Friday, July 3, 2009

Travel & Terrorism: One Night in Mumbai

Travel isn't always fun. Last year, a friend of ours underwent a harrowing experience in India.


On November 26, 2008, terrorists stormed multiple sites in Mumbai India, including two luxury hotels. The attacks killed 179 people and injured over 300. Rakesh Patel, Asia-Pacific head of equity sales at HSBC, was among the hostages taken at the Oberoi Hotel. Over drinks at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, we talked to him about his ordeal and escape.

Can you recount how the attack started that day, for you?

I was having dinner that night at the Oberoi’s Kandahar Restaurant with two colleagues from the local HSBC office. At about 10 pm, just as we were finishing, we heard sounds that seemed like fireworks, but that we realized later were actually gunshots. After a lot of “fireworks,” we noticed smoke coming from the restaurant door. There was panic and we all ran away from the door towards the kitchen, and into the fire exit stairwell. When we got to the stairwell, none of us knew what had happened so some of us went down and others went up. One of my colleagues went down the stairs and he escaped out of the hotel in 15 minutes. Meanwhile, myself and another colleague were herded up the stairs by some of the staff.

At the 10th floor landing, some of the gunmen caught up with us. They had AK-47s which they fired above our heads, and this made us stop. Then they lined us against the wall with our hands up, and asked for British and American passports. Of course most people don’t carry their passports with them, so they didn’t really get any.

What were the terrorists like?

They were young-ish kids who were always on their mobiles to their colleagues, who we later found out were at the Taj Hotel. The leader of their group was apparently at the Taj Hotel. They spoke little English except for basic words like “British passport” or “American passport.”

What happened next?

I later learned that they had planned to kill us on the 10th floor, but for some reason, they didn’t. Instead, they decided to take us to the rooftop. At that point, I remember thinking that I was probably going to die, so I decided to try and escape. If I was going to die, I thought I should at least try and raise my survival rate to 10%.

As we were moving up to the rooftop, I managed to position myself somewhere in the middle of the group. On the 18th floor landing, I slipped out a door unnoticed and then I waited behind the door for 10 minutes until everyone passed. The smoke at this time was very bad – I guess from the detonators -- and I could hardly see in front of me. I walked down the stairs very slowly, partly because of the smoke, and also because I didn’t want to make any noise in case someone noticed me.

Where did you go from there?

I eventually reached the ground floor stairwell, where I saw some others who had also managed to escape. We could hardly see anything because of the smoke, but together we looked for a way out. We found an emergency exit door but it was padlocked. Then we heard a phone ring, and I went to pick it up. When I got to the phone, I realized that we were actually in the lobby and there was no one around. So we ran out the front door.

What was the scene like outside the hotel?

We escaped about an hour after the attack. In this kind of situation, you expect paramedics, emergency services or military forces to be waiting outside. There were literally two policemen on the scene.

I couldn’t walk far after all this, so I ended up sitting on the street against a wall for about two hours. I had nothing on me – my mobile phone had been burned and I had no money. I was resigned to sitting where I was for the rest of the night and then just walking to the local HSBC office when it opened. Fortunately, a local television crew eventually came on the scene and interviewed me. Then one of my colleagues in the local office saw me on TV and he somehow managed to find me on the scene.

Do you know what happened to the others in your group who didn’t escape?

They were taken up to the rooftop. After 30 minutes, the terrorists suddenly said, “Prepare to die” and started firing at them. Everyone died except three people, and luckily, the 2nd colleague I had dinner with that night was one of the three. He took two bullet grazes and dived down. Then people started falling on top of him until he was covered by dead bodies. To survive, he lay like this for several hours, pretending to be dead.

Unfortunately, the terrorists returned and realized that some of the people were still alive. They set up a detonator and left. This was when my colleague crawled out. He went into the boiler room and hid there for 40 hours until the government forces finally re-took the hotel.

Having survived a terrorist ordeal, what advice can you give others who might find themselves in a similar situation?

It’s hard to predict how people will react in such a situation, but it’s good to not panic – although, of course, it’s very easy to say this. In my case, from the moment I accepted that I was going to die, it was easy to calm down and make rational decisions. I realized that it’s only when people are trying to protect something that they become emotional.

Has this experienced changed you in any way?

This is my only disappointment. I expected to experience some sort of epiphany but I didn’t. People ask me if I’ve changed my life, if I’m now going to drive my car at less dangerous speeds, or if I’m going to do something like retire and start meditating in the Himalayas, but the answer is no. My attitudes to life and to the people around me are the same.

This appeared in the May-June 2009 issue of Travelife Magazine.
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