Mumbai: Sixty hours of terror and chaos

Over two and a half days, 10 gunman left a horrifying trail of destruction as they rampaged through India's biggest city. David Randall reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mumbai, India, Wednesday night. A city of 18 million people, and a lot of visitors. In the hotel district, business people and tourists are drinking, eating, window-shopping and walking. Thousands are crowding the streets in this, the glitziest area of an ever-restless port. And then, unheeded by anyone, another party of visitors arrives, in several dinghies. They are young, male and carry backpacks. Inside are grenades and automatic weapons. They slip ashore and split up. And, for the next 60 hours, they cause a slow-motion nightmare of methodical and remorseless violence. This is the story of those two and a half days – minute by bloody minute.

Wednesday 26, 21.25 (local time) The men from the boats fan out across the city. They open their backpacks and attack. Four or five young men burst on to the concourse of the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station and begin firing on crowds of late-night commuters. Later, Nasim Inam's hands would shake as he spoke of seeing four attackers. "They wore black T-shirts and blue jeans. They were carrying big guns. They just fired randomly at people and then ran away. In seconds, people fell to the ground." He said the attackers were 25 years old at the most. "They were so young. I was standing behind. I was just behind. If they had turned around, it would have been me." A little later, shooting begins near two of Mumbai's top hotels, the Trident-Oberoi and Taj Mahal.

At Leopold's restaurant, filled with about 100 customers, more firing. Outside, an explosion wrecks a red scooter. Shop awnings are shredded by the blast, and broken glass litters the street. There are screams. People dive for cover. Some run. Chaos. Inside, Leopold's walls are pockmarked with bullet holes, and the floor stained with blood. Whose blood? No one yet knows. Then, just after 11pm come the first reports of deaths – two, at the railway station.

22:50 Shooting breaks out near The Times of India newspaper offices in the south, quickly followed by attacks near the Bombay Municipal Corporation, and Cama and GT hospitals.

23.26 Police say seven sites are under attack. The death toll rises to four. The lobbies of both the Oberoi and Taj Mahal are on fire. Police now surround the Taj, but no one knows what's going on inside. Half an hour later comes word from a British MEP trapped in the building. Sajjad Karim, speaking by mobile phone from a barricaded basement room, says: "I was in the lobby of the hotel when gunmen came in and people started running. There were about 25 or 30 of us. Some of us split one way and some another. A gunman just stood there spraying bullets around, right next to me. I managed to turn away and I ran into the hotel kitchen and then we were shunted into a restaurant in the basement. We are now in the dark in this room and we've barricaded all the doors. It's really bad." But some people are getting out, led by staff, and a few injured are wheeled out on the hotel's golden luggage carts. At the Oberoi, guests come out with their hands on their heads. They, we later learn, are the lucky ones.

Thursday 27, 00.08 Reuters reports: "At least 10 people killed in Mumbai shootings – Indian TV channels". A car bomb goes off near the city airport. Explosions are heard at the Taj, and grenades are thrown from windows. Guests not held by the gunmen are huddling for shelter where they can. Dalbir Bains is with 50 others under tables in the Sea Lounge restaurant, trying to remain as quiet as possible. It will not be until 4am that she'll clamber down a fire ladder to safety. Others get out earlier, including a group guided by security personnel. They shuffle five at a time down more than 20 flights of stairs. Many take their shoes off to minimise the noise. The spiralling stairway is narrow and steep, and so hot they stop three times on the half-hour journey. Among them are two men carrying a woman in a wheelchair.

00.32 A British guest escapes from the Taj and tells Indian television that gunmen are taking hostages and looking for people carrying British passports. Alex Chamberlain, in the city on business, says the men had burst into the Oberoi's Kandahar restaurant and herded diners upstairs. "They told everybody to stop and put their hands up and asked if there were any British or Americans. My friend said to me, 'don't be a hero, don't say you are British'." But, as the gunmen force their hostages up a stairwell, he and another man escape through a fire exit and stumble through the smoke now filling the hotel. They make their way to the lobby and emerge outside to find fire engines and 20 armed policemen, "looking as scared as we were".

00.50 Reuters: "At least 18 people killed in Mumbai attacks – Indian TV stations." Guests and staff are still trying to escape from the two hotels. One, a German media executive, dies in a fall from the façade of the Taj as he tries to climb to freedom. From outside the hotel, people can be seen silhouetted against windows. Some raise their fists vainly against the glass; others flick their lights on and off in distress. A couple take turns waving a white flag.

01.17 Reuters: "At least 40 people killed in series of attacks in Mumbai – Indian TV channels." At the Oberoi, guests such as Mark Abell, a British lawyer, lock themselves in their rooms after hearing explosions. Others, including a businessman, Alan Jones, from South Wales, come face to face with the gunmen. He later says: "We took the lift to the lobby. When the doors opened, two Japanese men riding with us got out, but immediately signalled for us to go back in the lift. As they got back in, a bullet hit one of the Japanese men in the back of the leg. Flesh and blood splattered everywhere. I looked up to see one of the gunmen was approaching. I tried to close the door, but the injured guy's leg was preventing it from closing." He frantically pulls the Japanese man's leg back into the lift as the gunman bears down on them. "I only just kept it together enough to get the door shut," he adds. He then rides to the top floor where hotel staff tell his group to seek refuge in the basement via a secure lift. "After an hour in a ballroom, they evacuated us in groups of 10 to what they said was a safe area, although it still didn't feel very safe. We had no idea what was going on, it was crazy... chaos."

01.28 Reuters: "At least 80 killed in Mumbai attacks." Behind that statistic, some heroism. Cheryl Robinson, a British tourist, emerges later that morning, barefoot from her seven-hour ordeal in the Taj, to say: "We were at dinner when we heard shots fired. There was gunfire and explosions. We stayed on the floor; many were lying under tables, under furniture, and the hotel staff told us to be quiet. The hotel staff were stupendous. They locked the doors and warned us to sit tight." She said restaurants and rooms were flooded with water after a pipe burst in the chaos of the gunshots and blasts. We lay down in the water. "We could hear the sound of people running outside. It was terrifying." She was eventually helped by firefighters down a ladder.

01.35 Hemant Karkare, chief of Mumbai's anti-terrorist squad, is reported shot dead. "Four or five" gunmen have now taken an unknown number of guests hostage in the two hotels. Among them, at the Taj, are 50 Koreans, their drivers still waiting patiently, and futilely, for them beyond the cordons set up by police. Also inside is European lawmaker Ignasi Guardans, who tells Spanish radio: "We are in contact with some deputies inside the hotel, with one in a room, and another hidden in the kitchen." Shortly afterwards, there is an explosion at the hotel.

02.30 In the Taj, 20 people sheltering in a library area escape with the aid of security forces. One, businessman Hugh Brown, later says that a man who had stayed with them turns out to be one of the terrorists. "When he got out with us, he started shooting some of the people as they were leaving the room. He was then dealt with by the security forces. He pretended to be one of us in the room. He had a rucksack which he wouldn't allow us to look into. He said it was private property. In retrospect, we probably should have done something." Five minutes later, an organisation calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen emails Indian news media to claim responsibility for the attacks.

04.33 As more explosions are reported from the Oberoi, gunmen throw grenades from the roof of the Taj to stop police from moving in. Hundreds of guests have now been evacuated from the hotel, but others, number unknown, are still held hostage inside. Others – trapped but not captured – cry for help from windows. Firefighters break windows to reach them.

05.46 Officials report 11 police have so far been killed. It is not clear if they are part of the death toll of 80. But then, so far, very little is clear. Ten minutes later, 26 of the 50 Koreans who had been trapped in the Taj Mahal are reported to have escaped unharmed. They hid together for five hours in a conference room.

06.15 Death toll rises to 82. An hour later it will reach 86. In the Taj, on the 15th floor, there is a knock at a door. Inside the room are Britons Alistair Francis and his fiancée Nicole Griffen, who have been hunkered down there since shortly after 10pm when hotel staff phoned and told them "turn off the TV, turn off the lights – there is a guy with a gun". They stay there, intermittently keeping up with events via the net. Then that knock. Thankfully, it is security men telling them to go to the ground floor.

07.06 As dawn breaks, the Taj is surrounded by armed police, ambulances, and fire engines. Periodic firing is heard, and flames and smoke still escape from the roof. At the Oberoi, friends of those trapped inside start to gather. Among them is college student Preet Desai, pacing the promenade. He says a friend's father was inside the hotel at a business meeting when shots were fired. "My friend is shattered. His dad is not answering his cell. What do we do? Do you know anyone in the hotel who can give us information, any information?"

09.03 First reports come in that an Israeli rabbi, his wife and two children are being held hostage at Chabad House, Mumbai headquarters of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish outreach group. Other families live at the house. Terrorists had commandeered a police vehicle in the night and fired on passers-by, killing three. Some people try to protect the rabbi's house by throwing rocks, but the gunmen attack and then enter the rabbi's house.

09.30 A gunman calling himself Sahadullah calls Indian television and says: "There are seven of us inside the Oberoi. We want all Mujahideens held in India released and only after that will we release the people. Release all the Mujahideens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled."

11.41 Following confused reports that police and commandos have "begun operations against militants" at the Oberoi, a state official says there could still be 100-200 guests and staff trapped there.

12.04 At the rabbi's house, a woman, the family's cook, and a child – Moshe Holtzberg, aged two – are released. Moshe's trousers are covered in blood. He is now an orphan. His mother and father, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, are later found dead inside the house.

13.05 Three people are killed in an explosion in a taxi on the Mazagaon Dockyard Road in south Mumbai. A cinema, the Metro Adlabs Multiplex, also in the south, is reported attacked.

13.55 State police chief A N Roy says the Taj hostages have all been released. He speaks too soon.

16.00 About a dozen hostages are ushered from the Taj and into ambulances. Three bodies, covered in white sheets, are wheeled out.

16.57 Gunfire and explosions are heard at the Taj as commandos launch an assault on the gunmen. At the Oberoi, dozens are still being held. An official says security forces have cleared the ground to the fourth floors, and the eighth to the 21st floors.

17.43 At the Chabad House, a gunman calling himself "Imran" calls Indian media and says, in Urdu: "Ask the government to talk to us and we will release the hostages. Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims? Are you aware how many of them have been killed in Kashmir this week?"

19.46 Huge flames shoot from an upper floor of the Oberoi. Commandos are reportedly fighting room-to-room battles with terrorists. Half an hour later, 45 hostages are reported freed, but 35 remain inside. At the city's Jaslok hospital, Diane Murphy from near Hexham, Northumberland, tells how she and her husband Michael were wounded when gunmen stormed into the Leopold café. "All of a sudden there was automatic gunfire. The whole place fell apart. It was tremendously loud. My husband and I were hit, as were lots of people. Everybody was down on the ground. The gunfire stopped for a few seconds then started again. We had to wait for the police to arrive. I stayed with my husband because I could tell he was seriously injured. He was losing consciousness." Michael was hit in the ribs (he later had his spleen removed), Diane in the foot.

22.07 Death toll rises to 119. It is now known that 10 of them were gunned down at the railway station.

23.29 State officials say the siege at the Taj has ended, and the last three attackers have been killed. Not for the first, or last, time, they are wrong.

23.36 Eight more hostages are freed from Chabad House. Dipak Dutta, rescued from the Taj, tells how troops escorting him through the corridors told him not to look down at any of the bodies. "A lot of chef trainees were massacred in the kitchen," he adds.

Friday 28, 07.24 Indian army snipers in buildings opposite Chabad House open fire. Then commandos abseil down ropes from a hovering helicopter on to the roof of the Jewish centre.

10.03 More guests, including a chef, a baby and people carrying luggage bearing Canadian flags, are led from the Oberoi.

11.42 Police officer outside the Oberoi shouts through loudhailer that 93 guests have so far been rescued from the hotel. Almost simultaneously, two loud explosions and gunfire are heard at the Taj. Electricity is cut off from the floors where it is believed gunmen still roam.

12.41 Nearly two dozen more people – mainly air crew with Lufthansa and Air France – are rescued from the Oberoi. Half an hour later, a commando officer reports that they have found 15 bodies in a room at the Taj.

14.35 In a Mumbai hospital one of the heroes of the Taj siege, a member of the staff known only as Mr Rajan, lies seriously wounded. Prashant Mangeshikar, his wife and daughter were in the foyer of the 105-year-old hotel on Wednesday night when gunmen opened fire. Hotel staff shepherd the Mangeshikars and other guests upstairs – only to come face to face with one of the gunmen. Mr Mangeshikar says: "He looked young and did not speak to us. He just fired. We were in sort of a single file. The man in front of my wife shielded us. He was maintenance section staff. He took the bullets." It was Mr Rajan. Mr Mangeshikar and a few others drag him into a room and, for the next 12 hours, try to stanch the bleeding. He is finally rescued. It is not known if he has survived. Mr Mangeshikar says: "I'm going to the hospital to find out what happened to him. I owe it to that brave man."

15.00 Indian police claim to have control of the Oberoi. They have so far recovered 24 bodies. At Chabad House, commandos soon report they have taken the top two floors. The death toll reaches 143, with 288 injured.

18.03 A massive explosion is reported from Chabad, when commandos blow up an outer wall to gain access to the compound. There is more shooting at the Taj.

19.05 Indian forces begin firing grenades at the Taj, where at least one gunman is holed up in the ballroom. At Chabad, commandos leave, firing their weapons in the air, a signal that at last the Jewish centre has been liberated. The bodies of six hostages and two gunmen are found inside.

Saturday 29, 07.30 Smoke billows from the ground floor of the Taj, as commandos and gunmen fight each other from room to room. Three gunmen are dead there, the body of one later thrown from a window. Sniffer dogs are led into the hotel.

09.17 As police search the Taj, rooms full of bodies are found. The death toll rises to 195. Police warn it will soon exceed 200. At the scene of this last battleground, black streaks of soot stain the grey bricks, white balconies, and red-tiled roofs of the hotel. Two of its stained-glass windows are broken. And so, too, are hundreds of lives.

19.29 Police say they now believe only 10 terrorists caused these 60 hours of bloodshed. But who are they? Who trained them? Financed them? And who taught them that their cause – any cause – could be advanced by such horror?

Additional reporting by Alanna Lynott and Sofia Mitra-Thakur

Taj Mahal Hotel: 'I looked through the peephole and saw a man with an AK-47 coming down the corridor'

'Curry King' Sir Gulam Noon, 72, trapped in the Taj Mahal Hotel

Sir Gulam had booked a table at the restaurant but felt ill, so he had dinner in his room with his brother and two business associates. "It probably saved my life. The restaurant was the first place the terrorists went. We thought we were hearing wedding fireworks." A bomb went off. "The whole building shook. It was like an earthquake. Then there were more explosions. I was about to run outside, but I looked through the peephole and saw a man with an AK-47 coming down the corridor." He rang the duty manager. "Amazingly, he was still at his desk. He told me to jam the door. He said men with guns were looking for Americans and British people. ... Then the air-conditioning went off. The room became hot [and] we couldn't open the windows. I could see the smoke coming along the corridors. The manager told us to put wet towels by the door.

"The gunfire was continuous all night. We were told not to leave the room as 'the commandos could shoot you by mistake'. We saw two terrorists on our floor and heard gunfire just outside our room. It was very frightening; you didn't know when they would start going from room to room. After several hours, a fireman broke the window and took us down in a crane. The staff were amazing; they stayed all night, risking their lives."

Taj Mahal Hotel: 'I thought the gunman behind me would land one in my back'

Sajjad Karim, 38, Tory MEP for north-west England, trapped in the Taj Mahal Hotel

"I walked out of the front doors, then all of a sudden we could hear gunshots from outside the main grounds. We were directed back inside.... As we got to the rear exit, another gunman came in carrying an automatic weapon and he just started firing.... People in front of me started to fall. I saw about 12 killed. He was shooting at anybody.... I and four others were lucky to escape. I could not go forward, but I could not go back as I knew there were more gunmen. I noticed there was a third corridor and I ran down it. I thought he would land one in my back, but he didn't." Mr Karim ended up in the hotel restaurant with staff and 50 guests. They barricaded themselves in, and soldiers rescued them six hours later.

Leopold Cafe: 'Luckily he didn't keep his finger down, because if he did, I'd be dead'

Harnish Patel, 29, chartered surveyor from Putney, shot in the leg at the Leopold Cafe

"I was literally one drink in. A gunman walked in and that was it. I was in the bar and we had one of those jugs with taps that you drink out of. And suddenly it just shattered, and you could hear a sound like fire crackers. I was so lucky. The guy just took one look at me and showered the whole side of the bar – chairs and table and everything.

"He just let loose. It's unimaginable. Luckily, he didn't keep his finger down, because if he did, I'd be gone."

When he was shot, he said, he just felt a "tingly feeling". "I think it was the shock. It just seemed a tingly feeling. I knew that he'd hit me in this leg. I thought: 'Stay, don't move.'

"I was out near the back of the bar, so I moved further back for cover and he kept showering us with shots. I never saw where he was standing. He came to the right side of me.

"At one point, everyone thought he had gone, because it was quiet. Everyone just made for cover, some made attempts to run.

"The guy next to me was saying, 'stay quiet, stay quiet. Don't do anything. He might come back.' And five or 10 minutes later, he came back.

"He [the gunman] had a blue T-shirt wrapped around his gun, perhaps to protect him. The bullet hit me in the left leg, but went straight through."

Trident-Oberoi Hotel: 'We couldn't use the telephone. Luckily, I had my BlackBerry'

London lawyer Mark Abell, 51, trapped in the Oberoi Hotel

Mr Abell was on a work trip with his colleague Christopher Jackson from the European law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse. "Chris and I had dinner with a client... I got the lift up to my room and after about 10 minutes I heard a big blast.... the whole room shook. I thought the windows were going to smash. Then there was a second explosion, gunfire. Some people tried to escape and it appears that they were shot and killed.

"I barricaded the room and filled the bath with water. You couldn't sleep on the bed, we had to use all the furniture to block the door. I was basically sleeping on the floor in the corner of the room. We were told to stay away from the door.

We couldn't use the telephone as they would be monitoring the switchboard.... Fortunately, I had a BlackBerry." The device kept Mr Abell in touch with his wife in Rickmansworth and other trapped guests. He received "somewhere in the region of 5,000 emails from people all over the world" offering support. The mobile email device also allowed guests to set up a network to share information.

"Then there was a knock at the door. They shouted 'police' and I looked through the spy hole: there were police, commandos and hotel staff. They've been fantastic – a great advertisement for their country."