I had just returned from walking my two dogs, about to open the door to my room on the third floor at the Heritage Inn Hotel on Midway Drive, when an inferno went off.
A deafening explosion, followed by endless rumbling and smaller blazes, instantly turned the scene into an action flick. Panic and irritation hit me as I watched walls, windows and door frames blast from the second floor. Glass and debris catapulted 40 to 50 feet into the outdoor pool area. Flames, smoke and dust followed.
I wondered whether a plane hit the building, a truck slipped off the road or the building was under attack and now folding in.
I saw people jump from the second floor, running down stairways for cover, screaming. Total panic broke out. The scenario seemed unreal and in slow motion.
The air filled with a rotten smell of sulphur, ammonia and burned matchbooks.
That is when a more realistic thought popped into my head: a meth-lab explosion.
Suddenly calmer, my next thought — after realizing that my dogs in my room seemed safe for the moment — was to snap some photos and jot down a news report, getting it to my editor quickly. I would be the first reporter with the news, as no other news teams had gotten wind of this explosion yet. I could capture these horrifying moments up close at the scene.
The building emptied, panic struck people piled up in the street, watching glass, phones, towels and other things fly through the air.
That’s when I decided to be a helping citizen, instead of a news professional snapping away with my camera.
Left with only two other guys on the second-floor stairway, I heard myself yell at the people in the street to call 9-1-1, as time appeared to stand still. Everybody was frozen in shock.
I urged the two guys to get fire extinguishers from around the corner. One of them was Joseph Tydingco, 52, a SeaWorld maintenance worker who was living at the hotel at the time. It looked like flames came out of several rooms.
The other guy, a worker from across the street who ran over to help, carefully made his way with me to the room we believed the explosion had erupted from, while Tydingco tried to extinguish the immediate flames.
Parts of the wall, windows and doors of the room were sprinkled by the pool, other parts were dangling off the hallway rail.
I called out for people who might be trapped in the destroyed rooms or under the debris in the hallway, wondering when police, fire personnel and paramedics would arrive.
Thinking we were the last ones in the building, we went downstairs, where I heard a cry for help.
I went back up toward the second floor and a young male — I believe in his early 20s — stumbled out of the exploded room through the mess in the hallway, his body smoldering, blistered, with greenish-yellowish skin covered by a whitish antiqued look, patches of charcoaled hair on his burned scalp.
He stumbled toward me, seemingly disoriented.
As I led him down the stairs, he uttered, “Please help me.”
His skin hung off his raw, bloody hands and feet. His pants had melted on to his burned legs. His shirt and shoes were shredded off. It was hard to tell which of the pieces hanging off his hands was burnt skin or the shredded, disposable gloves he wearing. With every step, skin hanging on the bottom of his feet was flopping like a loose shoe sole before it partially came off and shriveled up in front of us.
I resisted the urge to vomit.
Once at the bottom of the stairs, I propped him against the wall and on my arm, inspecting his body.
He said he was freezing, even though his entire body was steaming. I could feel the heat through my sweater.
I kept asking him for his name and age, anything to keep him talking and conscious, as I watched the skin of his lips, eyelids and ears peel off, along with the skin on the rest of his exposed body. I noticed that his eyelashes and eyebrows were burned off, too.
He cried and screamed for pain medication and repeatedly said how sorry he was to have caused the fire and explosion.
He said that he didn’t really know what hit him, that all he remembered was lighting up “something to smoke” while “making the dope” and the place exploded.
Suddenly, a disheveled young girl wrapped in a burned hotel comforter — I had seen the two in the room together before — crept down the stairs, crying hysterically.
The skin on her hands and feet was also hanging off in shreds. Her body had the same ghoulish look as the man’s.
Now, the guy tries to explain to me that they were in the room together, before and during the explosion.
I yelled at both of them that I believe that they were cooking meth. Neither of them disagreed.
The guy repeated how sorry he was and that he “will never do ‘the stuff’ again.”
A couple of days prior, I had noticed heavy traffic in and out of that particular room, especially at night.
Lots of strangers coming and going. It seemed that someone always stood outside the room or hanging out in the hallway. There appeared to be a couple of rooms occupied by a group of six to eight people, including this couple and several dogs.
A faint chemical smell was always noticeable when I had passed that room before. Some residents of the hotel portrayed the couple as “tweakers,” or methamphetamine users.
The guy asked me if anyone else was hurt, then he lost consciousness for a moment. The girl never said a word. She just kept crying.
The guys’ skin kept dissolving rapidly. I was terrified, hoping for paramedics to arrive soon.
As I tried to comfort him, police Sgt. Robin Rose arrived and firemen finally made their way through, heading upstairs.
I explained to the very helpful officer who these two injured people were, and that I had comforted them since after the explosion. I urged the officer to find me a stack of clean towels, to cover up the injured man’s body. Within seconds, the officer handed me clean towels.
Finally, paramedics arrived to tend to the badly injured young man, but I was asked not to leave him and keep talking to him. He wanted me to touch him because he “couldn’t feel my hand or hear my voice anymore.”
He managed to thank me for my help and asked that I tell people that he was ashamed and sorry, in case he died.
He added how scared he was, then fell unconscious again as paramedics took him away on a gurney.
Despite my anger with the two young kids I was glad that I was able to comfort them.
When I asked paramedics whether the guy was going to be survive, they responded that he might not.
Back on the street, the whole area had been taped off and city and federal authorities swarmed. Fire crews had quickly gained control of the fire. Numerous news teams arrived.
Personally too caught up in the disaster, I again realized that I did not opt for my job as a reporter, but rather helped out as a human being.
My next worry were my two puppies, who had been trapped in my room for over an hour. After breaking through the window, fire crews were soon able to release my scared dogs to me.
Reality and exhaustion was now catching up with me.
I noticed the back side of the building was blown out into the rear parking lot and I started to realize the extent of the blaze and the severe damage it had done to the entire building.
Hours of questioning by officers and detectives followed. News crews were hoping for stories, as well.
Much later that night, we were able to collect our belongings from the former room.
Meanwhile, hotel management tried to accommodate every guest of the destroyed building with a new room.
Throughout the night, a spooky, eerie feeling from the destroyed building hovered in the dark, the smell of fire and the overbearing sense of tragedy lingered in the air.
TIP-OFFS TO DRUG ACTIVITY
• Strong, unpleasant chemical odor (cat urine-like, ammonia and/or other solvents)
• Containers/drums with labels painted over
• Tin foil, baking soda, cut Duracell-type battery cases, red-stained coffee filters, torn-up
• Match-striker plates, excessive empty packs of cold medicine like Sudafed
• Chemistry equipment like flasks, beakers, rubber tubing, extension cords
• Milk/water jugs filled with unusual liquids
• High-traffic location between dusk and dawn, or on weekends/holidays
• Quick-stops (multiple short visits)
Guidelines for a disaster at a hotel/condo/friend’s house
• Identify signs of illegal drug manufacturing
• Study the situation (identify all possible exits)
• Have emergency checklist in mind (which way to escape, where family members are, what floor you’re on, where the elevator/stairway is located)
• Leave personal items behind
If you have reason to believe you encountered an illicit drug lab, call 9-1-1 and report what you observed.
For anonymous reports, call Crime-Stoppers at (888) 540-8477. If you have been exposed directly, leave immediately, wash hands and face. In the case of extensive exposure, contact your doctor.
Information provided by Devon &Cornwell Constabulary. Researched by Bianca Koch