NOTE: The following has been “fictionalized” to protect the guilty. The essence is true, but details have been purposefully changed to prevent identifying the city.
While continuing to work on the mental exercise that prompted this series of articles, I had an unplanned opportunity to test some of my presumptions and preparations. As a world traveler, I sometimes end up in cities that may not be the first world’s image of an ultra-urban megalopolis, but are densely packed, urban environments with building roofs higher than what the local, first responders could normally reach by their standard equipment. In this case, while working late at a Customer’s office building, an explosion occurred that impacted more than a city block. It took until the next day before I was able to return to my hotel. In essence, I had to depend on what I had with me overnight.
A quick snap shot of what I had with me, both on my person and “at hand”:
– A “breakaway” EDC lanyard attached to a tiny, coin battery operated LED light, a Fox 40 Micro whistle, a Leatherman Squirt P4, and a USB reader loaded with a2 Gig, Micro SD card. All items secured inside a couple inch piece of bicycle inner tube (both to protect the items as well as keeping me from using the light for non-emergency situations).
– A large, suit pocket wallet with money, credit cards, licenses, emergency contact info (ICE), and passport.
– Traveler’s ankle “pocket” with credit cards, bulk of currency, and photo reduced copies of key identification.
– A coin pouch.
– A key ring with assorted keys, ear plugs in a case, and a Pocket Wrench II as the fob.
– A GSM/GPS Blackberry.
– A well-worn, hard wood and steel cane.
– A large, silk kerchief.
– A nondescript, black, Lowepro camera/laptop backpack containing:
– – Laptop (which could be another “flashlight”), USB external hard drive, USB hub, power cords, 12 foot extension cord, international power converter with many plugs, Ethernet cables, Ethernet hub, … (Yeah, I’m a geek!-)
– – Design notebooks, paper files, pencil case with pens, dry erase markers, and the like.
– – A novel, newspaper, local tourist guide, map, and phrase book.
– – Small tool kit with some basic hand tools, suitable for electronic gear. Including a cheap, Chinese made, 9 LED, three “AAA” flashlight.
– – Four, 500 ml water bottles filled nightly from a known good water source.
– – Some fiber and protein bars (bought at the airport).
– – Basic, personal First Aid Kit with some travel sized, over-the-counter drugs and potions.
– – The beginnings of a basic, personal Urban Survival Kit with rain poncho, heat sheet, head lamp, crank operated SW/FM/AM radio, water tablets, 100 feet of “550” cord, magnesium fire starter, zip lock bags and garbage bags (stored inside one zip lock bag), two P-100 masks, a traveler’s “cummerbund” wallet with photocopies of ID and the like, …
– – Assorted detritus that seems to always appear at the bottom of the bag.
I did not have a rental car, so no car-based emergency kit on this trip. I had some more gear in my luggage at the hotel, but in no way did I have the complete BOB/GOOD/GO Bag inventory that I have been developing as a result of this series of articles.
The business part of the meeting was over. I had finished packing up my laptop and placed the backpack out of the way by the credenza in the conference room high up in a downtown office building. The discussion had now turned to debating going home to wives or heading out to a club.
If it wasn’t for the booming noise, I would have guessed an earthquake hit. Immediately all went dark as the power died. The conference room I was in did not have any windows. The air became a bit thick from the dust shaken loose. There was a delayed crash from one end of the room that later turned out to be the large, decorative, company logo falling off the wall. As I pulled the EDC lanyard out of my pocket and peeled back the rubber by feel, all in the room voiced that we were shaken but OK. As I turned on that tiny LED, there was a noticeable, if non-audible, “sigh” in the room. Just having that small glow of a light was enough to change a few people from silent fatalism to begin to think and take action.
I probably could have crawled to the credenza and found my backpack by feel for a light, if I had nothing on my person.. It was so much easier to find it with that small light. Once I oriented myself in the room, I hung the lanyard with the lit flashlight around my neck and started to move. Just before picking up my backpack, I relocated the Blackberry and wallet to my front pants pockets because I wasn’t planning on wearing the suit coat. I would carry the coat in the backpack – it was too hot for the “tropical” weight suit coat. I didn’t want the Blackberry or wallet to accidentally slip away from me. Without removing the tool kit from the backpack, I unzipped the tool kit to retrieve the 9 LED torch and lit up the room. As a side note; no one else had a flashlight. A couple people did have lighters; the cheap, BIC type . At this point I wondered if the local government required adding the chemical odor to the natural gas supply.
Although a lot of dust was stirred up, I could not detect any smoke. I tested the door, and then the doorknob with the back of my hand and did not sense the heat of a fire. The corridor was also very dark, even though the far end opened up onto cubicles with windows along the outer wall. A quick look determined that all the lights from the other buildings were also out. There were reflected lights from some traffic on the street.
Near the outer wall I could get signal strength showing on the Blackberry, but could not get a dial tone. So I sent out some SMS and PIN messages to people I knew locally and at home base to find out what was going on, and to let people know where I was.. The messages did not go out immediately, but seemed to “dribble” out over the radio waves. Some of my companions wanted to leave immediately. I wanted to first know what was happening. It took a bit to find a station on the hand crank radio. Even if I was totally fluent, I don’t think I could have understood the rapid pace of the news announcer. One of my companions translated saying that while it was not clear what exactly happened (as there were differing reports from a petrol transport explosion to a terrorist event), it was clear that it had happened the next street over and that the area of the city we were in was blacked out.
The first SMS response came in but was also unclear as to why there was an explosion. It was now about twenty minutes since the event and we decided to head out. My companions wanted to head home, and I decided it would be safer to go to the hotel. With an explosion that close, there was always the possibility that this, or an adjacent, building might have been damaged. There was plenty of emergency vehicles and sirens moving on the street, and no further sounds of explosions, gunfire, or anything else unsafe. My hotel was about a dozen blocks away
I donned the traveler’s “cummerbund” wallet under my shirt In it I stashed my passport and other things from my wallet except for one credit card, my international driver’s license (get it cheaply at AAA), and enough money to hire a cab, eat a meal, rent a room, and give tips.
There were some stumbles before finding the stairs and getting down to the lobby, including a pit stop in the men’s room to void bladders. Again, without the light it would have been very interesting.
Actually getting into the lobby was a problem. Probably because it would have been visible from the lobby, the door was unusually heavy and ornate. I’d guess it was a custom made door so it would blend in visually from the lobby side. With the jolt of the explosion, the door was now jammed down hard into the floor. It looked like the hinges had slipped and shifted their alignment. I guessed that the door was really too heavy for the hinges as mounted. Fortunately, unlike the factory made, western doors, the screws holding the hinges were not hidden by the closed door. I could not budge the screws on the door, but did break them free on the jam. I put a screw driver through the now empty screw hole on the top and middle hinge creating “T” handles to pull the door open from the hinge side, at least open enough to slip through.
As it was way past office hours, we seemed to be alone in the building. There was supposed to be a night watchman, but no one was visible in the lobby. And, of course, the exterior, lobby doors were locked. We were discussing searching for other exits or breaking this door when the night watchman jogged up to the exterior door. He had left the building to see what was going on and saw my bright flashlight through the lobby windows. He only approached when he saw that we were in office attire and probably not robbers.
Out on the street there were some people milling about. I turned on the GPS to confirm my sense of direction – the hotel really was about a dozen blocks on the other side of the explosion site. With the Blackberry back in my pocket I started to go around the corner. The first responders were still putting water on whatever it was. The fire appeared to be all but out. However, the police were not letting anyone proceed down that block. All were being shepherded down a side street. I was game for heading towards the next large boulevard before turning towards the hotel. I quickly noted that as I progressed away from the event, the number of people walking down the street decreased. There were some young men hanging out on the street corners ahead, and I started to get uncomfortable with the potential of someone wanting to take advantage of the blackout.
With the international travel, there is no way I can carry a firearm. Even knives or sprays are problematic. My cane was purposefully built to be strong and useful in such situations. The handle is a contoured “T” made of stainless steel with foam covering most of it for comfort (but not the ends, which happened to be rounded almost to a point on each end). The bottom of the cane is a knurled hunk of stainless steel with a rubber “foot” on one side and spikes on the other (for biting into ice covered walks). The foot can be unscrewed and reversed without tools. While the two ends look like they just screw onto the threads sticking out of the wood body, the threads are really the ends of a steel rod running the length of the cane. When the metal detectors go off, the guards see that it is a cane, and even if they unscrew the ends they won’t see any cavities so they have no concerns. I explain the heft as my need for a really strong cane to handle my mass.
But even if I was armed with a “full-auto”, the best way to handle a confrontation with bad guys is to not get into it in the first place. An acoustic guitar alerted me to a dimly lit “hole-in-the-wall” restaurant down an alley. A young couple, hand-in-hand, went in which made up my mind – it would probably be safer in there then on this side street at this hour.
The dim light was from the many candles – the power was still out. It turned out to be a family run place. They were obviously interested in the novelty of a “foreigner” in their place. I played on this and was the epitome of a gregarious visitor. I applauded after every song. I tipped after the set. I entertained any question. After consuming a filling meal, I invited the owner/chef to join me in dessert. I paid in cash, and tipped well. My backpack was securely stored behind the bar and I was at a table with a full view of the bar.
Near closing time a local constable came in and, after surveying the patrons, focused on me. Demanding my identification, I handed him my International Driver’s License. This seemed to be a new wrinkle for him. He took the time to flip through it all and seemed impressed with all the languages, photo, and personal details. I guessed he didn’t know exactly what it was, but he accepted it as “official” identification.
It was obvious that he did not like “foreigners” and was looking for some excuse to exercise his “authority” on me. He demanded to know what I was doing here. I answered that I was invited to his wonderful city by “Big-Name-Customer” to help train their employees, and after spending the day at their offices down the street, I came in here for some real food instead of what is served at the hotel. I was intentionally playing up that I was really interested in participating in the local environment and wasn’t some westerner here to take away a job – or anything else he could object to. He demanded to know which hotel I was staying at, how long I had been staying there, how much longer I was planning on staying, and then came to an interesting question; where was I when the explosion happened. I fibbed a bit and stated that I stepped in here, this restaurant, since the explosion – implying that I entered as the explosion happened. The owner of the restaurant chipped in that I had been here since the explosion happened. Somewhat mollified, and probably miffed, that there was nothing blatant for the officer to use as an excuse to exercise his authority, he stated that he would hold my ID to check out my story. I got the impression he was asking for a bribe to get it back. Even though I knew the magical phrase, “Is there a form or a fee to make this right?”, that would not explicitly acknowledge bribery nor indicate that I was trying to do anything illegal, I was keenly aware that I was in a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” situation. If I paid for the return of my ID, he could arrest me for trying to bribe him. If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be seeing that ID anytime soon. I was glad I did not give him my passport. Instead, I complemented him for being so thorough in protecting his fellow citizens and being such a diligent officer. And that as I would be staying here for several more days, I had no concerns with trusting a police officer with my ID.
This seemed to both confuse and pacify him. It wasn’t the response he was expecting. But it was a response he couldn’t object to. He proceeded to talk to a few others as he headed towards the door.
Originally I had reserved the hotel for several more days as a cushion for any additional time needed, but the real work had been completed that day. Some reports to type up, drawings to finish; those could be done remotely. I decided right then to check out of the downtown hotel and move to a hotel close to the airport, if I could not get an earlier flight.
As an apology for the officer’s behavior, the owner asked me to stay as he closed up. He shared one of his special bottles with me as he smoked and talked about the better parts of his city, his country, and his culture. The owner seemed to be very apologetic for the behavior of his countryman. The owner handed me my ID saying the officer had asked for it to be returned to me. From the look on the owner’s face, I got the impression he had taken it upon himself to “pay the fee” to get it back. After taking time for us (mostly the owner) to finish the bottle, I asked if I could return the favor and buy a similar, special bottle. I purposefully overpaid for it to reimburse the owner for the bribe money he had paid, even though I would have gladly never seen that ID again.
I took advantage of the situation when he fell asleep to retrieve my backpack, make myself comfortable, and catch some sleep. I woke up as momma came down to see what happened to her husband. She shifted quickly from scolding him to happy and welcoming, as soon as she saw me. She insisted I stay for breakfast.
In the full morning sunlight, I continued on my circuitous route to the hotel. Two blocks later, at the boulevard, I grabbed a taxi to the hotel. After some phone calls and a shower, I got another taxi to the airport hotel and ended that impromptu exercise in urban preparedness.
I really had three situations to deal with; getting out of the darkened conference room high up in an office building to the street, circumventing street thugs, and dealing with an odious official. The most important thing one can have in those or any situation is a knowledgeable and flexible brain. Just like “defensive driving”, one should practice “defensive living”. Situational awareness and creative problem solving, – using one’s brain and thereby anticipating and bypassing or, at least, attenuating dangerous or unpleasant situations. Even worst case scenario planning. A mindset already adopted by “preppers”.
The two physical tools I was really glad to have was electric light and cash money. Every other tool I used – screwdrivers, pliers, radio, Blackberry, etcetera – were not absolutely necessary. I did not have to use GPS to confirm my planned path. I could have used substitute tools found on site, like unscrewing the base of a rolling office chair and using that heavy metal as a pickax to break through the wall or door.
It would have been much more difficult to read a map or hack through the door in total darkness. Unlike the wilderness where it is rarely, totally dark (due to moonshine or starshine), it is too easy for the urban dweller to be plunged, instantly, into total darkness. As examples; a subway car, elevator, room with no windows, parking garage – all get very dark very fast when the power fails. Flashlights are very important in the urban environment.
And money – especially cash in hand – is the grease that works wonders for any human interaction (with maybe the exception of “true love”). Having sufficient cash in hand to get water, food, shelter, or anything else to keep one healthy and independent is the best insurance policy.
Although I didn’t have to deal with fire in this situation, fire was a part of the emergency. And if I was just one block over, I would have had to deal with fire as part of my escape. This has reinforced my perception that personal protective equipment to allow a civilian to egress from a fire and/or smoke filled building is very important for an urban kit.
“Bravo Zulu, Animal Papa.”
D. Period – All rights reserved – 2009 – Use permitted by all only with attribution.