Tuesday, Oct 04, 2022

4 Survivors Of 2008 Mumbai Terror Attacks Recall Their Brush With Death

'But I guess God wanted us to live on.'

File Photo

It has been 12 years since Mumbai witnessed the most horrific terrorist attack in the city's history.  Four survivors of recount their memories of that horrific night to Outlook’s Lachmi Deb Roy. 

Sonali Chatterjee, a media professional from Delhi

It was 12 years back, so memories do fade a bit over time, but some are as fresh as if it were yesterday. Our entire editorial team was down in Mumbai and all of us were checked in at the Taj Hotel. On the morning of November 26, when I reached the hotel, I remember hanging up all my clothes (for all the programmes in the next two to three days) and holding a series of meetings in the coffee shop and the business centre.

In the evening, a few of us went out for dinner and came back to the hotel around 9.30 pm. I was on the 17th floor of the new wing of the Taj Hotel. I got a call from my boss, who was in the heritage wing,  and he said that he had heard shots and told me to lock my door. My first impression was that it must be crackers. Nevertheless, I did lock my door.

At 10.45 pm the phone in the room rang. It was an employee of Taj, who said that there had been an incident in the lobby and we were to switch off our lights, lock and barricade our doors and not open it for anyone other than Taj staff, and then she hung up. I tried asking her what was going on, and desperately called and pressed every button on the phone (reception, housekeeping, room service) but there was no answer. That’s when I realised something was wrong.

After that, I heard the sound of continuous gunfire through the next few hours and loud explosions in between. We were sitting in our dark rooms, speaking to our family members across the world and to our colleagues. Our news organisation constituted a global Task Force on email which included four of us at the hotel. Their message was clear—all four of us were to write back every 15 minutes to report  if we were fine or not. In the meanwhile, they got our exact locations in the hotel.

I remember feeling cold, thirsty, but remarkably alert. I probably lost track of time, when we got an email from the head of the editorial, just three words—‘Get out now’.

We knew the hotel was on fire. That email kind of jerked us back to the immediate situation. He said it was best to wet a towel, as there may be smoke outside, and then make a run for it. I called my husband and told him I was heading out and would call him as soon as I was out. I opened the door and came out to a quiet and empty corridor. By force of habit, I walked to the elevator, but then cursed myself and tried to look for the fire escape and finally found it.

The fire escape was narrow and poorly lit, and as I kept going down, the gunfire became louder and louder. I was thinking that if anyone came into the stairs with a gun, there was nothing I could do. After what seemed an eternity, I reached a door with a push bar which read “if you push bar, the alarm will ring”. I probably hesitated for a few seconds, I had no idea where it would lead, but I just mustered courage and pushed, and found myself in the back lane of the Taj.  Someone screamed to run for the main road, which we did. My boss, who was in the heritage wing, came running out a few minutes later. Our other colleague at the heritage wing came out almost 30 minutes later. The exit she had tried to take was blocked, she had to climb over a few bodies and finally jumped out of a first-floor window.

We went to the house of our Mumbai correspondent in South Mumbai and then I flew back to Delhi. I went to the office on Friday (November 28), I was absolutely fine. But Saturday (November 29) morning, I broke down and went to pieces. Survivors guilt, after seeing the commandos and old friends from the media who had not made it. I may still have a document of all our emails that night, the four of us rarely ever spoke of it. I went back to the Taj two years later for a meal at the Wasabi, with a client and my boss was there as well. As we walked into the hotel, he just said, “We have never spoken about it ever, have we?”

Varsha Talreja Kansara, PR professional, Mumbai

We were a group of eight friends celebrating one of our friend’s birthday. We rented a ferry boat that would sail for three hours, just off the coast from the Gateway of India. Loaded with our party supplies, some snacks and music, we started out in the boat at around 6 pm. The plan later was to head to one of our favourite hangouts—Leopold Café or Indus—which was located right behind the Taj Mahal hotel. Some more friends were to join us to bring in the birthday at midnight.

That would have been the ideal celebration, of course, but none of that happened. It was almost 9 pm, and our boat was heading back to the Gateway for docking. A friend called her driver and asked him to fetch some of us outside after a few minutes. He said he had been asked by the authorities to leave the area so he wouldn't be able to, and that there were terrorists outside. He said this and disconnected. We laughed it off, assuming he was joking, or drunk, or just being plain lazy and making excuses.

However, as soon as we arrived at the docking zone, we had a patrol boat come and warn us briefly, citing the same situation. It was then that we believed it to be real. We were asked to turn off all the lights and the music on the boat, and stay put until further notice. The driver powered off the engine and joined us. There was a similar ferry with about 30 or 40 school children right in front of us who were instructed to do the same. We saw them all crouch on the floor in fear.

Next, it was our parents who had started calling us frantically, but not knowing what to advise us to do. Our friends and colleagues, too, called to check on us. Based on what they heard on the news, they informed us that some terrorists had entered the Taj and Leopold Café, and there were casualties being reported. We were in utter shock and disbelief. They weren't able to keep us further apprised of the situation outside as our phones had soon run out of power, or lost connectivity by then.

In the next few moments, it seemed like all hell had broken loose. We could see for ourselves, although from a distance, people running in all directions, screaming. This continued for a couple of hours, and we sat silently and in complete darkness.

Finally, close to midnight, we were informed by the cops that we could get out around the corner bend in a single file and move into the nearby Yacht Club for safety. The good folks at the Club, which is in close proximity to the Taj Mahal hotel, were providing safe shelter by letting in civilians that night.

I remember one particular moment so vividly as if it were yesterday. As I put one foot forward to step into the gate at the Club, I heard a gunshot. The loudest and the scariest sound ever! A chill ran down my spine. My friends and I froze in horror, and the next minute, we scampered inside. The ordeal continued all night. There were several others like us gathered inside, glued to the news on TV. It was then that we learnt about all the other spots in the city that had been targeted.

In the morning, there was finally some relief. The din had stopped. We peeked through the curtains to see commandos positioned on the balconies of the hotel. It was around 11 am when a TOPS security van was arranged for us to be dropped off home to safety. The streets were deserted and there was an eerie silence all around. At that time, what we went through felt like a lot, but on hearing about so many innocent lives that were lost, and so many brave souls who fought to keep others safe, we just felt blessed to be back home.

Anup Sheth, a former senior staffer at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai

The day is embedded in my memory as if it happened yesterday. I was the Assistant Manager of Golden Dragon at The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai. It all started as a normal day for us until 9.15 at night, when everything changed. I was interacting with a guest who had come to dine in the restaurant. We heard some noises and we thought it to be firecrackers because there was a wedding going on in the hotel. But slowly the noise became intense. At that point in time, it was very difficult to relate to gunshots because I have never experienced or heard a live gunshot before in my life. Again, at the same time, I was sure that it was not firecrackers.

As a protocol, what we do generally is inform the operators. While I was standing at the hostess desk, I threw the key to the manager to lock the main door. And when the door was just being locked, we saw a terrorist entering. He was wearing an orange cap, a red and orange T-shirt and cargo pants. He could be easily mistaken as any normal Bombay college boy and then he pointed the gun at the ceiling. And for a moment I thought it to be a toy gun. As he fired at the ceiling, we all dived behind a pillar. We, unfortunately, couldn’t switch off the lights because the entire light panel was next to the main door. We moved everyone to the Chamber on the first floor for the next seven hours.

It was a Wednesday night and the hotel was packed with guests. At around 3.30 am, we got the evacuation permission. Then we heard gunshots again and by hearing the intensity of the shot we were very sure that it was happening on our floor and that we were very close to it. Just before the Chamber, there is a fire exit and I took the fire exit to go down at the Food and Beverages office. The ceiling was shaking so I hid under a desk. Then I heard some footsteps and from under the table, I could see black shoes and black trousers. They were the Naval personnel who had come to rescue us and there was a hotel security manager also who was along with them. They asked me to take the lobby route and walk out of the hotel. It was around 5 am in the morning. 

I lost Chef Hemant, one of my closest friends. He was 24-year-old. The bullet hit his shoulder and punctured his lungs. Sadly, a lot of chefs were the first to come in the line of fire.

Celebrity Chef Amrita Raichand, Mumbai

26/11 is my birthday and so it makes it all the spookier and scarier. We were at the Wasabi at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai with a family friend of ours. As luck would have it our table was booked for 9.30 pm. I wanted to sit at the harbour bar and my husband and I had to go to another friend’s party after an early dinner. But our family friend had a suite just above Wasabi, so we decided to have a drink at his suite and then go. Anyways, thank god, my demand wasn’t heard upon. So, we ended up going to the room.

We were having our first round of drinks and my entire family was present there and my one-year-old son was at home. Then we heard some sounds and we thought it to be firecrackers. After some time, we realised that something was amiss. We called up at the reception and they said that they also don’t know what is going on and we were asked to stay in our rooms. Through the windows, we looked down on the porch of the Taj and suddenly we saw bodies being taken out. Strangely enough, the first people who were shot at were inside the Harbour Bar where I was insisting to go. Suddenly, all our windows were shattered and that’s when we realised that this is a terrorist attack. We decided that we will not try and escape. We turned off the lights and we were hoping that somebody would come to rescue us. But then finally at 5 am my brother who was not present at the hotel found out that there was a second fire brigade coming to rescue the people trapped at the Taj.

My husband switched on the lights and started waving through the windows to the white cars and luckily, they spotted us. Around 7.30 am, they rescued us and we were immediately rushed to the first ambulance which brought us home. And  I saw my son,  which I was just not hopeful about, and kept thinking had my family been wiped out, my son wouldn’t have any of us. But I guess God wanted us to live on. That was the most traumatic and also, the most dramatic night of my life. I could see the chandeliers breaking, windows shattering in front of my eyes. So, every 26/11 I start getting calls and for the longest time, I didn’t celebrate my birthday.