Last Sunday night at about 10.30 pm, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the Guyana Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, Georgetown, and fortunately, what could have been a massive tragedy was averted and no one was injured.

According to reports, the fire allegedly started when a deep fryer, which was left unattended, became overheated and ignited the insulation for the heat extraction system, creating a smoke-logged environment.  The ensuing smoke quickly found its way into the hotel’s lobby and started to wind its way up the tubular shaped structure, reaching as high as the sixth floor, the penultimate floor of the tower with guest rooms.

Guests of the hotel, contrary to the hotel’s management, claimed that no alarms were sounded to alert them of the emergency situation when it was in its infant stage. 

One guest, who was staying on the second floor, upon immediately recognising that a fire was in progress once smoke started seeping into his room, rushed to the emergency exit, in an attempt to ascend to the fourth floor to collect his children and mother-in-law. The panic stricken man was then confronted with a large chain and a padlock on the exit door. This scenario was reportedly replicated on other floors, as guests tried to escape the smoke.

A wedding reception being held in one of the hotel’s banquet halls on the ground floor quickly emptied into the hotel’s parking lot, as the front desk staff tried to alert guests, who were still in their rooms, via the phone to get out. Hotel guests, who became aware of the fire, banged on the doors of rooms on their floor, in an attempt to alert other guests of the situation.

The hotel staff battled the fire until the Guyana Fire Service’s (GFS)  prompt arrival.  The fire was quelled and extinguished in ten minutes.  In the meantime, the guests managed to make their way out of the hotel.  One would assume that this activity was done via the elevators, not the preferred choice of descent under the circumstances. A potential disaster had been averted.

On the 27th July, only eight days before, the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) had hosted a one-day seminar in response to the increasing number of fires within the hospitality sector over the past three years. Fire Prevention Officer Andrew Holder lamented that there had already been 43 fire-related emergencies within the hospitality sector for the year, which were caused by either negligence or lack of knowledge, and in some cases, had been willfully set.

The main goal of the seminar had been to edify and sensitise participants about their roles and responsibilities should there be a fire at their establishment.  Mr Holder noted that there were several entities within the sector which were non-compliant with fire safety measures and the Fire Service had withheld their safety certificates. Ironically, one of the incidents reviewed was the recent fire caused by a deep fryer, three weeks prior.

On Monday, the hotel owner, Robert Badal,  released a statement in which he said, “Shortly after the fire ignited, the fire alarm located in the kitchen went off and Emergency Response immediately kicked in.” It further noted that the hotel had invested in the latest model of the Honeywell Fire Response System, which is an indication that “the safety and comfort of our guests are of utmost importance to us.” He added that guests were allowed to return to “their rooms within a short period of time” and that “there were no injuries or any need for relocation to another property or alternative accommodation.”

The GFS, of course has launched its investigation into the fire. In an interview with this publication on Monday, Mr Holder stated, in keeping with the claims of some guests that no alarm had been sounded,  his department had removed chains and padlocks from the emergency exits on Monday. Holder added that the hotel was working with the GFS to rectify the breaches of the fire code regulations.

An alarm set off under these emergency conditions is extremely loud and resonates at an annoying high pitch frequency.  It will continue for several minutes, stopping for only the briefest of intervals, and in keeping with international standards, is only shut off when the fire department is convinced that the situation is completely safe and under control. At that stage, the head of the fire-fighting team then announces via the alarm system’s public address option the status of the area.

The locking of fire exits by hotels has become a dangerous practice worldwide to prevent guests from sneaking out without settling their bills, and to keep unwanted/unregistered guests out of the hotel rooms.

Hotel fires can be quite unforgiving; one only has to recall the MGM Grand Hotel fire in November, 1986, in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, in which there were 87 casualties, and the Hotel Siddharth Continental fire in January, 1986, in New Delhi, India, which took the lives of 37 people.

The Guyana Pegasus Hotel is a landmark structure in our society. Opened in November 1969, it was the true high rise built in the city, and an engineering marvel which was literally constructed on the mudflats of the seashore. The seven-storey tower with a roof garden was, for many a year, the tallest building in the city, the leading international hotel, and part of the Trust House Forte group. Along  with its sister concrete edifice up the street, the Bank of Guyana, erected a few years earlier, both built by  Taylor/Woodrow  construction company, the hotel has withstood the test of time, and we were fortunate not to have lost it.

Here in Guyana, basic standards of performance are continuously ignored, as are bylaws and zoning regulations, as corners are cut in the pursuit of profits at all costs.  One can only wonder if the new high rise buildings adorning our burgeoning skyline are being held to the latest international building codes, inclusive of the installation of sprinkler systems, smoke, carbon monoxide and fire alarms, water reservoirs, firefighting equipment, fire exits, electrical insulation standards, etc.

This incident should serve as a severe warning to us all, we might not be so lucky the next time.

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