My worst travel experience

A reader's tale of a bus trip that went disastrously awry in the Egyptian desert.

By Rachael Pettus

Published March 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

On New Year's Eve, 1991, I was traveling from Sharm el-Sheikh, where I had been working as a crew member on a dive charter boat, to Cairo on the night bus. The journey usually took about 10 hours. Just south of Ras Sudr, an hour or so before Suez, the bus drove head-on into the back of a parked truck.

Such an accident on this road is not uncommon. Trucks park for the night simply by stopping on the side of the road. The desert road is unlit and the trucks have no markers.

Anyway, our bus (fortunately, I was sitting near the back) careened off the road and bounced down a 10-foot bank into a stone-lined culvert. Luckily, we didn't turn over. I was afraid we would burn, as about 15 of us were trapped in the back of the bus, unable to open the escape window. Of course we didn't burn, the bus being diesel-fueled, but I remember distinctly a surge of panic about being burned to death in the Egyptian desert on New Year's Eve.

We got out, eventually, and being first-aid trained and having a first-aid kit, I steeled myself and went to the front of the bus to see if there was anything I could do. My companion had a briefcase with $1,000 in it, so he stayed with that.

There were only two seriously injured. One man lost an eye, and another had two broken legs. An Irish guy (who also had a first-aid kit) and I helped get them out. A lot of people were shocked and dazed, so along with other passengers, we shared our sleeping bags, wrapped people up and helped get a fire going. I don't know what happened to the driver of the truck who had been asleep in the cab.

Someone went up to the road and stopped a car, telling the driver to send for an ambulance -- which came after about half an hour. Meanwhile, the guy with the broken legs was bleeding heavily from a thigh wound. The Irish guy and I felt that it would be a good idea to stop the bleeding, so we went to work. An Egyptian came running up. "Don't touch him! Leave him alone. I'm a doctor. He will get gangrene if you bind his leg!" The Irish guy was applying pressure on the artery above the wound to stop the bleeding, and it seemed to be working, but the "doctor" would have none of it, and pulled the Irish guy away.

We decided to leave it. If the poor man died because one of his countrymen wouldn't let us help, that was an Egyptian problem, and we had no desire to be hauled up before the police as insubordinate foreigners. (Given the prevailing xenophobia, we realized that arguing would be futile. And we knew that if the poor guy did die, we would be held responsible. The knowledge that we might actually be responsible for his dying by not touching him made it very hard.) Anyway, when the ambulance came he was still alive, though very weak.

After about an hour, some heavy trucks carrying stones to Suez stopped and we all climbed up on top of the load. It was freezing, but I had my sleeping bag back, as its previous occupant had gone in an ambulance.

The trucks dropped us at the Suez Canal at about 2 a.m., and some mini-buses sent by the Cairo bus company picked us up and took us to Cairo. We arrived at about 6 a.m.

Happy New Year! Breakfast rarely has tasted so good.

Rachael Pettus

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Egyptian Protests Middle East Travel