Friday, December 5, 2008

A 26/11 Survivor Story From the Front Lines of Mumbai/Bombay India

My friend in India is a Freemason and when he came to Massachusetts we went to Lodge together. I sent him an E-Mail inquiring of his well being after the terrorist violence and killings broke out and this is what he sent me back (ALL NAMES WITHHELD FOR PRIVACY).

Yes by God's grace we are OK. I live in South Bombay, at Churchgate, and all of the action was within 2 kilometers from my house. The Taj, Trident (Oberoi) and Nariman house is south of me. The CST (Victoria Terminus) and Cama hospital is east of me. And the Metro Cinema and Bombay Hospital are bang on the street behind my house to my north. All within walking distances.

The Freemason's hall is just 2 blocks away from the CST terminus where the first shots were fired at about 10.30 pm. Many of the brethren living in the suburbs commute by train to CST and then walk to the Hall. There was a Provincial Grand Lodge of Ireland in India meeting going on, and they were at the banquet table when the commotion occurred just outside. At first they thought it must be some fire-crackers, but there were people running about on the road outside. So, they sent one of our Hall orderlies out to see what was happening, and he came back to report that there was some gang war and shooting going on outside - which was an impossible thing in south Bombay. And within minutes, all mobile phones started ringing with people calling from home to let those who were inside know of what was going on, as it started coming on all the TV channels. Meanwhile, many pedestrians, escaping from the shooting at CST got into the foyer of the Freemason's hall for shelter. And then, the dinner was ended fast and the brethren started dispersing very cautiously. Later, I am told, every one reached home safely. This was on the very first day, (Wednesday) when no one yet knew what was happening. Returning by train was impossible. But many of the brethren got lifts or shared taxis to reach home.

Then on Friday we had our Scottish District Grand Lodge installation which was postponed as the "War" was in full swing. On Saturday, we had our District Grand Conclave (Order of the Secret Monitor) installation meeting which was also postponed. By Saturday, the action at all fronts was over, but yet Bombay had a deserted look, and nobody would have come for the meeting anyway. Besides, till about noon, mo one knew when this carnage would be over. Let's see - tomorrow (Monday) all will be back to normal - hopefully. Except that everyone would be going home early after Office. No late-nights for a long time, I presume. Otherwise, Bombay is alive and awake till well past midnight.

And Brother Fred, thank you for your concern.

With Fraternal regards,

He followed that up today with a message he received from one of his friends. This is bone chilling.

Dear friends,
First, I wanted to thank you all for the incredible concern and support that you'll have given me over the past few days which have been among the most emotionally and psychologically draining of my life.

By the grace of God my father was rescued from the Oberoi on Friday with two (minor) bullet wounds and is now speedily recovering. He did however lose the two best friends he was dining with that fateful night (who are like godfathers to me). We also lost a lot of other friends and colleagues and have watched our beloved city reduced to a war zone and brought to its knees.

On Wednesday night, my father and his two friends arrived at the Indian restaurant on the first floor of the Oberoi Hotel for dinner at about 10pm. They had barely sat down when they heard gun shots in the lobby of the hotel. The terrorists, armed with AK-47s, grenades and plastic explosives, had entered the hotel and were executing everybody sitting in the ground floor restaurant. Realizing the situation, the staff of the restaurant my father was in asked them to quickly exit through the kitchen.

As the guests tried to rush into the kitchen, one terrorist burst into the restaurant and began to shoot anyone that remained in the restaurant. At this point my father was in the kitchen and along with his two friends rushed to the fire exit. They had barely descended a few steps when they were trapped from both ends by terrorists.

The terrorists then rounded up anyone alive (about 20 people) and made them climb the service staircase to the 18th floor. On reaching the 18th floor landing they made the people line up against a wall. One terrorist then positioned himself on the staircase going up from the landing and the other on the staircase going down from the landing. Then, in a scene right out of the Holocaust, they simultaneously opened fire on the people. My father was towards the center of the line with his two friends on either side. Out of reflex, or presence of mind, he ducked as soon as the firing began. One bullet grazed his neck, and he fell to the floor as his two friends and several other bodies piled on top of him. The terrorists then pumped another series of bullets into the heap of bodies to finish the job. This time a bullet hit my father in the back hip.

Bent almost in double, crushed by the weight of the bodies above him, and suffocating in the torrent of blood rushing down on him from the various bodies my father held on for ten minutes while the terrorists left the area. When he finally had the courage to wiggle his arms he found that there were four other survivors in the room. They communicated to each other by touch as they were too afraid to make a sound.

My father moved just enough to allow himself room to breathe and then lay still. The survivors passed over twelve hours lying still in the heap of bodies too afraid to move. They constantly heard gunfire and hand grenades going off in the other parts of the hotel. They feared that any noise would bring the terrorists back.

After approximately twelve hours, the terrorists returned with a camera and flashlight and joked and laughed as they filmed what they thought was a pile of dead bodies. They then moved to the landing below where they set up explosives. On their departing, my father decided that it was too risky to remain where they were due to the explosives. Along with the other three survivors he climbed the rest of the stairwell, where they discovered a large HVAC plant room in which they decided to take shelter. They passed the rest of the siege hiding in this room trying to get the attention of the outside world by waving a makeshift flag out of the window. They drank sips of dirty water from the Air Conditioning unit to survive.

Finally on Friday morning they were spotted by a commando rescue team that was storming the building and were evacuated to safety and taken to the hospital.

This is just one of the countless horror stories that unfolded in those two days. There are many stories of entire families being wiped out while eating their dinner, or young kids losing both parents, or pregnant women being shot while pleading for their lives, or hostages being beaten to death with the butt of a rifle so that their faces were unrecognizable. The terrorists attacked on every level.

They killed middle class workers when they shot up the railway station, they killed the elite in the hotels, they killed tourists and kids as they ate in a café, and they killed the sick and dying when they stormed three hospitals. They shot people in the roads, in stations, in hotels, and even entered an apartment building. They killed Indians, Americans, Britons, Israelis, and several other nationalities. They killed men, women, children, policemen, firemen, doctors, patients. This was systematic, cold-blooded, slaughter.

We have lost a lot of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Every person who lives in South Mumbai has a story about how either they or someone they love either died or had a narrow escape. The true extent of the horror will only make itself clear over the next few days.

Mumbai is a proud city and we pride ourselves on bouncing back from any adversity. We survive and prosper despite all the difficulties placed on us. We are no strangers to terror and have had to pick up the pieces and move on after several attacks. This time however, the sheer scale and audacity brought the city to its knees. The openness of our society, the bustling hoards in our train stations, the vibrancy of our news media, and the thousands of tourists, diplomats, and business leaders packing our hotels was used against us to devastating effect.

In the end one tries to make sense of all this. Barack Obama said about the killers of 9/11: "My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another's heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with such serene satisfaction."

Unfortunately, this is becoming an all familiar scene in today's world. While I cannot understand, I recognize again and again the hatred, anger, and desperation of the terrorists and the cold blooded, targeted, ruthlessness of those that dispatch them. They respect nothing but their own twisted beliefs and to achieve them have declared war on an entire way of life. India now finds itself as a major front of this global war.

How do we fight such hate? How do we inject humanity into such monstrosity? How do we convince those who think they kill in god's name that no God would condone such barbarity? How do we maintain our own values and humanity when faced with such hate and provocation?

Over the next week as we say goodbye to those we lost and help those that survive, Mumbai and India will ask themselves these questions. I hope the rest of the world does too.

Thanks again for all your thoughts and prayers.

"Just as certain world religions say that people who do not believe in a personal God outside themselves are atheists, we say that a person who does not believe in himself is an atheist. Not believing in the splendor of one's own soul is what we call atheism."
- Swami Vivekananda


pinksocks said...

Really touching post!!
thanks for such an emotional post!

Nimbus Nuage said...


I can't thank God enough because I was one of those people who was near the Trident just one hour before the attacks began. Something made me take the train and wanna go back home early that evening. I don't know what it was.. may be an angel.

I am a Mumbai'ite and I can comprehend your dilemma in the post... I hope your loved ones recover soon from this trauma.