Surviving a Terrorist Attack
Terrorists attacked several locations in Mumbai, India, in November 2008, exactly one year ago. According to Wikipedia, “the 2008 Mumbai attacks were more than ten coordinated shooting and bombing attacks across Mumbai, India’s largest city, by Islamic extremists from Pakistan.”
One of the sites attacked was the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. “By the early morning of 28 November, all sites except for the Taj hotel had been secured by Mumbai Police and security forces. An action by India’s National Security Guards (NSG) on 29 November resulted in the death of the last remaining attackers at the Taj hotel, ending all fighting in the attacks.”
This is a Q&A with someone who was there, a mixed-race Anglo-Indian British man.
I was in India for a wedding. My own wedding, actually. I was due to get married a couple of days later.
What happened in the Taj that night, was the most terrifying experience of my life. Yet, I was one of the lucky ones that got out alive when rescued by commandos the next morning, after a very heavy firefight.
Your experience sounds terrifying, how did it start? Were you in a room or with others, What was your first move? Was your wife with you / were you able to speak to her on the outside if not?
I actually wasn’t staying at the Taj. Me and some friends had decided to go there for dinner, as it housed some of the top restaurants in Mumbai. We had been having a fun evening – lots of laughing and joking. There was a great atmosphere, and the service was impeccable as expected.
We were about to order dessert. My mother was also with us, and she decided to head out to the WC. A minute later we heard a series of bangs. Everyone went silent, and then a few chuckles… “it must be just fireworks, don’t worry”. It actually did sounds like firecrackers. But then we heard them again, this time closer – much closer. Unmistakable this time. It was gunfire. The restaurant manager shouted “everyone get down”. We were already on the floor. Everyone was silent, on the ground of the restaurant. We could see the figures going past the opaque windows of the restaurant, in the hallway. More gunfire. I would later find out, from TV, that they had gone in to the restaurant on the opposite side of the hallway and opened fire.
People started to panic, and there were murmurs about whether we should break the windows which led out on to the harbour, to get out. But before there was time, the staff opened the kitchen door and ushered everyone through. From there we took a series of passageways, and ended up setting up in a few different rooms, before later meeting up with 150 or so other guests in a larger room called the Chambers, which must have been where the staff were trained to lead people in an emergency. As I said, my mother had walked out from the restaurant, into the hallway, a minute before the shooting started. I feared the worst when I couldn’t’ get through to her on the cellphone. I later found out that she went into the WC and a moment later the shooting started. The bathroom attendant opened a cupboard a shoved my mother and another lady in to it, locking it shut. About 40 minutes later she was to be found by police and led out to safety, past the carnage that had occurred a while earlier in the lobby.
In answer to your other question – my fiancée was not with us. I am so glad that she wasn’t. I’m not sure what crazy stuff I would have attempted to keep her safe. I was later able to speak to her on the phone. She was upbeat – the 24hr news channels hadn’t really picked up on the story yet, and so she just assumed that the police would bring things under control pretty soon. After that, as things got worse, i couldn’t make calls because everyone was trying to be silent in the rooms we hid in. However we were in touch by text message. I still have them all saved, and I’m sure you can imagine the kinds of words that were exchanged. I just felt so upset that I was about to die, two days before I had the chance to marry this wonderful woman.
Was there any stage where you thought “this is it, I’m gonna die”?
A couple of hours after the attack started, we were trying to get away from the terrorists, running through kitchens and corridors etc. The staff started to lead a lot of the guests to a single room, called the Chambers. People came here from all over this massive hotel, so the staff must have had this as a predetermined assembly point in case of emergency.
For a while then, many people thought we were safe. At this point it still wasn’t even clear that it was a terrorist attack. People were talking about it was probably local gangs. As for myself, I had an impending sense of dread. I can’t even describe it. It was like I knew there was more to it and that things were definitely not over.
So, anyway we were camped out in this place and then apparently an Indian Minister who was in the same room, got on the phone to an Indian news station. Perhaps in the madness of the moment he revealed where we all were. After that, word started to get around to everyone (by phone, text etc from family outside) that our location was all over the news. The attackers must know where we are.
So, the staff decided that we should attempt an exit. They were to lead the way through a series of kitchens and passageways. Everyone formed a disorderly queue and then started to head through the kitchen. Then bang, bang, bang. The sound of automatic gun fire. Those in front were being shot. Everyone turned around and stampeded back to the Chambers. The staff stayed outside and locked the doors. The police must have been heading to the same point because then there was a long firefight outside the room. Guns and grenades was all we could hear, for what seemed like ages. It was at this point that I felt “this is it”. The people in the room were deathly silent. Everyone lying on the floor, under tables and chairs, huddled together. It was clear that everyone was thinking the same thing… any minute know they’re going to break through the door and shoot us all, or just a single grenade would do the trick.
I can’t even describe the feeling.
Don’t end your account there, what happened next?
Well after things continued like that for the whole night. There would be periods of dead silence and then BOOM, a grenade would go off nearby. The floor would shake. Some gunfire. People in the room would whimper for a while and then silence again. I also remember feeling cold… very cold and shivering. Not sure if the temperature had dropped or if I was just shit scared.
Me and I think a lot of other people almost drifted off – not quite to sleep, but to a state of acceptance where you try to numb yourself from what’s going on around you. Every new explosion send a jolt through me, and I’d lie there (half under a table and my head under a sofa!) thinking this is it, the time has come, don’t scream just accept it. I have never been particularly religious, but at that time I thing everyone in the room, myself included, was praying to god. What else can you do?
As I said, this continued for a few hours – we would hear gunfighting and then explosions, and then nothing. In the middle of the night there was an almighty explosion. I later understood that the terrorists had been setting fire to different parts of the hotel. A while later smoke was washing through into the room we were in. There was nothing we could do – go out and be shot or stay inside and be consumed.
As dawn broke, there had been silence for a while. People had started to become restless and were getting up from their lying positions to stretch, or go pee in a plant pot or in bottles (you never think about toilet arrangements during a terrorist attack!).
By then, the commandos had obviously arrived and were battling the terrorists. A while later, they came through to us – actually I think someone unlocked the door for them. I remember people whispering around the room – there are men with guns tapping at the door. Should we open it? I remember thinking, “no” don’t open the fucking door! As it turned out, they were commandos…
How did others that you were with handle the situation compared to you?
Very few people were hysterical, but different people certainly handled events in different ways. Early on in the night, for example, before things got serious (i.e. before the terrorists explicitly knew where we had gone) the situation was actually pretty surreal. The staff had donned their white gloves and were handing out drinks on silver trays. The Brits (obviously the Brits) were sat around tables drinking sherry and obviously trying not to flap at the situation – probably thinking well if it happens then it happens, but we’re not going to let it ruin our evening or our demeanour!
A lot of others were gossiping about what might be going on – was it gangs, was it terrorists. Bear in mind that most people in this hotel were rich and/or influential, so they were on the phone a lot with people outside trying to get information. Some were rescheduling meetings or changing flight plans. Little did they know what was about to kick off!
Other Europeans were obviously struggling to keep up with the Hindi/English news reports on the TV and the gossip in the room. However, the TV was soon cut off to the building and then after the first major attack on our position the mood changed entirely. After that it was lights off and huddled on the ground in dead silence. You could hear people murmuring prayers, or the low level lights of mobile phones as people texted family. At this point everyone knew how serious it was and how important to stay quiet, so no one became outwardly hysterical.
What was your reaction when you saw the commandos arrived and extracted you and the others?
Dead scared actually, because I didn’t know (or couldn’t believe) that they were commandos. It’s almost like I didn’t want to think “thank god, we’re safe” until I was 100% certain that it was all over.
The commandos came in to get us, but the terrorists were still in the hotel, regrouping I expect. So the commandos were in a rush to lead us through a route they had secured.
However, even when we got outside the hotel, it was still heads down – it’s not over till its over. They pulled up some buses, but as people were getting in, the terrorists starting firing out of the windows at the buses, so we all ran back to the hotel, which was pretty crazy. The next buses pulled up closer to us, before rushing us off to a large police station. Even at the police station, I could still not believe it was over. I knew that terrorists had attacked several locations around the city, so I still half expected them to storm the police station at any moment.
To be honest, I didn’t really feel relief until I left India!