Friday, December 5, 2008

'I hid in toilet stall for 7 hours'

Dec 5, 2008

American Michael Pollack was having dinner in the Taj Mahal Hotel with his wife when attackers struck. He gives one of the first comprehensive accounts to emerge of the terrifying hours that followed. This is an excerpt from his story published by Forbes.
MUMBAI: My wife Anjali and I were married in the Taj's Crystal Ballroom. Her parents were married there, too, and so were Shiv and Reshma, the couple with whom we had dinner plans.

The four of us arrived at the Taj around 9.30pm for dinner at the Golden Dragon. We were a little early, and our table wasn't ready. So we walked next door to the Harbour Bar and had barely begun to enjoy our beers when the host told us our table was ready. We decided to stay and finish our drinks.

Thirty seconds later, we heard what sounded like a heavy tray smashing to the ground. This was followed by 20 or 30 similar sounds and then, absolute silence. We crouched behind a table just feet away from who we now knew were gunmen. Terrorists had stormed the lobby and were firing indiscriminately.

We tried to break the glass window in front of us with a chair, but it wouldn't budge. The Harbour Bar's hostess, who had remained at her post, motioned to us that it was safe to make a run for the stairwell. We believed this courageous woman was murdered after we ran away.

We took refuge in the small office of the kitchen of another restaurant, Wasabi, on the second floor. Its chef and staff served the four of us food and drink and even apologised for the inconvenience we were suffering.

Through text messaging, e-mail on BlackBerrys and a small TV in the office, we realised the full extent of the terrorist attack on Mumbai. We figured we were in a secure place for the moment. There was also no way out.

At around 11.30pm, the kitchen went silent. We took a massive wooden table and pushed it up against the door, turned off all the lights and hid. All of the kitchen workers remained outside; not one staff member had run.

The terrorists repeatedly slammed against our door. We heard them ask the chef in Hindi if anyone was inside the office. He responded calmly: 'No one is in there. It's empty.'

That was the second time the Taj staff saved our lives.

After about 20 minutes, other staff members escorted us down a corridor to an area called The Chambers, a members-only area of the hotel. There were about 250 people in six rooms.

Inside, the staff was serving sandwiches and alcohol. We were told The Chambers was the safest place because the army was now guarding its two entrances and the streets were still dangerous.

But then, an MP phoned into a live newscast and let the world know that hundreds of people were 'secure and safe in The Chambers together'.

At around 2am, the staff attempted an evacuation. We all lined up to head down a dark fire escape exit. But after five minutes, grenade blasts and automatic weapon fire pierced the air. A mad stampede ensued to get out of the stairwell and take cover back inside The Chambers.

After that near-miss, my wife and I decided we should hide in different rooms. While we hoped to be together at the end, our primary obligation was to our children. We wanted to keep one parent alive.

Because I am American and my wife is Indian, and news reports said the terrorists were targeting Americans and Britons, I believed I would further endanger her life if we were together in a hostage situation. So when we ran back to The Chambers, I hid in a toilet stall with a floor-to-ceiling door and my wife stayed with our friends, who fled to a large room across the hall.

For the next seven hours, I lay in the fetal position, keeping in touch with Anjali via BlackBerry. I was joined in the stall by Joe, a Nigerian with a US green card. I managed to get in touch with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and several agents gave me status updates throughout the night.

After our failed evacuation, most of the people in the fire escape stairwell and many staff members who attempted to protect the guests were shot and killed.

The 10 minutes around 2.30am were the most frightening. Rather than the back-and-forth of gunfire, we just heard single, punctuated shots.

We later learnt that the terrorists went along a different corridor of The Chambers, room by room, and systematically executed everyone: women, elderly, Muslims, Hindus, foreigners. It was terrorism in its purest form. No one was spared.

The next five hours were filled with the sounds of an intense grenade/gun battle between the Indian commandos and the terrorists. By the time dawn broke, the commandos had successfully secured our corridor.

A young commando led out the people packed into Anjali's room. When one woman asked whether it was safe to leave, the commando replied: 'Don't worry, you have nothing to fear. The first bullets have to go through me.'

Anjali and I embraced for the first time in seven hours at the Taj's ground-floor entrance. I didn't know whether she was dead or injured because we hadn't been able to text for the past three hours.

Some may say our survival was due to random luck, others may credit divine intervention. But I can assure you only one thing: Far fewer people would have survived if it weren't for the extreme selflessness shown by the Taj staff, who organised us, catered to us and then, in the end, literally died for us.

[The staff of the Hotel were true heroes. What would you defend? In this case, the staff only had a working relationship with their guests. Still they protected and guarded them. True heroes. No powers. No invulnerability. Just a sense of responsibility and a dedication to duty. Is that the definition of hero? I think so.]

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