In the middle of a smoke-filled stairway on that fateful January 17th morning, my mind was racing through all of the memories in my past life that I could possibly think of. Had it come to this? Is this where my life would end? Oh my God, I really could die here. Yet, I kept breathing through the lining of my coat and running down the stairs with my girlfriend and another couple who were with us, in a joint effort to stay alive.
I had come to Toronto, Ontario to do some cross-country skiing, on a weekend in January. Actually, I had come to take lessons on cross-country skiing, which surprised me, since I usually don't like cold weather sports. But it was something I hadn't done and I always liked a new challenge. Our group had been booked on the seventh floor of the Inn On The Park Towers building of the Four Seasons Hotel. We had arrived in Toronto late Friday afternoon, had a nice dinner, and had socialized for a few hours before an early bedtime to prepare for our first skiing lesson at 8:00 the next morning.
At about two o'clock in the morning of January 17th, we were awakened by noise outside of our room, which upon investigation, turned out to be people scurrying about rather anxiously asking what, if anything, was happening. In the distance, one could hear the sound of an elevator trouble bell ringing ever so faintly and one could smell the beginning of a strange aroma that would turn out to be horrifying smoke.
"Is there really a fire? Does anyone know? Should we leave the hotel?" Everyone was asking questions, but no one knew. We had gone out into the hallway where other people had gathered. Several had called the main hotel desk and were told not to worry. Yet, worry didn't disappear with the increasing amount of smoke appearing in the hallway and getting thicker by the second. We went back into our hotel room and tried to call the information desk ourselves, but the line was infuriatingly busy, busy, busy. I was getting nervous and just wanted to talk to someone who could tell us what to do. But that didn't happen. So my girlfriend and I grabbed our purses and coats and decided to leave by way of the stairwell. I remembered that you should never take an elevator in a fire.
By the time we reached the hallway a second time, everyone had disappeared. We didn't know where they had gone -- it all happened so fast. I pushed my friend toward a door and told her to knock on it and I did the same on another door. We wanted more people awakened because the smoke was getting thicker so fast and there still hadn't been any fire alarm. We managed to awaken one couple, who thought we had better stick together and head down the stairs fast.
We started running down the stairwell so fast that I kept stumbling and hitting my ankles, but speed was important. We had put my girlfriend in the middle since she was already showing signs or being disoriented. Our leader's wife was behind me and was very nervous, crying and on the verge of panic. Then somewhere, just below the fourth floor, the young wife went into complete hysteria right behind me. She stopped, frozen solid, would not budge and started to scream "We're all going to die; we're all going to die."
My reaction was as swift as it was direct. I felt anger rise up in me that I didn't even know existed. How dare she say that we were all going to die; I wasn't ready yet. Then, someone yelled for me to slap her and I did, but not hard enough for she continued to scream wildly. I slapped her again, real hard across the face and the shock of the hit stopped her. I then grabbed her arm, gave her a strong pull and she began moving again. Just about this time our leader said, "We have to turn around; the smoke is coming up too fast and too thick. We have to turn back."
That is the only time I remember feeling the strong possibility that my life would end. Up until then, I think that everything was happening so fast for me, that I hadn't had time to think. So as we turned around my thoughts became very clear to me. "I really could die here. This could be where my life ends, on a stairway in a strange city. Oh God, is it time for me?"
When we turned around in the stairwell, I found that I was now the leader. I found the stairway door to the 4th floor open and I was the first one to go out into the hallway. It was just as full of smoke as the stairwell. Breathing was now very difficult and my eyes could barely see though the tears and stinging that the thickening smoke had caused.
As I looked both ways, I had no idea what to do. Then I saw this man, standing in the center of the hallway about twenty yards in front of me. He was wearing a dark suit and was looking at a gold pocket watch that he had taken out of a vest pocket. As soon as he saw us, he said in a calm and peaceful voice that had no panic or excitement in it, "Come this way folks, I think you can still make it down this other stairway. Take your coats off, then take a deep breath and wrap your coat around your head real tight. Head down as fast as you can. You'll be alright."
Part of this was being said as we ran past the man. My eyes were burning so much, I wonder if I could have found the other stairwell on my own. I remember nothing about running down those last four flights until I felt the cold air around my ankles. Then I knew that we had reached the first floor and at that very moment the firemen were beginning to come up the stairway and they helped us outside and gave us oxygen. We turned to look for the man who had helped us. He should have been right behind us. He had really saved us and we wanted to thank him, but he was nowhere to be found.
Everyone was ushered into two huge rooms, so that the firemen could begin to account for everyone. I searched and searched for this man and I never found him. My fears were that he had become one of the victims. When the police and firemen questioned us, I began to realize the fantastic occurrence of the situation. When the officer repeated my story back to me, he questioned me quite articulately about this 'lost' man.
"You mean to tell me," repeated the officer, "that this man was just standing in the middle of this smoke-filled hallway, not running and trying to escape, not particularly excited or scared, just standing there calmly, giving you instructions as to what to do?"
"That's right," I said, "he was just standing there, looking at his pocket watch, like he was waiting for a certain time and then he proceeded to tell us what to do."
"Just standing there, waiting," the officer repeated in disbelief.
"Yes, that's true . I really did see him and he did direct me to the other stairway that was still usable." I answered hoping that they weren't thinking that I had hallucinated. I found out at this time that only one other person in our group that had seen this man was the husband. And that seemed strange to me. My girlfriend didn't see him, and neither had the young wife.
"Did you touch this man? When you passed him, do you remember touching him?" asked the fireman.
"No, I don't think so. I'm not sure; it all happened so fast. We passed real close to him, but I'm not sure." I wondered why that was even important.
Weeks later, while looking in the offical account of the fire that the Four Seasons Hotel had sent me, I realized that this 'lost' man had not been one of the victims. I personally couldn't figure out why he wasn't right behind us or how he got out. Later, a friend from Toronto sent me a newpaper article about the fire and it stated our story of the man on the 4th floor and then it was mentioned that another group of people on the 16th floor had seen a man of the same description and he had helped them escape. They described him dressed in the same way, dark suit with a gold pocket watch and he was calm and serene, not excited or nervous as he gave instructions to them. When they were safe, the man just sort of disappeared and they never saw him again either. The newspaper went on to say that it was probably an angel from heaven who had been sent down to save people. I don't know; maybe he was.
I'll probably never know for sure in this life who that man was, but I believe in angels, and as sure as I have put these words to paper, I know that there are no coincidences in life. I'm painfully conscious of eight people who became victims of that hotel fire on the 4th floor stairwell that I left. Now I have to wonder why I was saved.