Hell on Earth
Intruders effortlessly penetrated the supposed impervious walls surrounding India's beloved Bombay city with the steadfast intent of carrying out their top bosses' orders: "kill until your last breath." Bombay was my birthplace and is home to my many aunties, uncles, and friends. Just months ago, I moved to Bombay where I accepted a position for India's CNN sister station, CNN-IBN. Little did I know I was in for a whirlwind experience that would test me both personally and professionally, and the whole world would be watching.
On November 26, 2008, just like any other day, I went to work and was busy compiling entertainment stories for the "E Tonight" rundown. The day progressed as usual. We taped the program and were in the process of sending our feeds to the Delhi headquarters when we cut to a newsbreak about a shooting in the district of Colaba about 15 minutes away from the station. It was 9:30 pm. A reporter rushed to the scene of the crime-- The Leopold Café-- a popular ex-pat hangout on the busy causeway that's been in business since 1871. At first news stations assumed the brawl was gang-related. But when media personnel arrived, they were met with a female bystander dead on the road with several wait staff and patrons bleeding from fresh gun shot wounds.
The gunmen had used AK-47s and were lobbing hand grenades. This was a terror attack. Minutes later the assignment desk was informed that a Colaba petrol pump had been blown up. Alerts kept streaming in like someone was pouring a hot cup of coffee, allowing it to spill over the brim of the cup, onto the saucer, and spread all over the table. Nonstop leaving merely seconds for reaction time.
10:00 pm: Four men open fired at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the city's largest train terminal, 6 injured.
At the same time, terrorists open fired outside the Taj Mahal hotel, several security personnel injured.
10:15 pm: A blast detonated under a taxi in Vile Parle on the Western Express highway, 2 were killed.
10:45 pm: Gunfire reported outside the Metro Cinema hall.
Meanwhile, terrorists swarmed the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident hotels. The Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) were on guard.
12:00 am: Terrorists escaped from Metro Cinema and had hijacked a police jeep. They began drive-by shooting and shot three men inside a police car: Top ATS Chief Hemant Karkare, Additional Commissioner of Mumbai Police Ashok Kamte, and Encounter Specialist Vijay Salaskar who had single-handedly killed nearly 80 underworld thugs were all pronounced dead hours later.
12:15 am: 40 people taken hostage at the Oberoi Trident. Army on stand by. Red alert sounded for the state of Maharashtra.
12:47 am: Rapid Action Force and National Security Guard nabbed some suspected terrorists at the Oberoi Trident.
1:26 am: The Deccan Mujahideen sent an e-mail to media personnel claiming responsibility for the attacks.
2:00 am: Westside dome in the historic wing of the Taj Mahal hotel on fire.
2:30 am: Fire Brigade reaches Taj.
4:00 am: Some hostages trapped in the two hotels were rescued, 6 foreigners were still held captive at the Oberoi Trident.
The hours proceeding seemed interminable. The six of us left in the newsroom desperately tried to help the lone assignment desk editor by making phone calls to reporters, re-routing live trucks, and checking for e-mail alerts. I left the newsroom around 8:30 am, but the hell was far from over.
Later in the day, terrorists had taken over Nariman House, a Chabad refuge for Jews visiting Bombay. Five hostages were held up for 48 hours and were all killed. New York city Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivkah were among the dead. Their toddler son Moshe and his nanny managed to escape. The poor orphan is too young to comprehend it now, but he'll soon have to come to terms with the fact that his parents were victims of a brutal attack rooted in hatred and senselessness.
The terrorists had the whole world hostage...glued to their TV screens for 62 hours..wide-eyed and helpless. Trapped hotel residents locked themselves in their rooms and waved from their windows for help during daybreak. The terrorists taunted the public with their hand grenades, intermittent gun firing, and switched the lights on and off in random rooms of the hotels so we could see potentially overestimate how many were inside. The biggest diversion was the fire in the historic wing of the Taj hotel. The mascot of India's wealth and the landmark that set the Bombay skyline apart, Bombayites were forced to watch in horror as the magestic Taj was burning before their eyes. The terrorists were on a mission to burn it down, a possible vendetta to counter the Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan just weeks earlier. Dozens were charred to death. The Taj's General Manager, Karambir Kang, lost his wife and two sons in the fire. The terrorists had asked Taj reception staff and guards to help set fire to different wings of the structure and since they refused, they were shot point blank. Loyalty in its utmost form...resolute even in a matter of life or death.
Family members and friends waited, prayed, and camped outside the hotels hoping their "missing" loved ones didn't end up as tally marks on the death toll. Security guards and Fire Brigade officials were the only ones who could describe the blood bath in the hotel restaurants and lobbies. The pool at the Oberoi had turned a deep crimson with bodies afloat and strewn across lawn chairs. A cousin told me about a friend who was trapped inside the Oberoi. Reshma Khiani was dining at Tiffin restaurant when the terrorists barged in and open fired. She was shot in her hip and hand. Her friends were dead around her. Everyone was on the floor, but for fear the gunmen were in close vicinity, they played dead. Reshma bled for 18 and a half hours...but she was lucky, she made it out alive. Captain Ramesh Gulati along with South African security guard Faisul Nagel were trapped inside a Taj restaurant on the 19th floor. Little did they know terrorists were harboring hostages just one floor below. There were nearly 150 people in the restaurant with them and after hearing the blasts and gunfire, the two men took charge and guided everyone down the fire escape to safety. Such are the stories, yet we were all affected..by six degrees or less. Nearly 150 killed, 300 injured...discounting the dozens of bystanders shot in the crowds who have yet to be identified and spoken for.
These three days of terror will forever be etched in my mind. The Bombay I had known and loved was plagued by devastation, destruction, and death. News anchors hadn't slept and were on air round the clock. Reporters and camera operators put their lives on the line to provide up to the minute coverage. Newsrooms were bustling like never before. We were all busy uploading footage, getting interviews, and keeping an eye out for updates on the other networks. We all came together as a united force during such a pivotal time in our world's history. CNN-IBN Editor-In-Chief Rajdeep Sardesai recounts it best:
In the journey of a television journalist, no two days are ever the same: 26/11 and what followed is complete proof of that. Perhaps one of the most audacious attacks in the geography of terror, it tested the entire network. In the end, we emerged from the crisis with great credit: from getting the first pictures on IBN 7, to the relentless reporting, to the manner in which every team worked in tandem, often without a moment's sleep is a tribute to the professional commitment of each and every one of you. There are lessons also for the future: we need to ensure we show restraint and responsibility at all times, reassure people rather than frighten them. But I will leave that for another mail, on another day. For now, you deserve the highest praise for rising up to the challenge of a massive breaking news situation and proving that the spirit of whatever it takes endures.
Though it was an invaluable learning experience that tested the ties of humanity, here's hoping I never have to help cover such an episode again.
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