“Please help us”

Rahi Gaikwad: There was nothing remotely enviable about the affluent guest at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel that night. An inferno was raging on the top floor of the heritage wing. And distant cries of trapped guests echoed in the air.

“Help, please help us!” shouted a woman frantically waving a scarf to signal her distress. In another balcony, a rope made of linen sheets tied together hung in waiting for occupants to climb down. Behind the closed windows, desperate hands banged in vain. The panes were simply too thick to be broken so easily.

Fire officers perched on their ladders struggled to open the windows. The building itself seemed too tall for the ladders to reach. Someone passed a sturdy rock to crack the panes.

One by one, the guests were being lowered down to the parapet and from there on to the ground below. These were the tensest moments of the siege, to say the least.

As the media clamoured for first hand accounts, there ensued a spat between some journalists and the hotel staff over speaking to the media.

It turned violent and the two parties came to blows.

“Don’t touch me”

Lyla Bavadam: It was almost 12 hours after terrorists (at that point no one knew how many) had taken over the Jewish Chabad House better known as Nariman House. The normally busy road was sealed and groups of media people stood at either end. As I lived in the area, I knew another route and approached Nariman House via this. A police jeep patrolled the street intermittently. There were small false alarms of hope: A drunk wandered out of the Nariman House gully and the police rushed to pull him out of harm’s way; a cat suddenly sprang out of the gully and everyone froze - activities that on a normal day would have passed unnoticed.

Around mid-morning, without any real warning, a petite woman carrying a child slipped out of the lane. A thin boy followed her but he moved away to a side to waiting policemen. The woman - hair dishevelled and with a desperate expression - paused for a moment. She looked around and saw me across the road. Perhaps because I was the only woman in sight, she crossed directly to me and spoke about what she saw, of how she hid the previous night when the attackers came, of how she heard explosions and furniture being moved around. And how, in the morning, when she at last found the courage to move, she heard the child crying. That galvanised her into action. From the first floor she ran upstairs and saw him sitting among bodies. There was blood everywhere, but she didn’t think the people were dead. She picked up the child who had stopped crying on seeing her and ran down the stairs.

While she was relating her story, a uniformed police officer came over to escort her to a van. He stretched his arm towards her kindly and she screamed in absolute fear: “Don’t touch me… Just don’t touch me.”

I explained to her that he was going to take her and the child for medical assistance and she broke down. Then she was led away sobbing. I tried often to get in touch with Sandra Samuel out of journalistic as well as a personal concern triggered by that brief encounter, but it has not happened.

Frozen to the spot

Anupama Katakam: A fellow journalist and I were walking toward the GT hospital from the Metro Cinema junction when we heard the screech of brakes and a round of gunfire very close to us. I turned around to see a Qualis speed away. That was the police jeep that the terrorists duo Ajmal Kasab and Ismail Khan had hijacked after going on a killing spree at the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). That was the jeep Anti-Terrorist Squad chief Hemant Karkare and two senior police officers Ashok Kamthe and Vijay Salaskar were in when they were ambushed and killed by the terrorists.

Both of us stood frozen to the spot. We had no idea what to do or where to hide in case the jeep or even another vehicle carrying gunmen came in our direction. We were walking on a wide empty road and were practically sitting ducks. At the time nobody knew how many terrorists were on the loose in the city. After the initial fright, we realised that we had just witnessed one of the shootings and the escape of a pair of terrorists. My journalist colleague Dynanesh Jattar and I had been standing at the Metro Cinema junction minutes before the Qualis came out of the Cama Hospital. Had we not decided to go and check out the hospital, where many injured were being brought, we would have been in that crowd that was fired upon. It had been a tense night. I still recall the anxious voice of my colleague from The-Hindu when I told her that I heard there was a “shoot out” in Colaba. “It’s bigger than that,” she said. “Get to GT hospital soon. It’s very bad out here.”

Gunfire and explosions

Meena Menon: It’s more of what I heard that night that has stayed with me. Rahi and I left office at 10 p.m. after reports of firing at Leopold Café and later at the CST. I dropped her off at Leopold where a crowd had gathered. Strangely, the roads were deserted which is unusual and all along the short drive to the rear of the CST station, everything was dark. I could hear staccato bursts of gunfire, then explosions. There was one policeman with a lathi trying to wave me away. It was no use explaining I was a journalist. He said anything can happen, there is firing everywhere. I stood my ground. A man came running towards me begging for help. His wife and child were stuck inside the building opposite the CST - they had come to catch the night train to Goa. He only heard the sound of firing before running. By then more cops and journalists had arrived. The police prevented us from entering the CST. The firing continued and explosions followed. No one had a clue what was going on inside.

Suddenly a white car stopped and a large bald man got out. I still remember the AK47 heavy in his hands while he changed places with his staff. No one can ever mistake Ashok Kamte, the Additional Commissioner of Police (east Region). He looked around, nodded at people he knew and drove off. The few of us who saw him that night could not believe he was killed probably an hour or so later.

More people kept running out of the CST frightened out of their wits. All of us stood around and listened to the gunfire till everything went silent all of a sudden. The police drove us back into the small by-lanes near the CST and warned us that gunmen in a red car were firing randomly in the city. We waited for a while and we heard the shocking news of the death of senior policemen Hemant Karkare, Kamte, Vijay Salaskar and others.

Tired of the paranoid cops who were not letting us to even breathe, we decided to check out the Taj Mahal hotel. We had only heard of the explosions from there. The road to the Taj was deserted and we walked silently. A red car approached us in the distance - we froze. Phew! No guns.

A few dogs accompanied us as we walked to the Taj where we came across a gaggle of TV journalists squeezing out reactions from Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil and Chhagan Bhujbal. Nothing would have prepared me for what I saw at the Taj which was rocked by deafening blasts and firing. All of a sudden as we watched stunned, the famous dome exploded in a shattering burst of smoke and fire. Guests screamed for help in rooms backlit by the fires and the firemen searched for stones on the pavement opposite the hotel to break the glass windows.

The Chief Minister briefed us at 4 a.m. He did not know much. Nariman House was a terrorist target! We rounded off the night near the Oberoi/Trident - speaking to frightened guests who had miraculously escaped, while gunshots and explosions shattered the silent night. As I left at 6 a.m. or so, I saw morning joggers on Marine Drive where the Oberoi is located, oblivious to a city that was in a state of war.

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