Situational awareness got me safely out of Egypt

  • Published
  • By Capt. Karen Zabrowski
  • 39th Medical Operations Squadron
This January, I had the dubious distinction of being the only Airman from Incirlik Air Base to be traveling in Egypt when their revolution began.

Due to the uniqueness of the situation, I have been asked to write on my experience.

When initially planning my visit to Egypt with my parents for vacation, we decided to approach it prudently and booked a tour with an established travel agency; this would ensure a local guide and transportation for every step of our travels.

The tour was to begin in Cairo. From there, we would fly to Aswan to begin a Nile River cruise north to Luxor where we would fly back to Cairo and then back to our respective homes. Due to the sheer number of diverse locations where we would be staying, I decided to leave the phone number of the tour agency with my commander as my leave contact; this way, the tour company would be able to pinpoint exactly where I was each step of the way on my travels in case an issue arose. However, as soon as the protests and demonstrations throughout Egypt began to escalate, complications developed to what I previously thought was a well-established travel plan. The following is a day-by-day account of what occurred while I was in Egypt.

Jan. 25: I flew Egypt Air from Istanbul to Cairo and was escorted to my hotel without incident.

Jan. 26: We drove to Giza for touring. There were no signs of protests, and the tourism industry appeared to be functioning normally.

Jan. 27: We toured the city of Cairo including the museum and the bazaars. While we didn't see any protesting, we did see empty riot vehicles lining a few of the side streets. However, our tour company reported that despite some minor gatherings, tourists in Egypt were safe and did not need to leave. No foreign country had yet issued an evacuation.

Jan. 28: Our Egypt Air flight from Cairo to Aswan took off and landed without incident. Upon arrival in Aswan, we immediately began a day tour of the city. Only at night when we boarded our Nile River cruise boat did we learn that the protests in Cairo had escalated severely, and Internet and cell phone usage had been shut down across the country. Since the cruise boat did its sailing at night and relied on cables while docked for a TV signal, we were unable to tune into news to gauge the situation.

Jan. 29: We continued on our Nile River cruise. Our scheduled stop to Edfu was cancelled due to protests near the docks. At dinner, I was able to find an American woman with a satellite phone which could still text to the U.S. She allowed me to use it to text my sister stateside. I had her contact friends, family, and my commander to let them know I was safe and looking for a way out. Our scheduled docking at Esna for the night was cancelled when-as we were pulling up near the docks-a few buildings started fire. We ended up circling the Nile the entire night, once again unable to tune into news.

Jan. 30: Our river cruise boat finally docked at the city of Luxor, the last stop. The city was deemed safe enough for us to become tourists again for the morning. Our bus to the temple of Karnak had to be diverted due, not to protests, but to locals lining the streets carrying sticks, defending their own properties in the event of violent demonstrations. ATMs were shut down and restaurants would only serve the local population due to a shortage of food. Upon returning to the boat after a morning of nervous sight-seeing, we learned that our afternoon excursion to the Valley of the Kings was cancelled because of protests and Egyptian military presence nearby. The phone on the boat was working so I called the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. I told them who I was and the situation I was in. In return, I was told that their immediate concern was Cairo and that they would take care of me when I arrived in the city. When I asked them if they could contact Incirlik AB to report to command that I was safe, they said they were unable to due to lack of resources. I was told to call back should I be unable to fly out of Luxor the next day on my scheduled flight.

Jan. 31: We left for the airport early in the morning. The streets appeared deserted. Upon arrival at the airport, we discovered it was packed--every tourist in Luxor was there in an attempt to be officially evacuated. We also learned the curfew for Egyptians had been changed to 3 p.m.-8 a.m., so all the flights would be delayed. However, as the morning progressed, no planes came in from Cairo. Egypt Air stated that all the pilots were staying home to guard their families and possessions instead of reporting to work. Despite having reservations, we were too far down on the list to get a seat on a small handful of flights that did end up leaving for Cairo. Every international flight was booked full for the next several days.

After about 10 hours in the airport, with no hotel or cruise boat to go back to, no working ATMs, and a rapidly dwindling supply of food and water at the airport, we were almost resigned to a several-day stay on the airport floor. It was then that we received word of a charter flight leaving for Cairo; it required $150 cash immediately per person. We pushed our way to the front of a large crowd of people desperate to leave, and managed to count $449 between the three of us (someone was nice enough to lend us the additional $1) and bought the "tickets" (they wrote our names on a piece of paper), leaving us broke with no receipt. Luckily, we managed to take off and arrive at Cairo airport later that night, although we left two hours after the stated departure time.

A representative from our tour agency broke curfew to meet us at the airport and told us that we would not venture into the city for a hotel; he had seen two people shot earlier that day and did not think it was safe. Instead of gambling that our scheduled flights the next day would actually depart (only about 10 percent of Egypt Air flights were taking off on time due to curfew, crews not showing up for work, etc.) and staying in the overcrowded Cairo airport all night, he escorted us to the U.S. Embassy-a makeshift operation outside a separate airport terminal. Everyone who came was handed a ticket with a number and told to stand in line until a plane came. When they learned that I was an Air Force officer, I was told that I was bypassing the line and was getting out on the next flight (the ninth and last of the day). All remaining evacuees would have to wait outside in line until the next morning. At 1 a.m., I was on a plane for evacuation to Athens.

Feb. 1: Upon arrival in Athens, I was told to present my orders. Without question, the officials handed me a ticket to Istanbul free of charge; evacuated civilians had to purchase their own tickets back home. With the Internet and phones working in Athens, I immediately contacted my commander and let him know that I would return later that day.

Lessons learned:

1) Carry a hard copy of emergency phone numbers: Carrying a hard copy of emergency phone numbers along with a recall roster is important, but they must be accompanied by instructions on how to dial these numbers from a foreign country. When we were able to use the phone on the cruise boat, no one knew how to dial out to Turkey from Egypt; even the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was unable to help me in this regard.
2) Carry enough cash for emergency situations: Without enough cash, my parents and I would more than likely have spent several nights in the Luxor airport. Don't assume that there will be plentiful functioning ATMs at any location.

3) Leave a detailed itinerary with someone about where you will be each day: While my command staff still would not have been able to contact me due to the cell phone and Internet shutdown, they would at least have known by my itinerary that I was safely out of Cairo by the time the protests escalated to dangerous levels.

4) Do NOT rely on the Internet for communication: I had incorrectly assumed that I would be able to have Internet access for my entire trip. I even checked ahead of time that my cruise boat had wireless available. While my case of a nationwide shutdown of all Internet services is an extreme example, it does demonstrate over-dependence on the Internet for information and communication.

The key to all my lessons learned, however, is to maintain situational awareness at all times. At the time of my departure, the government of Egypt appeared relatively stable, and the sudden uprising of the masses could not have been easily predicted by the common tourist. Certain extreme situations cannot be anticipated; however, they can still be prepared for and handled with calm precision. While my case admittedly relied on a small degree of luck to resolve as neatly as it did, maintaining a sense of situational awareness allowed me to gauge the situation, my safety, and my evacuation plan as well as possible in an unanticipated and haphazard circumstance.