imagined would happen to us.
Let me shift to the present because I still feel in the moment:
We get to Eastgate Hostel in Inverness around 9 in the evening, and we’re all worn out and fork over our £13 a piece to the owners, who’ve devious grins plastered on their mouths. Four of us go to the seedy Chinese take-away next door and I order sesame chicken that doesn’t even look like sesame chicken. After dinner, we all head back to the hostel and the French have already got their mini hookah out and one of them is parading around in a bright green mankini. (Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Don’t put it past the French.) So here we are, smoking hookah and being loud and ridiculous, some sipping on Strongbow cider or Tennants—all until another French guest at the hostel comes in to complain for us to shut the hell up because we’re being too loud. Not me, of course, I'm brushing my teeth.
It is half five in the morning, and we all wake up to the smell of a heavy, sweet odor. More than half asleep, the first thing I ask our room is, “What the fuck is that smell?” to which there is little to no reply, except for looks of concern. I turn over and put the covers back over my head, convinced that maybe the Frenchies left the hookah coal burning and that’s where the smell's coming from. I am also convinced that we will set off the fire alarm, due to the smoke, and will then get in big trouble with the hostel owners, will be prosecuted by police, and they will drug test us all, assuming we were smoking pot. These thoughts are farfetched, I know, but when you’re more than half asleep on holiday and are woken up by now blaring smoke alarms, wailing in your ears, making you get up and out of your bunk, and putting you in a frenzy of whether to pack up your stuff or not pack up your stuff—well, then you’ll understand.
The alarms have maybe been going off for two minutes, and most of my friends are out of the hostel. I jump out of bed, and unsure of what to do first, I slip off my thermal pants, put on my jeans with my flat key, and hastily pack all my belongings into this army rucksack. Unable to fasten the belts, due to anxiety starting to settle in, I desperately ask my final friend in the room whether I should leave my stuff or take it, and he says, “Just leave it!” That was the last time I would see my cameras, some of my favorite jumpers, my cashmere scarf I had bought while in Scotland (and those things are not cheap!), and a couple other, smaller personal belongings, including a bathrobe that my mother had brought with her from her home country, El Salvador, before she left for good in the 1980s.
As soon as I leave Room 10, 2nd floor, a firefighter yells at me in his thick Scottish lilt, “GET OUT! GET OUT!” and I see a long black snake of a fire hose racing up the stairs to the top floor of the hostel and I run down, tripping over the filthy beast. It's when I'm outside reunited with my friends, amongst a crowd of what I would learn later to be 54 of us, that I see an actual fire on the top floor. However, we all still have the naïve mindset that we would retrieve our belongings immediately after the fire's put out.
Well, we are wrong. We are wrong in thinking that the fire will be put out in a matter of minutes. We are wrong in thinking that we won't be standing outside for hours before being sent to the shopping mall across the street for shelter from the extreme cold, and later taken to an evacuation shelter. We are wrong in thinking that we won’t be questioned by police about where we were, what we saw, and what we smelled that morning. We are wrong in thinking that we won't all be treated like possible suspects. We are wrong in thinking that we won’t be in said evacuation shelter, which was actually a theatre house, for seven, eight hours.
In those seven or eight hours, the Inverness Red Cross, feeds us finger sandwiches and lots of tea. We play cards, while a German boy plays "Comptine d'un autre été: L'Après-midi" from the French film, Amélie, on a piano sitting there in the theatre. Some of the victims from the fire are given accommodation in nearby hostels, some are given train tickets home, but we are eager to continue our road trip, despite losing half of our belongings, with most of us now broke, due to credit cards and monies left up in Room 10.
After being told we may get our personal belongings back in three to five days, we are a bit dismayed, but once being told a couple hours later that the damage was worse than thought previously, and that they feared the top floor would cave into the third floor and therefore firefighters can’t be let in to retrieve our personal belongings—well, that’s when I call my parents back in the states, pacing back and forth behind the theatre stage curtain, a bit frazzled. I’m a photography student in Richmond, Virginia, and here I am on exchange in Edinburgh, Scotland, on holiday up in the Highlands, and they don’t know if or when I would get my belongings back, which included all of my camera equipment. That was hard to hear.
The rest of the road trip is a story of survival, interlaced with some of the most spectacular views I have seen at twenty-one years of age. We stay positive, but we're all still shaken. We rely on the ones who have money to pay for us until we can get back on our feet. Those Cadbury biscuits mentioned earlier—well, they become survival food when we have nothing else to eat. We have something around three kilos by the end of our road trip, so the biscuits continue to be survival food once we return to Edinburgh, where my university is. But before we returned to Edinburgh, we dipped in Loch Ness's frigid waters, witness a heather fire on our way to the Isle of Skye, stay in the loveliest little hostel in the Isle of Skye, and have one funky last night at a hostel in Fort William. It was a trip that started with a hostel fire and ended in fun feathered with hope.
And even now, over a month after I've returned to the United States, I still don't have my belongings from the hostel fire.