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Updated on May 30, 2013


They looked up at the person on the roof and yelled, "jump!"

The onlookers weren't being cruel. They were trying to save a life. Only it wasn't mine.

What a lesson in journalism it turned out to be. And for a college student in his junior year, it was quite an eye-opener.

It all started a few hours earlier when I was watching television in my hotel room, number 404. Actually, I was using the hotel as a college dormitory, and had been for months, since I didn't have to live on campus. But I couldn't really afford apartment living, even if there were roommates footing part of the bill. The downtown hotel offered students a special rate, so I took it gladly.

And the living was easy, if not the college courses I was taking. The long-forgotten TV show was playing in my room (I believe it was "Bracken's World." Anybody remember that one?) when something didn't seem right. It was a smell. Was that smoke?

Looking around, I noticed something coming under the door. It was indeed smoke, obviously coming from the hallway right outside. The hotel was on fire, at least the fourth floor.

Quickly, I called the front desk--this was before the days of 9-1-1. Yes, an excited voice on the other end told me, we've already called the fire department. But you better get out now.

Strangely, I didn't panic. I wasn't even scared. There was something to do, so let's get with it. I quickly covered my record collection in the closet with damp towels (demonstrating what was really important to me) and then put a wet washcloth over my face and ventured out into the hallway. Smoke was everywhere, but it wasn't least not yet.

The fire department, by the way, happened to be just across the street, so they were already there, with ladders now reaching up to some of the top floors, but not all.

I just walked to the end of the 4th floor hallway, looked out the fire escape door, and was greeted immediately by the voice of a fireman below: Don't worry about the ladder. Just walk down the fire escape. You'll be all right.

This was 1971. For some reason, the city fire codes at the time allowed hotels to only have fire escapes to the 4th floor, no matter how high the building was.

So it was down the rickety old structure and onto the hotel parking lot, pitch black except for the strobe-like effect of the emergency flashing red lights--oh, and the reflection from the raging fire.

Everybody got out safely. The hotel was later deemed a total loss, so goodby dormitory. But my records survived. Thank God for small favors.

It turned out the blaze was set by a firebug who had registered in room 516 that very night. Just one floor above me, so the flames went up, not down.

As with many arsonists, this guy even played the hero, basking in the glory of helping people evacuate the doomed structure. He was only found out when he talked just a little too much.

The newspaper the next day had what happened all over the front page. Dramatic pictures and a bunch of interviews. Including one with the guest caught on the top floor--the floor with no fire escape and the one the fire ladders couldn't reach. Jump, they screamed, and he did. Right into the net below. No harm, no foul--except the jumper was me.

At least that's what the newspaper said. By name. And with plenty of quotes. Things said by somebody, I guess.

A junior in college waiting to take on the world. Now, however, with a new appreciation for wet towels and a healthy suspicion about his own chosen profession.


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