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26/11 survivor: 'Still very detailed, as if burned into my mind'

November 26, 2013 11:43 IST

Five years later, a 26/11 survivor in the US remembers his ordeal. Rediff.com's Ritu Jha reports from California.

Yusuf Safdari, senior counsel, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, California, was at the Taj Mahal hotel on the night of November 26, 2008.

"This attack is now a part of my life, and I feel that I am now a small piece of Indian history even though I am an American citizen," Sardari told Rediff.com

In November 2008, he was in India on a business trip. His father -- Dr Yahya B Safdari, who came to the United States from Amravati, Maharashtra, in 1964 -- accompanied him to visit family.

Yusuf Safdari remembers father and son were at the Shamiana restaurant at the Taj. He left his father there to use the restroom at the back of the lobby.

He was walking towards the hall behind the elevators, Sardari recalls, when he saw a glass window shatter. He heard gunshots. He spun around and caught a glimpse of a terrorist with a gun in his hand.

"If I was a few seconds late, I would have been at the front of the lobby where most people were hurt immediately," says Safdari.

He rapidly ran around a corner away from the shooter. There were only two options for him at that moment -- a bathroom without windows or a Kashmiri rug store that had an open door with a glass front.

The glass front was clear; anyone could see inside. He chose to enter the rug store where he saw a shopkeeper and another guest.

"I was extremely worried about my father," Safdari says. "I was also very worried about my wife, children and family in case something should happen to me, and I could not be there for them."

Safdari heard many gunshots. After a while, the gunshots grew faint. He thought the attack was over and started walking towards the lobby, but he was intercepted by staff at a bookstore by the elevators. They told him to seek shelter in the bookstore because the attack was not over.

"I had no way to communicate with my father because I did not have a cell phone with me. I stayed for many tense hours in the bookstore with men, women and children," Safdari said.

Around midnight, Safdari said, some Taj staff entered the store and told them they would help them flee if they wished to, but could not guarantee safety.

"We decided to make a run for it," Safdari said. "We fled out the front of the Taj with the guidance of the Taj staff who only had walkie talkies and no firearms."

"Outside, we saw Indian police and many media trucks. We ran to the Gateway of India and to safety. I immediately began asking around to see if someone had seen my father. I called America. My brother told me my father was temporarily safe inside the Taj. I spoke to my father, and I was relieved."

"I stood outside the whole night as the attack unfolded. In the morning, we were evacuated to another Taj property. I was told that my father would meet me there so I agreed to go. I still remember the emotions I felt at the time. The maximum stress that I felt was not knowing if my father would be fine since he was trapped in the Taj for many hours after my escape. I was so relieved when we were reunited."

How does he look back on that fateful night, five years later?

"I have a mixture of feelings," he says. "I am very thankful for the prayers of many that my father and I emerged safely from this attack on India and its innocent people. I feel sorrow for those who were injured or killed in this senseless attack. It was an experience I can never forget."

Over time, Safdari says he has tried not to let the experience affect him.

"I don't want to give that victory to the people who perpetrated this attack. It brought home the lesson to me that there are people out there who see some goal in attacking innocent people and maximising damage," he says.

Would he visit the Taj again? "Absolutely!" he says. "I want my children to be very familiar with India and their relatives in India. Many of my best memories are from my visits to India, including the sights, the sounds, the people and visits with my relatives. I often think back on this experience and consider how fortunate we were to escape with no harm. My memory of the event is still very detailed, as if burned into my mind."

Image: The Taj Mahal hotel during the attacks. Photograph: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Ritu Jha in California