x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Hero of the midnight fire

Trotting downstairs from the 43rd floor in an emergency is when a wife really appreciates the cool head and strong arm of her husband.

No wife wants to be able to say that she literally knows what her husband is like in the event of a fire breaking out in their home. Mine, incidentally, happened to be calm, cool and collected, but no wife needs to have that so brutally confirmed.

OK, so it wasn't exactly a raging flames and blazing inferno-type fire, a detail for which I shall forever be grateful. Still, it was definitely the choking from smoke, panic and rush out in your nightgown type fire, so in my book, it counts up there with Life Altering Episodes Defined By Intense Fear.

Our building's fire alarm first startled us at around 11pm as we lay comatose in front of our television. We looked at one another and contemplated acknowledging it. We briefly investigated, but the alarm clearly said: "A fire has been reported in the building. Please standby for further instructions."

So we stood by, alert but not worried. At midnight, we got ready for bed to the shrill soundtrack of the persistent alarm. At 12:30, just as I was about to drift off to sleep, I heard Mr T sniffing. "Do you smell something?" he asked.

"I smell electricity burning," I said to him, my voice loud and unnatural. I reached for the light switch, and as light bathed our room, we both became momentarily paralysed at the sight of smoke heavy in the air, circulating near the ceiling.

"We have to go, now," he said to me, and I reached for my robe on our bed's bench and slipped it on over my flimsy nightgown. I am so thankful that I at least thought to do that, even if it wasn't out of modesty. I was thinking of the deep pockets in my nightgown, pockets that would hold my wallet and phone.

Mr T grabbed his backpack and started filling it with a few essentials, methodical but fast. I'd found our passports and valuables and within seconds we were at our front door.

The air in the hallway was heavy with smoke, but not so much that we couldn't see. The lifts, understandably, were out. The stairwell closest to our apartment was impossible to use: the smoke was blinding, a wall of toxic white. We rushed to the other stairwell, holding hands, stopping to bang on our neighbours' doors. And then we began the descent.

Had it not been for Mr T - calm, solid, supporting -I would never have managed to make it down from the 43rd floor. I would have given up by the 20th, which is where my legs turned into complete jelly.

Both of us were surprised by the other's reactions. If I had panicked, cried, implored him to do something and save us, his job - to get us out of the building in one piece - would have been doubly hard, he says. And if he hadn't been there, a partner carrying that backpack with what might turn out to be all our earthly belongings, I'm not sure that I wouldn't have allowed the panic to set in.

My only regret, after emerging from our building into a surreal scene of fire engines, ambulances, police cars and hundreds of neighbours in their night clothes, is not having had the foresight at least to slip on a pair of pants.

Still, I was out there in the middle of the night with a guy who made me feel better about even that. It had shaped up to be one of the worst nights of both our lives, and yet there was no one in the world I'd rather have experienced it with.