Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Heroes At The Taj: The first bullets have to go through me

Heroes At The Taj

Michael Pollack 12.01.08, 7:40 PM ET

My story begins innocuously, with a dinner reservation in a world-class

hotel. It ends 12 hours later after the Indian army freed us.

My point is not to sensationalize events. It is to express my gratitude and

pay tribute to the staff of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, who sacrificed

their lives so that we could survive. They, along with the Indian army, are

the true heroes that emerged from this tragedy.

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. In fact, my wife and Reshma, both Bombay

girls, grew up hanging out and partying the night away there and at the

Oberoi Hotel, another terrorist target.

The four of us arrived at the Taj around 9:30 p.m. for dinner at the Golden

Dragon, one of the better Chinese restaurants in Mumbai. We were a little

early, and our table wasn't ready. So we walked next door to the Harbor 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 what we now knew

were gunmen. Terrorists had stormed the lobby and were firing


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. She

mentioned, in passing, that there was a dead body right outside in the

corridor. We believe this courageous woman was murdered after we ran away.

(We later learned that minutes after we climbed the stairs, terrorists came

into the Harbour Bar, shot everyone who was there and executed those next

door at the Golden Dragon. The staff there was equally brave, locking their

patrons into a basement wine cellar to protect them. But the terrorists

managed to break through and lob in grenades that killed everyone in the


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 apologized for the inconvenience we were suffering.

Through text messaging, e-mail on BlackBerrys and a small TV in the office,

we realized 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 11:30 p.m., 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 is the second time the Taj staff saved our


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. People were nervous, but cautiously optimistic. We were told The

Chambers was the safest place we could be because the army was now guarding

its two entrances and the streets were still dangerous. There had been

attacks at a major railway station and a hospital.

But then, a member of parliament phoned into a live newscast and let the

world know that hundreds of people--including CEOs, foreigners and members

of parliament--were "secure and safe in The Chambers together." Adding to

the escalating tension and chaos was the fact that, via text and cellphone,

we knew that the dome of the Taj was on fire and that it could move


At around 2 a.m., 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

U.S. and U.K. nationals, 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

national with a U.S. green card. I managed to get in touch with the FBI,

and several agents gave me status updates throughout the night.

I cannot even begin to explain the level of adrenaline running through my

system at this point. It was this hyper-aware state where every sound,

every smell, every piece of information was ultra-acute, analyzed and

processed so that we could make the best decisions and maximize the odds of


Was the fire above us life-threatening? What floor was it on? Were the

commandos near us, or were they terrorists? Why is it so quiet? Did the

commandos survive? If the terrorists come into the bathroom and to the

door, when they fire in, how can I make my body as small as possible? If

Joe gets killed before me in this situation, how can I throw his body on

mine to barricade the door? If the Indian commandos liberate the rest in

the other room, how will they know where I am? Do the terrorists have

suicide vests? Will the roof stand? How can I make sure the FBI knows where

Anjali and I are? When is it safe to stand up and attempt to urinate?

Meanwhile, Anjali and the others were across the corridor in a mass of

people lying on the floor and clinging to each other. People barely moved

for seven hours, and for the last three hours they felt it was too unsafe

to even text. While I was tucked behind a couple walls of marble and

granite in my toilet stall, she was feet from bullets flying back and

forth. 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 2:30 a.m. were the most frightening. Rather than the

back-and-forth of gunfire, we just heard single, punctuated shots. We later

learned that the terrorists went along a different corridor of The

Chambers, room by room, and systematically executed everyone: women,

elderly, Muslims, Hindus, foreigners. A group huddled next to Anjali was

devout Bori Muslims who would have been slaughtered just like everyone

else, had the terrorists gone into their room. Everyone was in deep prayer

and most, Anjali included, had accepted that their lives were likely over.

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. It was fought in

darkness; each side was trying to outflank the other.

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."

The corridor was laced with broken glass and bullet casings. Every table

was turned over or destroyed. The ceilings and walls were littered with

hundreds of bullet holes. Blood stains were everywhere, though,

fortunately, there were no dead bodies to be seen.

A few minutes after Anjali had vacated, Joe and I peeked out of our stall.

We saw multiple commandos and smiled widely. I had lost my right shoe while

sprinting to the toilet so I grabbed a sheet from the floor, wrapped it

around my foot and proceeded to walk over the debris to the hotel lobby.

Anjali and I embraced for the first time in seven hours in 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.

I wanted to take a picture of us on my BlackBerry, but Anjali wanted us to

get out of there before doing anything.

She was right--our ordeal wasn't completely over. A large bus pulled up in

front of the Taj to collect us and, just about as it was fully loaded,

gunfire erupted again. The terrorists were still alive and firing automatic

weapons at the bus. Anjali was the last to get on the bus, and she

eventually escaped in our friend's car. I ducked under some concrete

barriers for cover and wound up the subject of photos that were later

splashed across the media. Shortly thereafter, an ambulance came and drove

a few of us to safety. An hour later, Anjali and I were again reunited at

her parents' home. Our Thanksgiving had just gained a lot more meaning.

Some may say our survival was due to random luck, others might credit

divine intervention. But 72 hours removed from these events, 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 organized us, catered

to us and then, in the end, literally died for us.

They complemented the extreme bravery and courage of the Indian commandos,

who, in a pitch-black setting and unfamiliar, tightly packed terrain,

valiantly held the terrorists at bay.

It is also amazing that, out of our entire group, not one person screamed

or panicked. There was an eerie but quiet calm that pervaded--one more

thing that got us all out alive. Even people in adjacent rooms, who were

being executed, kept silent.

It is much easier to destroy than to build, yet somehow humanity has

managed to build far more than it has ever destroyed. Likewise, in a period

of crisis, it is much easier to find faults and failings rather than to

celebrate the good deeds. It is now time to commemorate our heroes.


Honesty may be the best policy, but it's important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy

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