Witness had three options: jump out of the window of the fifth floor;
Or stay in the room and be charred to death; or walk down the Taj and face terrorist bullets
Mumbai: Three ways of dying lay before the occupant of room 632 at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower on November 26, 2008. One, jump out of the window of the fifth floor. Two, stay in the room and be charred to death. Three, walk down the Taj and face the bullets of the terrorist.
A senior citizen, staying in room 632, told the court in a stunning testimony on Thursday, that he chose the third option. “It would have been an instant death,” he reasoned.
His name and address cannot be revealed for security reasons as per the court’s order.
The witness who held a top position in the banking sector, had come to Mumbai on 26/11 for a board meeting. He was put up at the Taj. At 10.15 p.m. he received a call from the hotel’s room service.
“There is an emergency at the hotel. Please take care,” a voice said and hung up. When the witness switched on the television in his room, he learnt of the terror strike at various places including the Taj. Half an hour later, the cable connection went off. At about 11.15 p.m. there was a knock on the door. A voice from outside said “Room service, room service.”
Anxious, restless and suspicious, the witness did not open the door. However, he heard someone fire at the door and open it forcibly. “Two gentlemen entered,” the witness told the court.
“You still describe them as gentlemen?” judge M. L. Tahaliyani asked.
When the witness said yes, the judge remarked it was his goodness. One of the two pointed a gun to his temple and ordered him to keep quiet. The other delivered a blow on his neck. Then they dragged him outside and instructed him to knock on other doors. The witness said he did as told, but there was no response .
Pushed back into his room, the assailants then asked him to take off his kurta and pyjama. When the hostage was hesitant they hit him. They tied his hands and legs with his clothes and pinned him to the ground face downwards.
“One of the gentlemen, who was hefty and wearing a red T-shirt and big shoes started kicking me. I was crying and told them I had blood pressure.”
“Kidhar se aya? [Where have you come from?],” one asked while removing some weapons from a bag. After this they were in constant communication with someone on a mobile phone and gave a bit by bit account of the interrogation that followed.
The witness said the conversation was in Hindi, which he could understand. “They said Salam Alaikum. It was a polite language.”
Snatches of phone conversation were heard from the corridor. In the next half an hour four staff members of the hotel were brought in as hostages. Two more terrorists also entered. One of the terrorists had a limp, the witness said.
The attackers asked him his name and the place he hailed from and subsequently conveyed it on the phone. When asked about the profession, the hostage lied and said he was a teacher. This too was told on the phone. This reply made the attackers furious. While at first they had accepted it, later they started hitting the hostage.
“How can a teacher with Rs. 20,000 salary stay at the Taj? Are you a smuggler? Are you teaching people to kill Muslims?... Are you from Chennai? Are you an architect? A scientist?” they asked later . The hostage replied in the negative.
The witness told the court that the terrorists saw his sacred thread and confirmed on the phone that he was a Brahmin. He said they tied his hands with the sacred thread. The attackers also said on the phone that the hostage was fat and bald.
Meanwhile, the other hostages were also bound and put on the floor, and were similarly interrogated . At about 2.15, the four terrorists took the five hostages including the witness, to room 520 on the fifth floor. About 45 minutes later a powerful blast was heard. The other hostages got up and started shouting, “We are dying.” At this point, the terrorists went out of the room. The witness said he was able to crawl towards the bed and free his hands. “Since my hands were tied with the thread, my wrists were bleeding.”
Knowing that the hotel kept a business kit on the table, he groped in the dark and fished out a pair of scissors from it. With it he was able to free himself and the other hostages as well.
The staff then took the metal wastebasket in the room and broke the window. Fresh air rushed in as the room was facing the poolside. Now all the five could see each other clearly. They learnt each others’ names.
Two of the staff members jumped out of the window and sat on the landing. Using the curtains and bed linen in the room the hostages made a rope and all the four staff members went down to the first floor landing.
The witness said he chose to stay in the room as he could see the others were still figuring a way to get out. He kept shouting to them not to leave him and they shouted back but they could not hear him.
Finally, they made their way out. With a metal rod, they tried to reach out to this hostage in the room, but the attempt failed. That’s when the hostage considered the above three options to die. He could not go down the rope. The fire on the rooftop was raging, and metal pieces were falling, making the room unsafe. The hostage decided to go out. Since he was not completely dressed, modesty did not permit him to move out in that condition. Once again, groping in the dark “like a blind man,” he found a pair of pyjamas and a T-shirt.
The corridors were dark and covered in thick smoke. The hostage saw a staircase and must have climbed down three flights. He suddenly spotted a bright light. It was coming from a room. In the lit room, he saw the window was open.
The 69-year old witness said he jumped on the landing, having got some experience while doing so on the fifth floor. Fire brigade rescue operations had started by then. He called out to them.
It was six in the morning when the hostage finally came out of the hotel. Some Good Samaritans offered him a lift in their car. However, the hostage feeling an acute pain got himself admitted to a hospital and was discharged after treatment in three hours.
The witness said he identified the bodies of two terrorists in the identification parade. He said the attacker with a limp had interrogated him.
On Thursday, the defence cross-examination revealed that the translator Mukhtar Ahmed Abdul Rahim Peerjade was not really sure whether the words “Amar Askari” on a timer meant “towards war.” He said he needed to refer to a dictionary. Also, the words were in Arabic and not Urdu.