A little over a year ago, the Greek pilot, Vassilis Vasiliou moved into an expensive hotel Intercontinental in Kabul. 20 January 2018, the Taliban attacked a popular foreigners hotel and killed about 40 people. Pilot tells how he managed to survive.
The Greek pilot Vassilis, Vasiliu next to the bed where he was hiding
Me and my friend Michael Poulikakos decided to go down to the restaurant early, at six in the evening. For the previous three or four months I stayed at the Intercontinental several times, but never went to dinner so early — I usually ate around 8:30.
Vassilis, Vasiliu worked on Afghan airline, Kam Air
We went somewhere around 7:30, and I went to her room 522 on the fifth floor. At 8:47 PM I was on the phone with Athens and suddenly heard a loud explosion in the lobby.
I went to the balcony and saw lying on the ground bloodied man. Explosions were audible both outside and inside the hotel. I realized that I was lucky that this time I was not in the restaurant and I said to myself: “Okay, Vasilis, it is necessary to do something in order to survive.”
I left the balcony door open and locked the front door. In my room there were two beds. I took one of them to the mattress and leaned it against the front door, in order to protect themselves from grenades. Then I collected the sheets, towels and clothes, tied it all together in order that in case you need to go down to the fourth floor.
I’m a pilot, and years we are trained how to behave in the event of a crisis, how to make decisions, so even if I just go to a restaurant or theater, I always sit closer to the door or the fire escape — I do it almost automatically.
I wondered what to do next. I didn’t know how many people attacked the building and where in the hotel they were in. Jump from the fifth floor would be unwise, and I said to myself: “Stay in your room and do your best for self defense”.
I don’t know why, but at this point I was very calm.
Vassilis, Vasiliu at Kabul airport
I kicked the sheets on the bed with the mattress and carefully cleaned the bed without a mattress. I turned off the light and decided to hide in the dark behind furniture.
It took about an hour and a half. I didn’t know that the attackers killed almost everyone in the hotel lobby, in the restaurant and on the first two floors. They ran through the third and fourth floors and got to my fifth floor. I heard them running around the roof above my head, where they were shot from fighting helicopters of the international forces.
Then I heard shooting in the corridor, and at this point the hotel lost electricity.
The walls of the corridor of the hotel was riddled with bullets
On the fifth floor of the attackers immediately broke into the room 521 is adjacent to my. They made it their headquarters for the night.
Then I heard the door of my room shot, and thought that poorly hid.
I crawled to the side of the bed with the mattress and climbed under it to try to be somehow protected. I rested on the bottom of the bed with hands and feet, supporting her weight.
The attackers shot the lock of the front door, hit the door with a sledgehammer, and the room burst four men. One of them immediately ran out to the balcony, as he saw that the door to the balcony open.
Fighters just shot the lock of the room door
I heard a pistol shot, just one shot, and thought that after a few seconds I will die. I thought about the family, about their children, about everything good and bad in my life.
The front door remained open, and the room was constantly coming in and out armed men. Then they began to break into other rooms on the fifth floor. Exactly opposite my room stopped the steward and the pilots with whom I worked. Sometimes I heard them screaming before they were shot. Sometimes could not hear anything.
In my opinion, they broke into every room on the fifth floor and killed everyone they found. I heard screaming, then a shot — just one shot and they rushed to the next room. Every time they laughed, as if it was a game or a big party.
About three o’clock in the morning they lit a big fire on the fifth floor and left because there was too much smoke. 20-25 minutes of shooting, and I decided to get out from under the bed.
When I crawled out, I found that they were shot in the second bed, and lifted it to see what’s under it no one is hiding.
I thought the second time that day I escaped death.
The Taliban tried to set fire to the hotel
Soon the room was filled with smoke. I had to do something, and I went out to the balcony. I saw a fire to my left. It was a serious fire, and it became clear to me that if the fire reaches my room, I will not survive.
I noticed the cables which hung from the roof to the ground. I reached out to them to check whether they will survive my weight, so I was able to go down, and at that moment flew past me bullets. One flew 20 inches from my left shoulder, and the second approximately two feet. Both struck me behind the window.
Most likely, it was a sniper of the international forces, who with the help of camera surveillance night saw me go out on the balcony, and decided that I was one of the attackers. Snipers don’t miss at this distance, but exactly at that moment I reached for the TV cables and the bullets flew past me.
I decided to go back to the room. I went to the bathroom — very, very slowly, so I could not hear. I had a manicure scissors. I took them and made a hole in the plastic that covered the bottom of the bed. There was enough space so I could climb into it.
I took two bottles of water and milk from the mini-bar and a t-shirt. I cut the shirt into small pieces and plugged their nose, so as to filter the smoke. The remaining part of the shirt I tied his mouth and filled the cloth with water and milk, making like a double filter. I was taught in training at the firehouse Athens airport.
All that remains of the rooms on the fifth floor
Almost immediately after I climbed under the bottom of the bed, bad guys came back. One of them sat on the bed where I was hiding. I saw his feet, and he constantly spat. He gave the orders to others, and I still remember his voice.
Then he went to the bathroom, and then went to the balcony and emptied a few shops of his Kalashnikov. I lay as quiet as a mouse, afraid to publish at least one sound, because immediately after the shooting was absolute silence.
But somehow at this moment I had the thought that I will not die. I survived because I went to dinner earlier than usual. I survived when those men broke into my room and shot the other bed. I survived because the sniper missed. And now I’m well hidden.
I thought that international forces will somehow discourage the hotel, and decided that if I just sit here in your hole and do nothing, all will be well.
The hotel Intercontinental in Kabul
But early in the morning, the international forces began to shoot at the Windows of the rooms of the tanks. They were shooting mainly at 521 the room with me, but sometimes in other rooms as the gunmen ran from one room to another and shoot out to the troops.
Each time the tank shot, the whole hotel was literally shaking. Later I saw the results of that shooting in the other rooms — from furniture to matchsticks, the ceiling was a gaping hole. I was lucky and I survived.
Room 520, two doors down from the room of the Greek pilot
The militants opened fire again around six in the morning, right from my room. I heard they took out from the wardrobe my clothes, tore carpets off the floor, all piled in a heap, doused with gasoline and set on fire. They burned his headquarters in room 521.
The fire was two steps away from me, and I knew that this fire and strong smoke I live about 15-20 minutes, half hour tops. I kept my head as close as possible to the floor where there was oxygen, penetrated into the room through the open door to the balcony.
The smoke had a weird smell not like the smell of burning wood or rags. It was a very unpleasant smell. The smell of burning bodies.
Since I didn’t hear people, I decided to get out from under the bed. But as soon as I got out, I heard somewhere to break the window. The sound came from room 521, but then the same thing happened in my room. I had to somehow protect myself from the shards of glass.
Outside international forces using fire hoses tried to put out the fire in the room’s Windows were broken. The fire was quickly extinguished, but I stood drenched from head to toe in a room without Windows and doors, and at this time, the temperature in Kabul was about minus three degrees.
The Greek pilot initially was going to run out of the building by the stairs, but quickly changed my mind
Around 9:25 I heard sounds of shooting from the elevators. The shots sounded different, not like before, and I thought that before the floor got the international forces. Action in room 521 answered the fire from his Kalashnikov.
Between 9:30 and 11:15 international forces threw grenades corridor. Sometimes grenades were in room 521 and sometimes exploded right in front of my room with the door open. I still kept the suitcase, slightly damaged by a grenade. This is my souvenir.
By 11:30 it seemed that on the floor there was only one gunman — a man next to me in room 521. I heard he stopped to shoot the “Kalashnikov” and moved on to the gun. He ran out of bullets. Then he tried to start a fire with a soldering iron, but he failed.
The balcony room 521 after the attack
I was very happy and full of adrenaline. I had to pinch myself mouth to keep from laughing. The shooter was silent for a few minutes.
I am very tired. I arrived in Kabul late at night the day before this all started, and since then has not slept 35-40 hours.
A little later I heard a noise and foot steps approaching my room, but I didn’t know who it is — the rescuers or the militants. Around 11:40 someone was shouting: “police, Police”, but with the Afghan accent and I decided not to put out — suddenly it’s the attackers?
After a few seconds I heard the same words, but with an English accent. I was so happy that she began to scream and try to crawl out of my hole in bed. It was hard to do, I almost couldn’t breathe — the whole body ached due to the fact that I lay without movement.
I was covered in soot from the fire, and the commandos could not make out who I am. They shouted: “get Down!”, and their guns were aimed at me. One of them whispered, “It’s haunted”.
I was very cold, but I was able to say: “I am the captain of Kam Air. Please don’t shoot”.
They could not believe their eyes. They asked me how many hours I spent there, and I replied that I was there the whole time. They looked at the bed and asked me how I managed to survive.
One of them said, “Okay, we’ll go down, but first we need to take a picture together”, and I replied that I want that photo on the memory.
The center was given a special blanket to raise body temperature
I was the last man walk out of the hotel. Rescuers took the rescued on a British military base. I was very pleased to see my colleague Michael, I just could not believe my eyes. I didn’t know whether to cry or to laugh. But it was also hard. We have lost so many friends, with whom he worked — pilots, stewards, and engineers.
The Ministry of foreign Affairs announced to my family that all the survivors at the hotel were evacuated, but I am not found, so relatives thought I was dead. It is impossible to convey their joy when three or four hours later I called them and said that I was all right.
The hotel partially reopened a few months after the attack
All my life I was a positive person, but now I have even more positive emotions. Life is a gift and should rejoice to the end.
Sometimes I sit on the beach and hear friends complain that after the financial crisis, their life became less comfortable. And I say to them: “Listen, rejoice that you are alive and well. You sit on the beach, eating sardines and wash it down with ouzo. We are free, we are good friends, we laugh — that’s what people should do”.
Don’t just think about work, about what bothers you in life and causes stress. Just think about the good aspects of life, about good friends, because life really is good. Only after Kabul, I realized how good to be alive. And believe me, now I enjoy every moment.