Backdraft

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Backdraft

Dolomites, Italy (2015)

I’ll never forget standing in the street of an Italian mountain town in -15C, wrapped in a refugee blanket and gazing up at the raging inferno that had engulfed the top of my hotel. As I watched the giant flames leap into the night sky, the one image that kept haunting my mind was the photo that I am now sharing, from a sunrise outing six days earlier.

I had been traveling through the Dolomites with my good friends Ted Gore and Rob Lafreniere, and one of the most memorable moments of our trip was catching this lovely, windy sunrise at Cinque Torri. It was an incredibly invigorating experience for us, trying to remain upright on our snowshoes while battling gale-force gusts in an effort to capture the spectacle of streaming, swirling, airborne snow. We endured some pretty extreme conditions, and I was quite excited about having this shot in the bag. Six days later, as fire consumed my hotel from the top down, I slowly came to terms with the idea that I had probably just lost the windy sunrise shot, along with all of the others from our two-week trip.

I had ended up at this hotel quite by happenstance, booking a room there only because my borrowed car had failed to start that morning and had to be towed to the nearest town with a mechanic’s shop. The repairs could not be done the same day, so I had to get a hotel room nearby. I was supposed to accompany Ted and Rob back to the Venice airport that day, but the car problem meant that we had to cancel our plans for a goodbye dinner in Venice; I had to stay with the car, and they had to shell out big money for a three-hour taxi ride to the airport hotel.

About an hour after I checked into the beautiful, historic mountain hotel, its attic caught on fire. I was sitting in my room at the time, wearing a plush robe and sipping a glass of Prosecco, trying to relax after the stressful day. I called a friend on video chat and had been speaking for a few minutes when he said, “The cat just got frightened by that alarm sound and ran away. I think that’s on your end.”

I suddenly snapped out of my dazed state and realized that he was right: an alarm was sounding in the hallway! I jumped up to look out the window just in time to see about ten firemen running from their truck into my hotel. Realizing that I was probably going to have to leave my room, I quickly switched off my phone, grabbed the first items of clothing that I could find, and got dressed so fast that I nearly fell over in my haste. Just as I found my shoes, the door of my room burst open, and two men ran in, shouting at me in Italian, “Signora, the fire is spreading!!”

The two men who broke in were risking their own lives in doing a room-by-room search of the hotel as it burned. Understandably, they were not going to let me dawdle. They took me by the arm and rushed me out of my room, giving me no time to grab anything more than what was within arm’s reach as we headed for the escape route. I was able to reach my purse and a jacket, and one of the men was thoughtful enough to snatch my phone and passport off of the desk for me. Everything else remained inside the room, including all of my winter outdoor clothing, lots of personal items, my camera gear, and all of my memory cards.

The next 24 hours were utterly surreal. I watched the hotel burn for a while and then got herded onto a shuttle bus for displaced guests. They put us all up in hotels across town and transmitted updates to us only by word of mouth. Rumors ran rampant in the interim, including one that the hotel had burned completely to the ground.

The day after the fire, police and firefighters conducted a preliminary inspection of the hotel’s remains and decided to allow guests in one at a time to retrieve whatever belongings might be recoverable. As I watched the firemen remove melted laptops and trash bags containing the charred bits of people’s belongings, I feared the worst for my own items. I observed this parade of ruined belongings heading out of the hotel for more than an hour before it was my turn to go inside. When they finally ushered me in, I felt as though I had entered the set of a Hollywood movie. The walls of the stairwell were smeared with soot, the lovely carpets were all wet and grimy, and a fireman’s axe leaned against a wall in the hallway. The biggest surprise came when the officials opened the door to my room. Like a time capsule from the day before, my room was completely unaffected. Everything was right where I had left it, and nothing was was wet or even smelled like smoke. My photos were saved.

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