How We Survived a Hotel Fire in Mexico
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On a recent trip to Tulum, Mexico, a friend and I were faced with every travelers' worst nightmare: a hotel fire. Not a small fire in a large chain hotel that’s happening on the other side of the property, where there's a bit of smoke and a formulaic evacuation.
This was a whole different experience, set in a low-key luxury hotel with thatch-roof huts among palm trees just steps from the ocean. In this case, there was little-to-no time to think about what belongings to grab from the room or what shoes to slip on — the fire spread so fast we had just seconds to get out alive and make sure we were doing everything we could to ourselves and others out of harm's way.
Amazingly, no was hurt — the other guests, as well as hotel and local emergency staff, all played an integral role in getting everyone to safety and did everything possible to take care of us once it was all over.
The morning started as any other relaxing beach vacation should. We both slept in until about 9:00am and I slipped on a t-shirt and swimsuit, grabbed my phone and walked down to the lobby to have breakfast. My friend, on the other hand, decided to stay behind, take a shower and enjoy the room. She was just stepping out of the shower when she heard a disturbance coming from the shared hallway in our building, which housed six hotel rooms — four on the second floor and two on the ground floor. A woman was screaming and there was a loud banging sound. Thinking it was some sort of domestic upset, my friend grabbed her towel and went to see what was going on.
She opened to door of our room to plumes of smoke in the hallway and stairwell, as well as flames in the room across the way. Quickly slamming our room door shut, she heard a loud crackling sound near her head — the sound of the hotel's sprinkler system kicking on — and saw the high ceiling and thatch roof becoming engulfed in smoke. She quickly ran out to the balcony, which was the only alternative exit, and saw some people on the beach below yelling at her to get out. She turned back inside to grab clothing and shoes — anything — but the room was already thick with smoke and the ceiling was on fire, so she tightened her towel, stepped over the balcony and jumped down, into the arms of another hotel guest.
As I was still enjoying my morning coffee, she ran into the lobby yelling, "Our room is on fire!" We soon found ourselves standing on the beach in front of it, watching as the entire thatch roof was completely engulfed in flames.
The hotel staff quickly sprang into action, using all available fire extinguishers, while staff from the neighboring hotel joined in, creating a bucket chain from the ocean to prevent the flames from spreading to the nearest buildings. The local fire department arrived with 15 minutes and quickly helped to put out the remaining flames. All in all, three buildings caught fire and were damaged in the blaze. Thankfully, the wind was calm that day and we were all very lucky as this could have taken out the entire hotel complex.
Unfortunately for us, the most damage occurred in our building. The fire had originated from the room across the hall, likely the result of an electrical short from a faulty ceiling fan wire connection. While some guests were able to grab a few things as they headed down the stairs, my friend and I were left with nothing but my swimsuit and t-shirt outfit and her tightly tied towel. Everything else in the room was completely destroyed — our passports, IDs, wallets, credit cards, laptops, luggage, the rest of our clothes and shoes. Everything.
Shortly after the fire was put out, the staff arranged for guests to move to neighboring hotels, creating lists of each room's lost items and digging through debris to locate anything that was salvageable. All the safes were removed from the rooms — amazingly, the contents, while wet from the massive amounts of water used to extinguish the flames, were all intact.
Other guests of the hotel came to our aid as well — I borrowed a pair of flip flops and my friend was given some underwear and a beach dress. The hotel covered our food, beverages and accommodations, and staff offered to give us cash for whatever incidentals we needed. Another room at another hotel down the street was prepared for us and our weeklong hotel stay was refunded back to my Platinum Card from American Express, since I'd used it to book our trip.
Replacing Our Passports
Being an Amex Platinum cardholder, I called the Global Assist hotline and explained our fire situation — and the fact that we’d need to get temporary passports in order to return to the US. Within an hour, the Amex team emailed me all the paperwork we needed, gave us directions to the US Consulate in Cancun and let them know we were coming.
Next, we called the airlines to change our flights. Note that when you're in a situation like this, it's better to get an agent on the phone and immediately ask for their supervisor. Since this was an emergency, we were able to make the necessary changes without incurring extra fees. The agents we spoke to from American Airlines and United were very kind and wished us a safe return home.
After our early morning two-hour drive to the US Consulate in Cancun, it was a relief that the staff were so helpful — our hotel had already sent over the police report and scans of our passports. We walked in, filled out the necessary paperwork, handed over our new passport photos, swore under oath that we were who we said we were, and were told our new temporary passports would arrive by noon the next day. The entire process took less than an hour and cost us $130 for each rush passport. We did have to find a place to take 2" by 2" photos of us, but that didn't take long. It turns out that in Mexico, and in Cancun specifically, you can get an emergency passport within 24hrs.
With only one credit card, a backpack with all our possessions and another day in Mexico, we decided to make the most of it — a beachside margarita lunch at the Ritz-Carlton and an evening being tourists at Lorenzillo’s, a campy-yet-delicious tourist trap, was just the ticket. Plus, a 5,000 Starpoint-night at the Aloft Cancun and its rooftop pool was a fine way to end the trip — the staff there gave us a stack of drink tickets after I told them our harrowing story.
We slept in the next morning, picked up our new temporary passports at 11:00am and made it to the airport in time for our 2:00pm flight. Customs at JFK was a breeze and we had no problems with the agents — after telling a quick version of the story, we were welcomed home.
Lesson Learned: Prepare for the Worst
- If you smell or see smoke or fire, just get out. Nothing is that valuable.
- As soon as you enter your hotel room, place your passport, some cash, at least one credit card, your house keys and anything else of value in the safe.
- Consider purchasing a super-slim and easy-to-pack fire retardant envelope to hold any important travel documents, IDs, credit cards and cash. These can be purchased on Amazon from $12.
- Take photos of your passport and driver’s license. Email them to yourself.
- Take a photo of your packed suitcase right before you close and zip it up. I always lay out my entire travel wardrobe on my bed and take a photo before packing. Doing so has covered me twice for lost airline bags.
- Put a credit card in the back of your phone case whenever you travel. People have a tendency to lose a wallet or a phone on vacation, but not both at the same time, so doing this helps keep you covered.
- Make sure your homeowners or renters insurance covers your personal belongings wherever you are. Mine covers up to $50,000 worth and costs under $300 per year.
- Take photos of your valuables with the receipt as soon as you pull them out of the bag after a purchase. Then, keep the photos in a safe place.
- Remember to use included credit card services, like insurance, Global Assist, lost bag replacement and 90-day or 120-day purchase coverage.
Have you ever been in a hotel fire? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author.