I actually wrote this four years ago, in December, 2008. But it’s been four years… and it’s time to share the story again.
My parents are now safely home, a little shaken, a little scarred, a little sensitive. They’re physically fine, other than some coughing from Mum, possibly from smoke inhalation or the tear gas they encountered on their escape from the Taj. Emotionally, they’re a little tender, but what else could one expect? I may have some events out of sequence in this story but I hope they, and you, will forgive me…
My parents’ friend Mukul took Mum and Dad out for dinner. It was their first night in Mumbai. After Mukul dropped them at the hotel, Mum and Dad wandered by the guests-only pool bar of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, debating whether or not to have a drink before they went up to their room. Thankfully they decided they were too tired for this, and went straight up to room 655 (the top floor, “Club” rooms of the old building of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel) instead. Soon, several men would enter the pool bar by climbing the walls and from within the hotel, and gun down many of the staff and guests around the pool.
Only minutes after entering their room, Mum heard some loud bangs, and went to the window, expecting to see fireworks. She couldn’t see any so she poked her head out the door of the room instead. A blonde guy a couple of doors down was doing the same, and they nodded and smiled at each other then both went into their rooms again. When more explosions sounded, Mum again opened their door, this time encountering a man in a room opposite who said “this is not normal. Get in your room and stay low.”
We think the first explosion was that of Leopold’s Restaurant, which is directly behind the hotel.
Mum and Dad switched on the news in their room, learning that terrorists had attacked Leopold’s, the Victoria Train Station, and the Oberoi Hotel. Nothing was mentioned regarding the Taj. At this point (11:12pm their time), they sent me an email:
“You probably will hear of the shootings in Mumbai that happened tonight. We are fine. It happened quite close to where we are and we could hear the gun shots echoing around here. Not sure who it was or why.”
Eventually, they had a telephone call from the brilliant staff of the Taj Hotel. They were told that there had been a “slight” exchange of gunfire, and they should lock their doors, close the blinds, turn off the light, be very quiet and not open the door to anyone. The phones were then disconnected and the television channels switched off.
I believe this is when my parents started to contact some very important people in this story – our friends in Bangalore, Paul and Nicky. Paul and Nicky put them on to some other people including some from my Dad’s company, and someone from the Australian High Commission.
The streets were quiet, Mum said – normally, the constant honking of cars and yelling of people and even the sirens of different emergency services could be heard – but now there was nothing. The gunfire and grenades went off, sporadically, and would continue to do so through the night.
At 1am their time, she got dressed and packed her handbag with some basics she thought they might need – passports, etc – so that she would be ready when someone came to get them. She was very frightened of being taken hostage, or of the building tumbling around them. Every time a bomb or grenade exploded, the building shook.
At about 3am Mumbai-time, Mum and Dad called me. It was very spooky. At first when I answered Dad didn’t say anything. Then he hissed “hang on – hang on!” as I was asking “Dad? Dad?” I had just received their email and was looking up news articles on abc.net.au/news. I barely remember what Dad said, only that I had just read that concerned family and friends should call DFAT to make inquiries, and so I insisted to him that I call them right away.
A moan, the fear, like being struck by a hammer as a big bell would be, and shaking just the same. I didn’t know what to do. Would they be discovered, and shot? How could I live with them taken from me like that? I had to call DFAT, and rushed to my computer to get the number down to call DFAT.
My computer chose that time to install updates and restart! My mind was racing, my vision was blurry, and I was hearing this low, constant, shaking moan, which turned out to be me… In a random moment of clarity I decided I needed to call in sick, but didn’t have time, so I rang Angela to ask her to make the arrangements for me. Again, I barely remember what I said to her, just that it was in the same low moan and shaky voice. She told me on Monday that she didn’t even recognise my voice, and called in sick for another teacher at the school, only discovering her error when she called that teacher to confirm that she had done what was asked, and how were that teacher’s parents?
Finally my computer reloaded and I found the DFAT number I needed and called them. Someone answered, but did not understand what I needed – the number had been given out before call centre staff could arrive! The advice that she gave me – for my parents to call reception of the hotel and ask for advice – useless! But fortunately, the five or six phone calls I made throughout the rest of the day were responded to with calm reassurance and efficient kindness, even when it turned out I knew more than they did about what was happening in Mumbai.
Now Sally was calling, and I had to be calm. I knew I couldn’t cause her to panic. She has my little niece or nephew growing strong inside of her…
For the rest of the day I would SMS my parents, field phone calls, consult with DFAT, skype my sister Sally and Nanna, call and MSN my Grandfather, facebook with Nicky and Paul and reassure Mum and Dad’s friends about their status.
Mum, shaking uncontrollably almost the whole time, expected that it would all be over, any minute now, all night. She believed it would be a simple matter of finding the terrorist and stopping him. Sometimes she would decide she needed to sleep, in case she had to fight or run away from there, and she tried to sleep in the darkness. They used Dad’s phone as a flashlight when they needed to. They had a small amount of food from the mini-bar and some bottled water.
They knew there was a fire but at first it didn’t effect them. Soon though, smoke filled the corridor outside their room and started to come under the door. Mum slowly and silently wet a towel and used it to block the space between the door and the floor. She used more towels to fill the bath: she placed one beneath the tap and used another towel to draw the slow running water down to the bath. She filled the basin the same way. She had the two hotel bins in the bathroom, ready to throw at a fire or themselves if it came to it. Mum also wet the two robes that were hanging in their wardrobe, then hung them from the bathroom door to drip on to the floor. If they had to make a run for it, they would do so in wet robes with wet towels over their heads and faces. Dad opened a window.
When the smoke was thick they hid in the bathroom. They took pillows to sit on, as the floor was wet from the dripping robes, and to cover their heads in case of shrapnel or falling building bits. They had a night light in there, but no window. They couldn’t see what was going on, so when the smoke had cleared they moved back into the bedroom.
Out of the window they could see fire trucks and the media. Mum was confused about why no one was coming to rescue them. Both Paul and I kept telling them that they were evacuating people. So she decided to attract their attention by taking flash photos out of the window.
We all hoped it would be over by daybreak. Dad taped a postcard over the peephole in their door so that people could not see into their room. Throughout the night they had checked activity in the hallway, but though Mum swore she could hear movement out there, Dad didn’t think anyone was out there. We now know, of course, that there were indeed terrorists on their floor – one had booked a room there – and that they weren’t taking hostages – just shooting to kill.
Mum and Dad were nervous as they watched the media and public being pushed a long way back by the police – did this mean they expected a bomb to go off? But then trucks and trucks of army “dudes” pulled in front of the hotel. They could see out of their window through the balustrade without being seen from below. At one stage they saw a “floppy” (dead) man in a white suit (possibly a Taj staff member, as this is a good description of their uniform) being carried out of the lobby.
By this time I had joined Sally in England and Paul and Nicky in Bangalore by downloading the live feed of NDTV’s news station.
There was more gunfire and explosions, and more commandos and NSGs arrived. Between 8 and 9am they could see flashes of gunfire between the commandos and the terrorists. They were looking down to the lobby and restaurant above the lobby of the new tower. The noise of the battle and the glass shattering was loud and terrifying so they hid beneath a doona between their bed and the bathroom.
Everytime there was a cessation of noise, Mum believed the terrorists had been taken, and that they would be rescued soon; everytime she felt this her confidence was shattered by more gunfire. They could hear AK47 gunfire, pistols, grenades and explosions, and even thought they could hear the ‘pop’ of the tear gas grenades.
At times, Mum appeared at the window, hoping someone outside would notice their presence. The media sure did, and sometimes Sal, Nicky, Paul and I could see shots of them standing at the open window, looking out. However, with snipers nervously standing on top of The Gates to India across the way, we asked them to please stand back from the window.
At about midday, Mum had a wash, cleaned her teeth, put on some make-up and brushed her hair. They had just eaten some cashews from the mini-bar. She called me. She sounded like she thought it would all be over soon. She was restless and bored as well as shaken and terrified. We spoke for about five minutes, then Mum whispered “gotta go. There’s a man at the door.” She hung up on me.
I stood stock still, for I don’t know how long. What could this mean?
Dad had seen a man crouched outside the door, and the barrel of a huge gun. Then he could see more men across the hallway (the Taj is a mezzanine, the hallways are wide and have spaces in the floors so that at the edge you can see right down to the ground floor. This is why a lot of the gunfire was so loud and the smoke could reach their room). Mum asked Dad: do you think they’re good guys… or bad guys?
Then they knocked on the door.
Dad knocked back.
Mum asked who they were, and they replied that they were the army, and they could open the door now.
When Mum and Dad stepped outside the door, not only were there commandos there but a man from Taj security dressed neatly in his uniform. He whispered that these men are from the army and they would take Mum and Dad downstairs. The would keep them safe. Then he disappeared (?) and Mum and Dad were escorted to the stairwell at the end of the wing. Mum whispered “thank you” and smiled at each of the commandos who escorted them. One held her gently by the elbow, guiding her along the very edge of the wall to the stairs. The blonde man Mum had seen earlier in the night was there too, but no other guests were with them. I believe Mum, Dad and this blonde man were the only ones to last the siege.
At the top of the stairs they were asked to wait silently, and a long, heart-stopping 20 minutes ensued. I was still waiting, breathless, but lying without mercy to my sister via skype, telling her they were being rescued (I didn’t know whether or not this was true). Dad sent us a text: “We’re halfway out.”
Oh the euphoria! And then the wait, more waiting after a long day of waiting, waiting to hear that they were out…
The commandos were making them wait so that they could check the stairs below and clear them for my parents to move through. At one corner, one of the commandos whispered that there would be bodies around the corner, six of them, but please don’t be worried, just step around them. Mum is a nurse and has seen dead people before, but not like this. She said that it was less a case of stepping around bodies than a case of not letting the pools of blood rise over the edge of your shoes and into your feet. She remembers thinking that there was a lot of blood; it was fresh arterial blood and congealing quickly. There was also a lot of broken glass. There were only four bodies now but they could see drag marks where two more had been taken away.
They moved past the kitchens and the bookshop and into the lobby of the new tower, where men in uniform were standing with pistols and AK47s. Mum and Dad’s names were recorded, then they were taken by Parsi ambulance to the police headquarters.
Later, they would be taken to the Australian High Commission, only two streets from the Trident-Oberoi, and they could still hear the gunfire and explosions from there. They met Alison Markell, who was still very much in shock after witnessing the death of her husband. The staff of the Commission were wonderful and took care of my parents.
That’s where I’m going to leave this story, even though it’s not yet finished. Now that they’re finally home, four days later, I have relaxed a little, but it’s all still just sinking in.
However, I’m going to take this opportunity to thank the staff of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and also of the Taj Presidential Hotel, where my parents stayed following the siege. They were amazing, and I am certain that without their call at the beginning of the siege or their actions following, both for my parents and for other guests and victims, this story could have been much worse. Some staff sacrificed their own lives to save those of the guests. I hope that their families and friends, and all of those affected by these events can find peace.
I’d also like to call on you, my friends, to remember that what the world needs is peace and understanding, at this and any other time of year, and that war is not an answer to this. Injustice cannot be fought with further injustice. The peace we need cannot be found through war. The injustices that perhaps made the young men that acted as terrorists in Mumbai on the 27th of November, 2008, decide that their actions were justified are problems of poverty and imbalance throughout the world. Perhaps we could all just be a little kinder to, and more understanding of, each other, and perhaps with this we might find some solutions to these problems.