French Firemen Rescue a Damsel in Distress: A Daughter’s Love Letter to her Dad
Today a guest post by my friend, Vicky Wilson, a woman whose good cheer has impacted countless people in the many places she’s lived around the world. The letter was written in 2005 and recounts a 1972 Paris hotel fire. (Laur is Vicky’s sister. Jim is her then-boyfriend and future husband. Steve is a brother.)
When Laur first mentioned this project to me, I was thinking, “What I can write?” and almost immediately the Paris fire popped into my head. We have shared a lot of things, but I think that will always be the most intense. I know our versions are slightly different, since they are each told from our own perspective. I figured I will write down mine, and maybe you can write yours, so we can compare.
Remember, that whole trip had so many parts to it. First, you came to St. Andrews to meet Jim and see the town. You helped Jim pack his books in boxes, and the next day you were very stiff from crouching down. Then we went to London and saw the play Habeas Corpus with Alec Guinness. You and Jim walked forever to get to the British Museum, only to find it closing when you arrived. Then we flew to Switzerland to see Steve, and after a drive in the Alps in that tiny car, your neck started acting up and you could barely move the next day. Fortunately, you were able to travel a day later, and we flew to Paris and on the bus ride in from the airport you were pick-pocketed $100. Then we had some lovely days in Paris–sightseeing, eating good food–and the weather was great. And then came the fateful night.
You went out for a walk, and I stayed in the room to pack up some of our stuff. At some point, I noticed a shadow come under the door, and I immediately went to open it (I know now, that is the last thing you are supposed to do) and saw flames at the end of the hall. I slammed the door and went to the window and started shouting for help. It wasn’t long before the smoke came in the room and billowed out the window.
Some people from the other side of the courtyard were watching me, and I remember one started making motions to put something over my mouth and breathe through that. I grabbed my blazer and did. Our windows had a bar across it, and by this time I was crouched on the ledge hanging on to the bar. Thank the dear Lord it held. I am not sure how long I was there. I know the firemen were below, and I was shouting but with so much smoke coming out the window, I am not sure if they knew I was there. I really didn’t know what was going to happen. And it was only when I heard your voice shouting, “Vick are you up there?” that I knew I was going to be saved. Immediately, I relaxed, knowing you were going to take care of things.
A minute or so later, I figured I better take care of things in the room. That’s when I started throwing out our suitcases, shoes, razor, and anything else I could feel in the dark. I put my purse around my neck, and fortunately that had our tickets and passports in it. At this point, I know you first tried to go in the elevator and that had stopped working, a few minutes earlier it was, and you could have been stuck in it. And then I know you went and practically manhandled a French fireman, pointing and telling him I was up there, and that’s when they started to rescue me. First they only had one ladder that went up to the 5th floor or so, and then they had to get a connecting one, and finally two firemen climbed through the window. One put a sling around me, and in the process could feel I didn’t have a bra on and said in a very typical French way, “Ooh la la.” Hearing that made me think maybe this fire wasn’t so dangerous, but it sure seemed it.
I had to climb out the window, go down the ladder and connect with the second one, and since I had the harness on, there was little chance of falling. As I got down to the roof of the first floor I could see some of our belongings had landed there, so I scurried around and threw the stuff down into the courtyard. Then I was reunited with you, and we were put in an ambulance to go to the hospital.
Remember, we got there and they didn’t even try to clean the soot off me? They took blood and I looked down and saw some drops on the floor and was appalled. Then they said I was to stay 10 days to look for signs of smoke inhalation. You looked at me, and said, “Vick, how are you feeling?” I said “fine,” and you took control. You told them we weren’t staying and gave your business card saying they could send any bills there, and we were out of there.
It was now around 11 PM and we weren’t sure where we were and how far from the hotel. And I was shoeless. We walked down a dark, deserted street and there in a doorway was a old pair of men’s wing tips, and you said in a very heartfelt way, “It’s a miracle,” and told me to put them on. I wasn’t keen but realized you were right.
We made our way back to the hotel and at first they didn’t want to let us in, but then realizing who we were, they let us go into the courtyard and pick up our bags and scattered belongings. Then we had to find another hotel to spend the night. I think that the closest one was filled, and the next hotel had a room with a double bed, and we took it. And were so thankful to have it. I remember you and I were so keyed up it took forever to fall asleep.
The next day we were on the plane and so thankful to be going home. I reeked of smoke, and ashes were still coming out of my pores.
Dad, I am so thankful you were there for me that day and saved me. Maybe it would have worked out okay, but I had total faith in you, and you came through. We have had lots of wonderful times together, and I am so glad you are my father. You certainly are an example of absolute endless optimism, cheerfulness, kindness, and love. You have lived life with the motto of the glass always being half full, and it is an example that I try to follow.
I love you,