Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mumbai attacks: Station victims recount their horror

Recounts of the Unsung Heroes.........

It was just another weekday evening at Mumbai's main railway station and V.D. Zende was in his announcer's cabin, perched high above the concourse of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

Then the shooting began.

"I realised something had gone seriously wrong, so I started making announcements directing passengers to run out of the back exit or to stay inside the train compartment for 20 to 25 minutes," the 37-year-old said.

"I repeated the same message over and over again."

But even as he kept his head, he knew the young, heavily-armed militants had spotted the light on in his cabin. They took aim and a shot smashed the glass. Zende and his colleagues blocked the door with chairs.

The Central Railways worker said he knew that his family must have been worried as news of the carnage spread, but he told a TV channel: "They knew that I had to keep working to help thousands of others."

Some 80 people are thought to have lost their lives in the 20-minute killing spree at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed station.

But Zende's quick-thinking may have prevented more deaths, his bosses say.

"He saved so many lives," Central Railways official A.K. Singh said. "He has done a great job. He took the right decision at the right time. He will be rewarded suitably."

In the three days of fear and bloodshed in India's financial capital, leaving at least 172 dead and nearly 300 injured, the plight of those trapped at two luxury hotels and a Jewish centre has taken centre stage.

Yet the most deadly attack was on ordinary Indians, most of them heading home after a long day at work.

"There were thousands of people on the concourse when it happened," said Abhishek Bindal, whose brother runs a hot snacks and juice stall under the arches of the imposing Gothic-style building.

"It was the time when everyone leaves Mumbai. The station was packed."

Bindal rushed to the station after hearing that his brother had been shot.

As he arrived he saw grenades being lobbed at the civic authority headquarters opposite, spreading panic on the streets.

Irshad Khan was serving in the snack-bar when the killing started at about 9:45 pm.

"Two young men opened fire, one here, the other over there," the 27-year-old said, pointing at the local train platform in front of him and the mainline platform further on.

"It started with a grenade then AK-47s. I hit the deck with the customers. Five people were killed immediately. About 80 people died in total," he added.

Some 94 people were brought dead to the nearby Sir Jamshetjee Jejeebhoy Hospital, hospital authorities said. Most were from the place known throughout the city as CST or VT -- short for its former name Bombay Victoria Terminus.

Among the hundreds of wounded also brought in was auto-rickshaw driver Abdul Rashid, who had been waiting with his family to board a train from the station when there was a hail of bullets.

"One went through my daughter Ameena's ear and came out of her nose. She died immediately," said Rashid, barely able to speak four days on as he lay in hospital with three bullet injuries -- in the foot, thigh and to the hand.

"See, there is no thumb," he said, lifting his bandaged hand.

Rashid's wife and son survived unhurt, and returned home in southern India to bury Ameena.

Adik Rao too had a bullet removed from his abdomen. The railway police constable was unable to protect himself as he was not armed.

"Two men were firing rapidly. Railway policemen who are supposed to carry arms returned the fire," said Rao's colleague, Yeram Pandarinath, who came to visit him at the hospital.

A simple blackboard has been placed on one of the platforms at CST. On it, the names of those station employees who lost their lives are written in white chalk.

Kuhdlik Rabhajj Chaudhari came to the station with his family Sunday. There were similar sightseers at the luxury Taj Mahal hotel, Oberoi/Trident hotel, a Jewish cultural centre and popular restaurant that were also attacked.

"I came to see this with my own eyes," he said. "We're going to the Taj next. There's not much going on, even for a Sunday."

Terror has hit Mumbai's railways before. In 2006, bombs ripped through commuter trains at rush hour on the Western Railway network -- the other transport artery in this crowded island city - killing 187.

Each time the trains have started running again soon afterwards. On Wednesday, trains were suspended between the terminus and nearby Dadar station until 2:30 am Thursday, but normal service was resumed after that.

"I come here every day from my home to go to work in the Colaba area," said K. Ashok Ram, a 48-year-old civil servant as he prepared to board a train with his 12-year-old daughter Karishma.

"You cannot stay at home. Mumbai never stops."


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