Late one Saturday night, February 12, 2005, a woman working in an office thought she had put out her cigarette butt before dumping her ashtray into the wastebasket and leaving.
At 11:09 p.m., the building's sensors detected smoke on the 21st floor. A security guard went up to look, saw evidence of a small fire in a locked office, and at 11:19 p.m. called the Madrid Fire Department. They came promptly and investigated. It didn't seem especially serious.
It shouldn't have been. The automatic fire suppression systems in many modern buildings can put out a wastebasket fire without human intervention. The Windsor Tower, rising 28 floors in Madrid's financial center, had been built in 1979 with state-of-the-art systems for the time, but technology had changed over the decades. Ironically, a sprinkler system was being installed in the Windsor Tower, but it wasn't yet operational. That could have changed history.
Instead, the fire quickly spread through the 21st floor, and then up and down central vertical conduits full of cables, burning the plastic that covered wires. Soon, the firefighters realized that all they could do, despite pumping more than a million gallons of water on the fire, was to keep it from spreading to neighboring buildings.
My husband, who had been up late watching television, woke me at about 1 a.m. to see the live new coverage. An inferno was consuming the skyscraper and growing bigger by the minute. Pieces of the exterior crashed down, revealing desks glowing with flames. Burning papers and litter flew through the neighborhood. Finally the upper floors collapsed in a terrifying spectacle.
By 7 a.m., the fire had reached the first floor. I awoke to a column of smoke on the horizon that continued to rise for hours. The fire was not declared extinguished until 7:20 p.m. Although some firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation, amazingly, no one was seriously injured or killed.
Here's the lesson about backing up your data
Deloitte, a major international audit and consultating company, occupied the upper 20 floors of the building. It had a policy that required every single piece of paper generated during every working day to be scanned and sent to off-site storage, along with all electronic data. I'm sure that employees found this annoying. But it paid off.
On Sunday, Deloitte's managers rented temporary office space. On Monday, its employees showed up for work as usual. It had been a disaster, but not for Deloitte or its clients. For them, it was just a somewhat more interesting Monday.
The moral of this story is that you can lose your data — your precious novel manuscript, your financial spreadsheets, all that stuff in your computer and on your shelves — if your house catches fire or is destroyed in a flood, or if your computer gets stolen or dies. But you don't have to.
Lots of people can give you excellent instructions about how to do that. I hope I've given you motivation. Here's some advice about backups:
Simple, practical tips, including a very easy idea in the comments.
More useful suggestions.
From a small business perspective.
And, if you're interested in the fire:
El Mundo newspaper has an amazing gallery of photos. The photo above comes from there.
El País newspaper has excellent explanations, in Spanish.
— Sue Burke
Also posted at my professional writing website: