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Society

One Year Later, Greek Pilot Shares Story of Survival with the BBC

January 25, 2019

NEW YORK – Taliban gunmen stormed The Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on January 20, 2018 mainly because it was popular with foreign visitors to the capital of Afghanistan. At least 40 people died as a result of the attack, BBC News reported. Among the guests at the hotel was Greek pilot Vasileios Vasileiou who worked for Kam Air, the airline with its main hub at Kabul International Airport. He shared his story of surviving the attack with the BBC, noting the mundane way the evening was winding down following dinner with fellow pilot Michael Poulikakos. Vasileiou returned to his room to make phone calls, “at 8:47 PM 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 realized 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,’” the BBC reported.

Vasileiou continued, “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,” the BBC reported.

Amid the gunfire and commotion, Vasileiou managed to hide under the bed and was not found by the men who were searching rooms on the hotel’s fifth floor. From his room’s open balcony, there were cables hanging, but gunfire from snipers prevented him from using the cables to make his escape.

Vasileiou told the BBC, “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.”

He continued, “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.”

The Taliban set fires in the hotel while the international forces outside used high pressure water cannons to put them out. Soaked and sooty, Vasileiou was found by men calling out “Police!” with English accents, he told the BBC, adding that “I was freezing cold but managed to say, ‘I’m the captain from Kam Air. Please, don’t shoot!’”

Vasileiou was helped out of the hotel but not before taking a photo with the men who found him.

He noted, “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 realize that after Kabul – life is extremely beautiful. And, believe me, I enjoy every moment,” the BBC reported.

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