10 years ago today I had an accident that changed my life, and which led to a life-changing event.
I was in South America in the middle of a year working as a British Council assistant in Paraguay. For our summer holidays I’d organised a three-week tour with my mum, followed by four weeks of solo travel in Patagonia, my first entirely self-planned trip. I’d been looking forward to it for a couple of months, and had come up with a rough itinerary of some key places to visit, but ultimately wanted to play it by ear.
On Friday afternoon I arrived in Ushuaia, checked in to the hostel, then immediately went to book the bus out of the town, as there was only one every two days and at that point there was no internet booking. With my seat booked for Wednesday, I knew I had four full days to fill. I also paid for a berth on the Navimag boat for a five day trip from Puerto Montt, in the north of Chilean Patagonia, about two weeks later, giving me two deadlines for later in my trip.
On a recommendation the next day I went to visit Glaciar Martial, at the top of a mountain with amazing views of the Magellan Straits.
I’d been told it was an easy trip, so I was wearing my walking sandals. Initially it really was easy: a ski lift took you part-way, then you walked up a path next to a stream with the run-off from the glacier. At a certain point, however, it turned into a scramble. I decided to continue and got to a point where I could see this view, which seemed worth it 🙂
After sitting there for half an hour or so, I started back down the mountain. Walking down the scree was a challenge, but I was being careful. The problem came when I got back to the ‘easy’ part. Probably less than 10m after the path flattened out, I must have stopped concentrating and tripped over. I impacted my right knee, cried out, and found I couldn’t stand up. Luckily it was quite a busy path and a woman just behind me heard me and got to me a couple of minutes later. She asked me if I was OK, and when I said I couldn’t stand, she went to get help – one of the first times I was ever truly grateful I could speak the local language. It was coming to the end of the day, and the park rangers were moving up the path to ask people to leave, so in less than 10 minutes somebody was with me and radioing for help.
What followed was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life. I was put onto a yellow mountain rescue stretcher, which was then strapped across the back of a quadbike and driven down the mountain, with one guy driving, and one walking at each end of the stretcher to make sure it didn’t hit anything. When it got to the car park at the bottom of the ski lift, the back of the waiting ambulance was surrounded by a ring of 30-50 people who wanted to see what was happening. Having previously never wanted to draw attention to myself in any way, this was mortifying for me at 21!
I was taken to the local hospital, where they did an X-ray and put a cast on, but didn’t give me any crutches, despite the fact that I couldn’t put my right foot on the ground, or even touch the ground without excruciating pain. It turned out I’d badly sprained my ankle and there was possibly a fracture, but it was unclear due to the swelling. On returning to the hostel, the receptionists were very helpful and managed to get crutches for me and move me into a room with a private bathroom, luckily available for exactly the number of nights I needed. This was my leg at 8pm:
I had to decide whether to continue travelling, return to Paraguay or give up completely and go back to the UK. Thanks to my mum, who was able to give me some money to help me with the now much higher budget I needed to continue, and the very helpful people at the hostel, it wasn’t difficult to decide that the best option was to keep going. I know that this experience is one of many that have made me realize that mentally we are all stronger than we think we are.
This is what day two of my travels looked like:
Being able to speak Spanish was a big help too. This day trip was possible because the receptionist and their friend drove me to the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, gave me a personalized tour and helped me throughout the day. I also managed to fit in a boat trip in the Magellan Straits:
The next stage took me to Punta Arenas, after a pretty uncomfortable 12-hour bus journey, where somebody was nice enough to move so that I could have the only free seat on the bus next to me. On arrival, the taxi driver took me to the Blue House II hostel. My room was a bit messy (sorry!):
The people who ran the hostel were again incredibly helpful. I needed to have another X-ray and get my cast removed as it wasn’t set at a 90% angle – my screaming stopped the doctors from trying to get me to keep my foot in the right position. When I arrived in Punta Arenas on Thursday morning, they organized a taxi to the hospital for me. I discovered that it would be at least two weeks before I could get an appointment there, so returned to the hostel to try and work out what to do next. They managed to find a private clinic, but there was nothing available until Friday evening. After the exertion of the previous few days, rest seemed like a good idea.
A few hours later, there was a knock at the door to say that an appointment had become available that evening – did I want it? Another easy decision: of course I did. This was the good luck which I have no doubt saved my life.
The new X-ray showed that there was definitely a fracture:
I was given what I called a ‘space boot’ (I’m sure it has a proper name in English, but doing all of this in Spanish meant I never knew it!) and sent on my way.
Since it was clear I probably wasn’t going to see any more of Punta Arenas, I decided to leave a day early and head on to Puerto Natales. The people from Blue House II booked me a hostel there, and Saturday 3rd February found me on a day trip to the stunning Parque Nacional Puerto Natales.
At one point, I was on the bus listening to the radio news with the driver while everybody else was walking to a waterfall. We heard a news item explaining that there had been a hostel fire in Punta Arenas the night before. No name was mentioned, but I wondered. My suspicions were confirmed as soon as I got back to the hostel in Puerto Natales: I was greeted at the door by the owner. “Blue House II burnt down this morning.”
The same night there had been a huge fire in Valparaiso, which destroyed some of the World Heritage Site there and killed. This dominated Chilean news, so it was hard to find information about the hostel fire. I subsequently discovered that ten out of the twenty-four or so people in the hostel had died, and because their passports and the hostel register were destroyed it took a while to identify their bodies. The fire began in the early hours the morning, when there was a short circuit in the wall between the kitchen and the breakfast room. It was a wooden building with no fire exits or fire alarms in place, so the combination of the time and the conditions meant it was difficult for anyone to escape, especially from the second floor. If I hadn’t been given the new appointment on Thursday, I would have been in the Blue House 2. The room I was staying in was next to the kitchen, and with my crutches, I’m pretty sure there is no way I would have got out.
This shook me up considerably more than the accident did. It really made me appreciate the fact that your life can end at any point, and you have no control over when that is, so you have to make the most of every day.
Before today, I didn’t know the names of any of the people who died, but I know I probably spoke to at least some of them. These are the English language articles I’ve just found about it, some of which I remember seeing before.
- Aussie killed in hotel fire
- Hotel fire in Chile kills Canadian woman (I think she was one of the people I’d spoken to)
- Former students die in hostel fire while travelling in Chile
- Chile hotel fire kills tourists
- Chile probes deadly weekend fires
This Spanish language article from the day contains more details:
Spanish language media from later dates describes the justice procedure, both including a full list of the 10 victims and their ages:
- Caso Blue House II: 5 años y el dolor no cesa
- Chile: siete años de cárcel por un incendio en el que murió una familia argentina
There is also a YouTube video from the fire service attending the fire which I can’t watch.
This post started as something different, but I think it will end here.