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Players Survive Hotel Fire; Schwank's Prize Money Burns

A plasma TV did not survive the fire© Rik de VoestA plasma TV did not survive the fire

Thailand's twin ATP doubles stars Sonchat and Sanchai Ratiwatana navigated a smoke-filled corridor with wet towels wrapped around their faces to avoid a dangerous hotel fire Monday in Bordeaux, France, where they are competing in an ATP Challenger event. The twins also helped the wife and son of Argentine doubles specialist Lucas Arnold Ker to escape the fire, which broke out on the third floor of the tournament hotel, the Quality Suites.

South Africa's Rik De Voest also fled after crawling on his hands and knees. And Argentine Eduardo Schwank, whose room was destoyed in the blaze, had his Rome Challenger winner's prizemoney burn in the fire (see story below).

Smoke filled the Ratiwatanas' third-floor room around 9 a.m., forcing them to evacuate. ''I told my brother to grab his passport and computer and get out," Sanchai said.

But the brothers emerged to a pitch-black corridor with no lighting and thick black smoke, which impeded their progress. Minutes before making it to safety, the Ratiwatanas had become disoriented and had walked away from the safety of a stairwell into a dead end at the other end of the corridor, where they began to have trouble breathing. With thick smoke making navigation almost impossible, the brothers retraced their steps back towards the stairwell and towards the room of Arnold Ker, who was downstairs eating breakfast unaware that his wife, Yannina, and their five-year-old son Nacho, were in danger.

Yannina opened the door when she heard the Ratiwatanas' voices and the group began weighing their options. "Before I opened the door I was thinking of jumping out the window," Yannina said. "But the twins said we can't do that."

"The Ratiwatanas put towels in water and gave one to me and one to my son to put over our nose and mouth. There was no map of the emergency exit but we knew that we couldn't stay there. We decided to try to find the stairs but when we opened the door the smoke was terrible. I thought the whole hotel was on fire, when in fact it was only the room right in front of ours. We started walking up the corridor but there was no exit sign. We really couldn't see anything until the fireman opened the door to the stairs and we could see some light."

The twins shrugged off the label as heroes, saying that Yannina had helped them as much as they had helped her and Nacho. "We were starting to gag on the smoke when she opened her door, which allowed us to get a fresh breath. I don't know how much further we could have made it," Sonchat said. "It was a scary situation. There were no escape routes posted on the door, electrical wires were dangling from the ceiling, there was no emergency lighting in the hallway and we could barely see anything because of the smoke."

Most hotel guests - including the majority of players who were at breakfast - were initially unaware of the drama unfolding around them. "All I heard at breakfast was a very light sound... I didn't imagine it could be a fire alarm," said Arnold Ker, himself a cancer survivor. "When I realized what had happened I was very relieved to see my family."

De Voest, whose room was less than two meters from the blazing room of Argentine player Eduardo Schwank, said his escape took little more than 30 seconds, but it was the longest 30 seconds of his life. "The phone rang and reception said the fire alarm was going off - I couldn't hear it - and that I should leave the building. I got my bag with my passport just in case.

"Then I smelled smoke and started to hurry. I pulled my room key out as I opened the door, which shut off all the power to my room, and all of a sudden it was pitch black and I was surrounded by a mass of smoke. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. So I did what I've seen people do in the movies - I dropped to the ground and crawled out on my hands and knees.

"I was pretty shaken up and all my clothes and bags are covered in soot. I was surprised that there were no sprinklers in the room. I only saw one other person, a French guy, during my escape. I yelled out to him 'Which way to the stairs?' but he didn't speak English.

"Thankfully the twins and Lucas's family also made it out. It would have been impossible to jump... we were three stories up and there was only cement underneath."

Firemen reportedly said that the fire started because an oven in Schwank's room was left on. But Schwank reportedly said that he had not used the oven.

Schwank's passport, equipment, clothes and laptop computer were destroyed in the fire. In a stroke of good fortune, he had earlier dropped off two racquets to be restrung and had some match clothes being laundered. His first-round match was postponed from Monday to Tuesday and he twice rallied from a break down in the third set to defeat Yuri Schukin.

The incident brought back memories of the hotel fire during Masters Series Rome in May 2004, when Andy Roddick and Marat Safin were among 30 players forced to evacuate the luxury hotel Parco dei Principe near the central Villa Borghese park in the center of Rome. Three people died in that blaze.

World No. 95 Eduardo Schwank gives his recollection of events:

“I was having breakfast in the hotel on Monday morning, which is situated in the basement, when I heard about the fire.

“For much of Monday I was in a daze, thinking about how I would get my passport, documents and laptop in order. I also lost the prize money I earned from winning my last tournament, a Challenger event in Rome. (The winner's prizemoney in Rome was €4,300.)

“The tournament kindly moved my first round match [against Yuri Schukin] to Tuesday, but even then I found it hard to concentrate on my tennis.

“It was a national holiday in France on Monday, so I had no chance of buying any clothes. All I had was two tennis racquets, one pair of tennis shoes and two t-shirts to my name. I received a couple of polo shirts for my first match and by Tuesday afternoon new clothes had fortunately arrived from two Argentinean friends who arrived three days early for a holiday in Italy.

“Thankfully the tournament organizers have been very helpful and right now are in contact with the local police to get a statement, which highlights the fact that I lost my passport and other documents in the fire. The nearest embassy is in Paris, so next week part of my preparation for Roland Garros will be to arrange for new documentation."

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