Personal account of Bob Lenzner, National Editor of Forbes.
Mine is a story so improbable that if it were made into a movie, no one would believe it. It begins innocuously enough with a dinner reservation with another couple (Shiv and Reshma) at a leading restaurant in a world class hotel, and ends 12 hours later in a brazen commando assault by the Indian army that allowed us to be freed. My point in relaying this story is not to tell a sensational true story, but express my eternal gratitude and to pay tribute to the staff of The Taj Mahal Hotel, who literally sacrificed their lives in disproportionate numbers so that we could ultimately survive. They, along with the bravery of the Indian army, are the true heroes and are deserving of due respect.
Let me also preface this by saying that my wife and I were married in the Taj at the Crystal Ballroom, her parents were married there and the couple we were with were married there as well. My wife and Reshma, both Bombay girls, grew up hanging out at the Taj and the Oberoi. Many of my wife's fondest memories are at this place where she spent so many happy hours and often partied the night away at her favorite nightclub the legendary 1900's.
My wife Anjali and I arrived at the Taj with Shiv & Reshma at around 9:30 for dinner at The Golden Dragon, one of the better Chinese Restaurants in Mumbai. We were running a little early for dinner, (our friends had just welcomed their 1 month old into the world). We walked through the lobby and made a left to go to the restaurant. Our wives decided that they would go to a book shop on the other side of the lobby and meet us at the restaurant.
Fortunately our table wasn't ready. Though we were a little early and had reservations, the staff told us we would have to wait 10 minutes for another table to be freed. Hearing this we then walked next door to the Harbor Bar for a drink. A minute later our wives crossed back across the lobby and joined us at the bar. We had barely sat down and begun to enjoy our beers, when the host of The Golden Dragon came to our table at the Harbour Bar and told us our table was ready. For reasons unknown, we decided to stay and finish our drinks.
Literally 30 seconds later we heard what sounded like a heavy tray smashing to the ground. This was followed by 20 to 30 more similar sounds and absolute silence. We knew something was terribly off. Our initial reaction was to crouch behind a table in the bar feet away from what we now knew were gunshots. At this time terrorists had stormed the lobby and were firing indiscriminately. The Harbor Bar is situated right next to the lobby, and while they couldn't see us the terrorists were within 30 feet of us.
My friend, Shiv, and I knew we had to act fast. We took a chair and tried repeatedly to break the glass window in front of us, but it wouldn't budge. We then looked and saw a stairway that was inside the bar, but across open space that could be seen from the hotel lobby. Fearlessly, the Hostess of the Harbour Bar stood at her post as all this was going on and ushered for us to go up the stairs and escape this initial wave. She literally was looking straight out into the hallway and lobby and motioned to us that it was safe to make a run for the stairwell. She also mentioned that there was a dead body right outside in the corridor. We believe this courageous woman was later murdered.
We later learned that within minutes of our decision to climb up the stairwell the terrorists came into the Harbour Bar, shot everyone who was there dead, as well as also executing everyone who was still at the Golden Dragon next door. It has also come to light that the staff of the Golden Dragon, who were equally valiant, attempted to usher their patrons into a basement wine cellar which they thought would be protected. They locked the doors in an attempt to keep the terrorists out. The terrorists unfortunately managed to break through the doors and lobbed in grenades that wound up killing everyone in the basement.
Back to the previous - The stairwell connected the Harbour Bar on the bottom to a restaurant called Wasabi on the second floor. After fleeing up the stairwell and having the "fortune" of having the terrorist choose to hunt down people in the Golden Dragon first, we ran into the annals of the kitchen on the 2nd Floor. Our friend Shiv was familiar with these back ways as he had used them at times when his wife was pregnant and could not walk up the stairs. There we took refuge in a small office. The chef and staff were very accommodating; they served the four of us food and drink, and believe it or not were apologizing for the inconvenience we were suffering.
At this point we were hoping against hope that this was an isolated incident and police/military would arrive soon. In the office was a TV, and we and the staff were able to watch the reporting by local media. We were also able to text and e-mail with others to try to get a sense of what was happening. It became apparent that this was a full fledged terrorist assault on Mumbai. We were hopeful that our obscure location would buy us enough time to make it out safely. For about an hour or so we sat as quietly as possible in the office trying to make sense of the situation unfolding around us.
At that point 10 different locations in Mumbai were under assault, including the police station. There were reports that terrorists had even stolen a police car and were impersonating police - killing people randomly on the street. We thought that while not safe, we were in the safest place possible at that moment. There were also no points of exit from our location and the terrorists seemed to have blocked off many of the entry/exit points so we decided to stay put and hope for the best.
Fortunately in the office was a massive wooden conference table. We had positioned the table 3 feet from the door so that if anything felt amiss we could move it quickly to barricade the door. Suddenly at around 11/11:30 the kitchen went silent, we knew something was wrong. We took the table and slammed it against the door, then turned off all the lights and hid where we thought we would be the most protected from gunshots. There were 5 of us in the room, all of the kitchen staff remained in the kitchen, not one staff member had run, not one.
Suddenly "Slam", "Slam" the door was trying to be broken down, but the door and our table wouldn't give. Again, "Slam" "Slam". Then again, "Slam" "Slam". We then heard the terrorists asked the chef in Hindi if anyone was inside the office and he responded very calmly "no one is in there it's empty". This is the second time the staff saved our lives.
After about 20 minutes passed we heard a slight knock on the door, and a staff member whom, we had been with earlier identified himself in English. Many of the staff then stood in a line and provided safe escort down a corridor to an area called "The Chambers". The Chambers is an exclusive members only area of the hotel. We were told that The Chambers was the safest place we could be, had been secured off that there as the only two entrances were now guarded by the army.
The mood in The Chambers was relatively calm. There were perhaps 200-300 people in the 6 rooms that comprised The Chambers. Inside, staff was serving sandwiches, alcohol and drinks. People were nervous, but cautiously optimistic. We were told that this was one of the safest places to be in all of South Mumbai. The streets were still unsecure, there had been firing at CST- a major railway station, The Oberoi Hotel and even the Cama Hospital for women and children. The army was at the time was being mobilized more fully.
Then at around 1/1:30 the mood began to get more tense. Some member of parliament had phoned into a live newscast and let the world know that 200+ people were "secure and safe in The Chambers together". What's better, he made sure to let it out that there were several CEOs, foreigners, and Members of Parliament in the group. The news station of course made sure to broadcast this fact as well.
Adding to the tension and chaos was the fact that via SMS and cell phones we knew that in the heritage wing of the Taj the dome was on fire and potentially moving downwards.
The staff was becoming increasingly concerned for our safety. At around 2am they decided to attempt an evacuation. We all lined up to head down a dark fire escape exit. Things were going smoothly for about 5 minutes, then grenade blasts and automatic weapon fire pierced the air. A mad stampede ensued to get out of the stairwell and take cover back inside The Chambers.
Having barely survived two chances with death already, my wife and I had discussed and decided that in the event The Chambers got broken into and became a real hostage situation we would hide in different rooms. Whilst wanting to be together if this was to be our end, our primary obligations lay with giving our children the best possible chance of having one parent alive. Given that I am American and my wife Indian, and with news reports stating that the terrorists were targeting US/UK nationals, I believed I was further endangering her life by being with her if we were to get into a hostage situation.
Thus, when we ran back to The Chambers amidst gun volley I fled for a toilet stall and my wife stayed with our friends who fled to a large room across from the toilet stalls. For the next 7 hours I lay in the fetal position on the floor of the stall while my wife huddled silently with close to 100 others, including our friends. We were able to stay in contact via email on our Blackberries. I had one and Anjali was with another friend, Vishal, who was holed up with her who had one as well and he kept in contact with me. We were all dead silent and had all silenced our phones.
Outside The Chambers the slaughter continued. Most of the people in the stairwell got shot and killed and many staff valiantly stayed outside the doors in another attempt to protect the guests. I believe many of the staff that stayed outside the door to lock it perished. At this point there were multiple grenades and volleys of gunfire. It sounded as though the terrorists were engaged in a firefight after having murdered the first evacuees and staff.
The layout of The Chambers has six rooms along two corridors which forms an "L" shape. The corridor that runs east/west had five rooms attached to it and was accessible by the obscure door connected to the escape path referenced earlier. The north/south corridor had one big room on one side and the men's restroom on the other. I fled to the toilets, Anjali and our friends to the large room connected to the north/south corridor.
Back in The Chambers, the staff had again acted quickly and turned off all the lights as soon as we ran back in. The place was pitch black. Unfortunately, the terrorists once again managed to break into The Chambers via the exit where we were previously trying to evacuate. The next 10 minutes, around 2:30, were extremely frightening. Rather than hearing the volley of fire/counter fire, we could just hear single shots. We would later learn that the terrorists went room by room on the east/west corridor and systematically executed everyone they could: women, elderly, Muslims, Hindus, foreigners, anyone. How they did not manage to enter the other corridor is a miracle – it was the commandos at the other side that kept firing back and saved our lives.
The Indian commandos were on the Southern end of the corridor, Terrorists on the North (remember the east/west corridor connected to the north/south, so after they had butchered all the rooms in the east/west corridor, all they had to do was make a turn around the corner to come after our two rooms). The next 5 hours was comprised of an intense grenade/gun battle between the Indian commandos and the terrorists that was fought in pitch black darkness in which each side was trying to outflank the other. Our lives hung in the balance. Anjali could literally see commandos advancing and retreating feet from her, gunshots and grenade blasts were within feet from her and the others in the big room.
We heard a grenade explosion that seriously injured one commando, but amazingly for the hours that hundreds upon hundreds of rounds were expended no one was seriously injured in this battle.
During this time I was huddled in the fetal position on the floor of one of two toilet stalls in the bathroom. I had picked the toilet stall as the preferred hiding location because if we were in an overt hostage situation the floor to ceiling door could conceal my identity. I was joined in the stall by Joe, a Nigerian national with a US Greencard whose wife had recently divorced him. He had moved to Lagos and was in Mumbai on business. For the next seven hours he sat on the pot (full seat down), me on the floor, and we tried to make sense of the situation.
I had, through a friend, gotten in touch with the FBI via Blackberry, where several agents were helpful in giving me a status update throughout the night. I cannot even begin to explain the level of adrenaline running through my system at this point. It was this hyper aware state where every sound, every smell, every piece of information was ultra acute, analyzed, and processed so we could make the best decision to try to maximize the odds of survival.
Was the fire above us life threatening? What floor was it on? Were the commandos near us, or were they terrorists? Why is it so quiet? Did the commandos survive? If the terrorists come into the bathroom and to the door, when they fire in, how can I make my body as small as possible? If Joe gets killed before me in this situation, how can I throw his body on mine to barricade the door? If the Indian commandos liberate the rest in the other room, how will they know where I am? Do the terrorists have suicide vests? Will the roof stand? How can I make sure the FBI knows where Anjali and I are? When is it safe to stand up and attempt to urinate?
At one point we received an incorrect text saying that the terrorists were killed, Joe went out to check on the situation- he lives in Lagos and is much more fearless than me. He saw 5 commandos in the hallway, then another volley of fire broke out and he dove for cover, eventually retreating back to the bathroom stall with me. 10 minutes later we heard a pin drop and what sounded like an object tossed. We said to each other "grenade" and braced for impact. Fortunately we were wrong; no grenade had been tossed.
Meanwhile Anjali was on the other side of the corridor in the large room with our friends and about 100 others. She and others were in what basically was one continuous mass of people clinging to each other lying on the floor. People barely moved for 7 hours, the last 3 hours they felt it was too unsafe to even text. From her vantage point Anjali could clearly see the commandos advancing/retreating, advancing retreating. Whilst I was tucked behind a couple walls of marble and granite in a bathroom and toilet stall, she was feet from bullets flying back and forth. She was also in the middle of the corridor on one side and the terrace on the other. Gunfire and grenades going off on both ends at some points. Shiv and Reshma were up against the glass terrace doors that was all between us and the terrorists. Ironically, the group right next to Anjali were devout Bori Muslims whom would have been slaughtered just like everyone else. Everyone was in deep
prayer and most, Anjali included, had accepted that their lives were likely over.
After several attacks and counter attacks, dawn broke and the commandos were able to successfully secure our corridor. In Anjali's words "a young gorgeous looking commando" came in just like in a movie and told Anjali and the others in the room to put their hands up. He asked whether anyone had a weapon and was told that no one did and this was a peaceful crowd. He asked them to follow single file to safety. When one woman asked whether it was safe to leave, the commando replied: "Don't worry, you have nothing to fear, the first bullets have to go through me".
The scene was one literally out of a movie, like Die Hard. The corridor was laced with broken glass, bullet casings, and debris. Every table was turned over or destroyed. The ceilings and walls were littered with hundreds of bullet holes, blood stains were clear, though fortunately there were no dead bodies to be seen.
A few minutes after Anjali had left, I peeked out of my toilet stall with Joe to see multiple commandos and smiled widely. I had lost my right shoe while sprinting to the toilet so I grabbed a sheet from the floor wrapped it around my foot and proceeded to walk over the glass and debris to the hotel lobby.
On my way out next to me was an older Hindu man who had suffered an abdominal wound. The staff had placed him on a sheet and was holding the sheet to carry him out to safety. He said nothing, though I'm sure he was in agony. However, he was still, his hands were clenched tight in prayer, eyes focused above, and his expression was peaceful. It was as if he had accepted that there was a higher power that would determine his fate. I will never forget the look on his face. For myself, I was scared beyond belief of death. I had no peace, everything I attempted was to try and increase my likelihood of survival. Towards the end when it sounded like perhaps the Indian commandos had been flushed and we were in trouble, my heart was pounding so hard it felt like it could explode. As an aside, even though I hadn't slept a wink that night, I couldn't go to sleep until 1am that night- the adrenaline was just that strong.
Anjali and I were reunited in the entrance to the Taj on the ground floor. From there we embraced for the first time in 7 hours. At that point I didn't know whether she was dead or injured because we hadn't been able to text for the last 3 hours. By a sheer miracle she was untouched, Vishal was untouched and Shiv and Reshma were untouched. We also knew Amrita and Priya Jhaveri who were in there with us who came out along with us. Amrita's husband Chris a foreigner as well.
I wanted to take a picture of us on my blackberry – Anjali did not want me to as she wanted us to get out of there before doing anything. She was right - our ordeal wasn't completely over. A large bus pulled up in front of the Taj and, just about as it was fully loaded gunfire erupted again. The terrorists were still alive and firing automatic weapons at the bus. Anjali was the last to get on the bus as I pushed her up and Vishal pulled her inside – I crouched down separated from her once again. We were all told upon coming out of the hotel that we would be taken to a police station to identify ourselves. However, 30 metres away they were let off the bus as gunfire continued – they ran to the Regal Cinema and into Vishal's waiting car and away to safety. I ducked under some concrete barriers for cover as the gunfire continued. (It later turned out that pictures of this moment were the ones that made the international news.) Shortly
thereafter an ambulance came and drove a few others and me away to safety. An hour later Anjali and I were again reunited at her parents home. Our thanksgiving had just gained a lot more meaning.
Some may say our survival was due to random luck, others due to divine intervention. Being 72 hours removed from these events, I can assure you of only one thing: Far fewer of us would have survived if it weren't for the extreme selflessness shown by the Taj hotel staff, who organized us, catered to us, then in the end literally died for us. That is not to take away from the extreme bravery and courage of the Indian commandos, who in pitch-black darkness and in unfamiliar, close-quarter terrain valiantly held the terrorists at bay. It is also amazing that amongst our entire group not one person screamed or panicked through the entire ordeal and there was an eerie but quiet calm that pervaded – this is one more thing that got us all out alive. Even people in the adjacent rooms who were being executed kept silent.
This is to remark on the truism that only when faced with the worst of humanity can one witness the best. It is much easier to destroy than to build, yet somehow humanity has managed to build far more than it has ever destroyed. Likewise in a period of crisis it is much easier to find faults and failings, rather than celebrate heroes. It is now time to celebrate our heroes.