Just over a year ago, Greek pilot Vasileios Vasileiou checked into a luxury hilltop hotel in Kabul. The Intercontinental was popular with foreign visitors – which is why, on 20 January, Taliban gunmen stormed it, killing at least 40 people. Vasileios explains how he survived.
I had decided to go for dinner early – at six o’clock – with my friend, another pilot called Michael Poulikakos. It was the first time in the three or four months that I had been coming to the Intercontinental that I’d done this – usually I had dinner at around 8.30pm.
We finished dinner about 7.30pm and then I went up to my room – room 522 – on the top floor, to make some calls. At 8.47pm I was on the phone to Athens when I heard a big explosion down in the lobby.
I went out on to the balcony. I could see a man on the ground covered in blood and I could hear gunfire coming from inside and outside the hotel. I realised how lucky it was that I wasn’t in the restaurant at that moment and said to myself, “OK Vasileios, you have to do something in order to survive.”
I left the balcony door open and locked the door to my room. There were two beds in my suite so I took one of the mattresses and put it against the door to protect myself from grenades, and then I gathered some bed sheets, towels and clothes and made a rope that I could use to get to the fourth floor if I needed to.
Because I’m a pilot and a trainer I’ve studied crisis management and decision-making for years, so even if I’m only going to a restaurant or to the theatre I think about sitting by the door, or close to the emergency exit – it’s automatic, almost second nature.
I started thinking about what I was going to do next. I had no idea how many attackers there were or where they were in the building, and jumping from the fifth floor wasn’t wise, so I said to myself, “Vasileios, stay inside and try to do as much as possible to protect yourself.”
For some reason I can’t really explain, I was unexpectedly calm.
I made the bed with the mattress on it look a little bit untidy, and the other one – the one I had removed the mattress from – look tidy. I turned off the light and decided to hide behind the heavy curtains and furniture in the dark.
About an hour-and-a-half passed, and although I didn’t know it at the time the attackers had by now killed almost everyone in the lobby, the restaurant, and on the first and second floors of the hotel. They had rushed through the third and fourth floors to the fifth floor and I could hear them running around on the rooftop above my head, where they were managing to keep away helicopters belonging to the international forces.
I heard gunfire in the corridor nearby and suddenly all the electricity in the hotel went off.
The first room on the fifth floor that the attackers went into was room 521, the room next to mine, which became their operational centre for the duration of the overnight siege.
I heard guns being fired into the door to my room and I thought to myself, “This is not a good position to be in.”
I got on to the floor and went underneath the bed that still had a mattress on it to try to protect myself. I was holding this single bed up with my fists and the tip of my toes, supporting the weight of the bed.
I could see a little, because the bed was elevated about 10cm into the air. They shot through the lock, hit the door with a heavy hammer and then four men came into my room. One immediately ran to the balcony because he saw that the door was open.
I heard gunfire from a pistol, one shot, and I thought that in the next few seconds I was probably going to die. I thought about my family, the faces of my children, and the good and bad moments in my life.
The door was left open and the gunmen were coming in and out all the time. Then they started opening other doors on the fifth floor. Just across the corridor from me was an air steward and some other pilots that I’d worked with. Sometimes I would hear their cries before they were executed. Sometimes nothing.
I think they opened every single door on the fifth floor and killed everyone that they found. I’d hear the cries, hear the bullet – just one bullet – and then they’d crash through the next door. Each time they would laugh afterwards, like they were just playing around, or like it was a big party or something.
Around three o’clock in the morning, they started a big fire on the fifth floor and then left because the smoke was so heavy. For 20-25 minutes there was no gunfire, so I decided to come out from underneath the bed.
When I came out, I realised that while I had been hiding underneath one of the two beds they had shot at the other bed and then lifted up its wooden base to look for anyone who might be hiding there.
I thought, “This is the second time today that I have escaped with my life.”
Before long, smoke began coming into my room. I had to do something, so I went out on to the balcony. I could see the fire on my left hand side, it was heavy and I realised that if it reached my room I wasn’t going to survive.
I saw some TV cables hanging from the roof, going straight down to the ground. I stretched to grab them to see if they could support my weight and I could use them to slip down, but just at that moment I heard bullets passing right next to me. One bullet passed about 20cm from my left shoulder and another about half a metre away. They left two holes in the window glass right behind me.
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Vasileios Vasilieiou spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service
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It was probably a sniper belonging to the international forces who’d seen me through night vision cameras coming out of room 522 and assumed that I was one of the bad guys. Snipers never miss at that distance, but in the split second that they’d fired I’d moved my body to grab the cables, and the bullets had just missed me.
I decided to go inside. I went to the bathroom – very, very slowly, so as not to make a noise. I had some nail scissors among my things and I took them, went back underneath the bed and, using the small scissors, opened a hole in the plastic material which covered the underside of the bed’s wooden base. There was just enough room for me to crawl inside.
I took two bottles of water and some milk from the little fridge in my room and a T-shirt. I cut the T-shirt into small pieces and put some inside my nose to filter the smoke. I put another piece of the T-shirt around my mouth and put lots of milk and water on it, like a double filter, something I’d learned from training with the fire department at Athens International Airport.
Almost as soon as I was inside the bed they were back. One of the guys came and sat on the bed that I was inside. I could see his feet and he kept spitting on the floor. He was giving orders to the other guys, telling them what to do, and I still remember his voice. Then he went to the bathroom, and after that he went on to the balcony and fired a few AK-47 magazines. I couldn’t risk making any noise at all because when the gunfire stopped there was complete silence.
At that moment something in my brain told me that I wasn’t going to die that day. I had survived when I hadn’t gone for dinner at my usual time. I had survived when those guys first came into my room and had shot at the other bed, not the one that I was underneath. I had survived when the sniper’s bullets had missed me. And right now I was well hidden.
I thought that the international forces would take over somehow, so I decided that if I just stayed where I was and did nothing, I’d be OK.
But early in the morning the international forces began to fire from a tank into the rooms. They concentrated on room 521, the one next door to me, but also fired at some of the other rooms, because the gunmen were moving around and firing at them from other places too.
Each time the heavy guns on the tank fired the whole hotel shook. Later I saw the damage that they had done – all of the furniture had been turned to dust and holes had been opened in the ceilings. Again I felt lucky to still be alive.
They started a second fire about six o’clock in the morning, right outside my room. I had heard the guys collecting some of the clothes from my closet, then they took the carpets and poured a lot of diesel on them. They burned their room – room 521 – too.
The fire was very close to me and I knew that in the heavy smoke and heat I would only be able to survive for 15-20 minutes, maybe half an hour maximum. I was breathing from the floor to get the last oxygen from the heavy cold air coming into my room from the open balcony door.
The smoke didn’t smell like the usual smell that you get from fires of wood or carpets. It was not a good smell. It was the smell of human bodies burning.
Since I couldn’t hear anyone around, I decided that I’d come out. But as I emerged, I suddenly heard the sound of breaking windows. It was coming from room 521 but then the same thing began happening in my room and I had to try to protect myself very quickly.
The international forces outside were firing pressurised jets of water into the rooms to extinguish the flames and these were shattering the windows. The fire was quickly put out but I was now soaked to the skin in cold water in a room without windows or doors, on a cold Kabul night, when the outside temperature was about -3C. I would soon be suffering from hypothermia.
At 9.25am I heard gunfire coming from down the corridor near the elevators – it sounded different, so I guessed that it must be the international forces. A gunman in room 521 was answering that gunfire with a Kalashnikov.
Between 9.30am and 11.15am the international forces were throwing numerous grenades, I would hear them rolling across the floor. Sometimes they landed in room 521 and sometimes they exploded outside the open door of my room. I still have a flight case that was dented by one of those grenades, which I’ve kept as a kind of souvenir.
By about 11.30am there seemed to be only one gunman left near me – the man in room 521. I heard his gunfire switch from a Kalashnikov to a pistol. He was out of ammunition. Then he tried to set a new fire using a blowtorch, but soon was out of gas.
I was so excited and full of adrenaline that I put my hand over my mouth in case I started laughing. He disappeared after a few minutes.
I was so tired. I’d had to fly late the night before all of this began, then hadn’t slept the day or night previously, so I’d been awake for more than 35 or 40 hours.
Not much later I began to hear other noises and people walking towards my room but I couldn’t see if it was the bad guys or the good guys. Around 11.40am somebody called out, “Police! Police!” in an Afghan accent, but I decided not to come out in case it was the bad guys. Then after 10 or 20 seconds I heard some people with English accents also shouting, “Police!” and I was so happy that I began yelling and crawling out of the bed. It was difficult to get out and I could barely breathe – my chest was hurting so much from being inside the bed, in one position, for so long.
I was black with smoke so they couldn’t see my face and the four commandos were shouting, “Stay down! Stay down!” while pointing their guns at me.
One of them whispered: “This must be a ghost!”
I was freezing cold but managed to say, “I’m the captain from Kam Air. Please, don’t shoot!”
They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They asked me how many hours I’d been there. I told them I’d been there all the time. They looked at the bed and asked me how I had managed to survive.
One of them said to me, “OK, I’m gonna take you down, but listen, I have to have a photo with you before we go,” and I said I’d like to have a photo to remember that moment too.
I was the last to come out of the hotel. They took all of the survivors to the British base in Kabul. As soon as I saw my colleague Michael there I was so happy, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. But there were mixed feelings. We had lost so many friends – so many people that we used to work with – pilots, operational personnel, engineers.
The Ministry for Foreign Affairs had told my family that they had evacuated all the survivors from the hotel, but that they hadn’t found me, so my family thought I hadn’t made it. You can’t imagine their happiness when three or four hours later I called them and told them that I was OK.
I have always been a positive person, but nowadays I am even more so. I enjoy every single moment of life and feel grateful for what I have. Life is a gift and we should enjoy it for as long as it lasts.
You know, sitting on the beach in Greece with friends I’ve heard people complaining that because we had a financial crisis they miss some of the comforts they used to have. I am like, “Come on! Enjoy your life and health. You are eating sardines and drinking Ouzo by the beach. We are free, we have good friends around and we laugh – this is what people are supposed to do.”
Don’t concentrate only on work, stressful and bad things in your life. Concentrate instead on creating good moments and being around good people, because life is so beautiful.
I really realise that after Kabul – life is extremely beautiful. And, believe me, I enjoy every moment.
At least 40 people died as a result of the Intercontinental Hotel attack.
All photographs courtesy of Vasileios Vasileio, unless otherwise indicated.