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The blasts that broke Bombay: The sweetmeat seller told journalist Rahul Singh a bomb had gone off only a couple of miles away. That was just the beginning . . . two hours later, 300 lay dead and the city was in ruins

THE FIRST indication I had that something terrible had happened in Bombay was when my sweetmeat seller turned up in a highly agitated state at 2pm on Friday afternoon. 'Sahib, a bomb has just exploded near Flora Fountain,' he said. 'I saw a lot of people running in panic with blood on their clothes.'

Flora Fountain, just a couple of miles from where I live, is in the heart of Bombay's business district. I immediately phoned the Indian Express, the newspaper I onced edited. 'There's been a big explosion at Bombay Stock Exchange,' the news editor said.

The Stock Exchange, where more than two-thirds of India's shares are traded, is a brand new 28-storey building. Pashupati Advani, a stockbroker, has an office across the street.

'I first thought it was an earthquake,' he told me. 'The whole building shook and everything fell off my table. I have lived in San Francisco and experienced an earthquake there. But when I rushed out on to the street, I realised it was a bomb. There were mangled bodies, shattered glass, blood and smoke everywhere, and people with blood- stained clothes were wandering around in a daze. I have never seen anything so horrible before, and I thought to myself, 'Bombay is turning into another Beirut'. '

Little more than an hour after the first blast, I heard the clap of another explosion, loud enough to make the pigeons that live in my building scatter into the air. I tried to ring the Express again. No luck. The lines were all busy.

I eventually got hold of the Times of India. 'A second bomb has just exploded at the Air India building,' a reporter told me. 'Many people have been killed.' The Air India building, another huge skyscraper, is in Nariman Point, also an important hub of business and commercial activity. Next to it is the Indian Express building, and across the road the five-star Oberoi Hotel. The legislative assembly and the main state administrative building are less than 100 metres away. Several state ministers have their homes in the area.

'I was in the boardroom on the fourth floor when we heard the explosion,' said Himmat Sandhu, the manager of the Oberoi. 'Smoke was coming out of the Air India building and people were rushing from it and from the Indian Express building.'

At about the same time, two other bombs went off in rapid succession. The first was at the Sena Bhavan, the headquarters of the militant right-wing Hindu party, the Shiv Sena, which was behind the communal riots that engulfed Bombay in December and January. The second exploded close to the passport office in the northern part of the city.

Arun Sadhu, a writer who was on a bus in the area, heard the Sena Bhavan bomb and thought it was a car accident. 'Then the bus stopped at the traffic lights just before the passport office. At that moment, a huge explosion took place right in front of us. The bus shook, as if an earthquake was taking place, and a shower of metal splinters fell on it. A taxi a few paces away was completely smashed. Five or six other buses were completely demolished . . .'

Later I visited the scenes of the early blasts. The ground floor of the Air India building and the nearby Bank of Oman had been gutted, with a huge crater where the bomb exploded. The twisted wrecks of burnt-out cars littered the street. Among the rubble a torn banner, erected by peace campaigners during the communal rioting, fluttered in the breeze. It read: 'Bombay ko bachana hai' ('We must save Bombay').

At the Stock Exchange, where at least 50 people died and hundreds were injured, blood-soaked clothes lay among share certificates and files. Stalls lay broken in the road outside. 'Many of those who died were poor hawkers,' said Mr Advani.

(Photograph omitted)