MUMBAI - The unprecedented night of horror
in India's financial capital began at about 9.30
pm for two Germans, Rita and Thomas, part of a
Lufthansa in-flight crew finishing dinner at
Leopold Cafe in Colaba in south Mumbai.
as a favorite of Western
tourists, and this popularity caused it to be
among the first of 12 terrorist targets on
Wednesday night that killed more than 80 people
and injured nearly 300, and the figures are
Apart from the cafe, groups of
militants armed with automatic weapons and
grenades burst into luxury hotels, a hospital and
a railway station, spewing death. As of
publication time, many tourists were being held
hostage in the Taj Mahal hotel, a 105-year-old
landmark, and the five-star Trident Oberoi.
"I saw the terrorist firing his machine
gun at people sitting at the next table," Rita
said, "and then thought the gun would turn around
to me." But the terrorist, in his mid-30s, swung
the gun away from her, momentarily distracted by
his accomplice waiting in the mezzanine floor and
firing randomly at diners.
Her life had
been saved in that split second. Police said they
had killed four gunmen and arrested nine. A group
identifying itself as the Deccan Mujahideen said
it was responsible, per emails sent to news
organizations. Virtually nothing is known of this
group. "Deccan" is an area of India and
"Mujahideen" is the plural form of a Muslim
participating in jihad. Security officials believe
it unlikely an unknown group could carry out such
a precise and heavily-armed attack.
more likely to be the work of the Indian
Mujahideen, an Islamist group that has claimed
responsibility for other attacks in India. On
Thursday morning, speaking from inside the Oberoi
where foreigners are being held hostage, a man
identified as Sahadullah told India TV he belonged
to an Indian Islamist group seeking to end the
persecution of Indian Muslims: "We want all
mujahideens held in India released and only after
that we will release the people."
knows how the terrorists arrived in the city. One
theory is that they came from the sea in an
explosives-laden boat. But there is no doubt about
Rita, Thomas and Jesper, the
latter the owner of a shipping company from
Denmark, fell to the floor with other diners at
the Leopold, some on top of each other. "We
thought if we lay down and kept still, the gunman
would think we are dead," said Rita, a blonde
stewardess serving on Lufthansa Flight 764 from
Mumbai to Munich.
machinegun-wielding murderer ran up to join his
accomplice upstairs, the trio fled into an already
panic-stricken street, over a dead body and
leaving their bags, money, cell phones and unpaid
dinner bill behind. But the night of terror for
Rita and her friends was only beginning, as it was
for a city of 13 million not unused to terrorist
strikes but never in such prolonged horror.
The trio were staying at the Oberoi Hotel
in Nariman Point, a rare case of victims caught in
two of the dozen terrorist-hit areas in Mumbai on
the fateful night. Hemant Karkare, chief of the
city's anti-terrorism squad, was among three
senior police officials killed in a police
counter-attack against the terrorists holding
hostages as the Oberoi and Taj Mahal. By 10.30pm
outside the Oberoi, by the Arabian Sea on Marine
Drive, it was surreally quiet, with roads dark and
deserted, in contrast to the usual daytime office
bustle in one of the city's busiest and most
expensive office areas.
I reached the
Oberoi minutes after seeing the news flash on TV,
even as gunmen were holed up inside the hotel and
police cordons were being thrown around the
white-painted building. I recalled the Marriott in
Islamabad, which terrorists struck on September
20, setting it alight. Would the Oberoi and Taj
suffer the same devastating fate? No one nearby,
including police constables, had any clear idea of
what was happening, except that gun shots had been
fired and there were multiple explosions.
Small groups of bystanders joined fleeing
uniformed hotel staff running into the night.
Sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard
from the Taj Mahal about two kilometers away.
Oberoi hotel guests periodically raced out,
crouching and escorted by poorly armed policemen.
Sunil (name changed on request), a Marine Commando
Special Forces Officer, residing nearby, had heard
the first explosion outside the Oberoi.
explosives specialist, Sunil said that he gauged
by the sound that it involved low-grade explosives
of about 10 kilograms, of the kind that can be
packed into a fire extinguisher and set off with a
mobile phone ring as a trigger.
explosions were grenade attacks, the first of many
across Mumbai. "The explosion in the Air India
building in the 1993 bomb blast attacks was so
loud the ground shook," remembers officer Sunil.
"First you feel the building shake and then you
hear the loud explosion."
At this point
security men asked us to move away from the area,
particularly since I was wearing a white shirt and
could be a sitting target at night for
It was a terrible feeling of deja
vu for officer Sunil, who, like me, had similarly
raced out into the streets in Churchgate on midday
on Friday, March 12, 1993, to see a sea of glass
shards amid dead, bleeding and dying bodies strewn
around the Air India building, just a stone's
throw the Oberoi. In that incident, a series of 13
blasts killed up to 250 people, with 700 injured.
Fifteen years later, Mumbai has suffered more
serial terrorist strikes. In the intervening
years, the city has been the victim of bomb
attacks, but it has never seen anything like the
carnage of Wednesday night - it was pure and
simple urban warfare.
Mumbai has been
attacked six times since 1993. The last major
attack was in in 2006 when 200 people were killed
in attacks on the rail transit system.
"This is a high-risk zone," said officer
Sunil. "There could be delayed explosions." His
prediction was correct; within 30 minutes, with
gunfire and explosions had turned Mumbai into
A black-suited Oberoi banquet
manager was standing in a dark, nearly deserted
lane opposite the outwardly silent hotel, staring
up at the few lighted room windows. His hotel
would be nearly empty of guests by the morning.
The still surreal silence was broken
occasionally by a rush of feet fleeing the hotel,
or policemen crouching into firing positions near
the hotel's perimeter, or warning onlookers to go
away. "Fortunately, we had only one function
tonight, in one banquet room out of the nine we
have," the banquet manager said. "Otherwise, the
causalities might have been higher." He said the
hotel had about 45% occupancy.
armed gunmen randomly fired from the ramp in the
lobby," the Oberoi shopping mall manager standing
nearby reported on his cell phone to a senior.
"The Kandahar [restaurant[ is badly damaged, sir.
No word of causalities." A pattern was emerging.
Two-member teams of gunmen had fanned out across
Mumbai, randomly firing into crowds and hurling
grenades out of backpacks.
Most of the
targets were tourist-oriented, including railway
stations and hospitals. Reports emerged of
terrorists looking in particular for American and
British guests at the Oberoi and Taj Mahal, two
luxury landmarks and rated by Forbes and Conde
Nast among the world's best business hotels. In a
sense, Mumbai and India's economy was under
A young food and beverage trainee
attending a roof-top party at the Oberoi had just
escaped into the street, still panting, and
reported seeing a Japanese guest shot in the hip.
"Another guest said he had seen a man being shot
dead before his eyes," he said. "We heard there is
another explosion in Mazgaon Docks. We live near
there and have to go."
By 11.30 pm, when I
met Thomas, Rita and Jesper near the Air India
building facing the Arabian Sea, Marine Drive had
turned into a Hollywood disaster movie set:
ambulances, police vehicles, satellite TV vans,
trucks of heavily armed soldiers rumbling into the
zone and reporters screaming into their cell
phones. Thomas and Rita were desperately trying to
contact three missing crew members, not yet sure
whether one of them had escaped alive out of the
Soldiers were moving into
the Oberoi, seven grenade explosions rocked the
Taj Mahal, India's first-ever five-star hotel,
with its famous sea-facing dome on fire. Like
other hotel guests, the Lufthansa crew were
stranded outside for the night. Shipping company
owner Jesper had experienced bullets flying near
his head when he served as solder in a United
Nations peacekeeping mission in Yugoslavia 13
"We were caught in the
crossfire between Bosnians and Serbs," Jesper
remembered. "But tonight was more terrifying
because I had no gun to defend myself. Soldiers
firing on soldiers in a war is easier to
understand than civilians firing at other
civilians." "This is my first visit to Mumbai and
I like it," said Rita, who nearly lost her life in
the Leopold Cafe and escaped being killed in the
Oberoi in a night of terror that she and Mumbai
will never forget. "But I don't want to come back
Lufthansa eventually picked
up Rita, Thomas and Jesper in the morning and
moved them to the Hyatt Residency near the
airport. Flights out of Mumbai were expected to be
full on Thursday. But Mumbai has so far refused to
heed chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's advice to
stay indoors. Office attendance is expected to be
down, but suburban trains are running and the city
is attempting to come out to work. For stoic,
terrorist-battered Mumbai, work and life go on.