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'They continued to fire at everyone'

November 28, 2008 14:31 IST

Twenty-year-old Varun Salvi* is in training to become a front office executive at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. On the night of November 26, he was on his way to work the 11 pm shift when he learned of the terrorist attacks. Able to establish cell phone contact with a colleague trapped inside the hotel, he gives us his story and a blow-by-blow account of how the events that night transpired.

I left home at 9:45 pm by BEST bus on Wednesday night, November 26; I had to show up for my shift by 10:30 pm. When the bus neared VT Station at around 10:20 pm, a mob of people ran towards us in the street, shouting at the driver to stop and have all the passengers disembark because the area was under a terrorist attack.

The street was milling with people and police and we all soon became aware that something serious was underway. I got off the bus and walked towards Crawford Market; at Mohammad Ali Road I was able to flag down a taxi and head back home.

The first thing I did upon reaching my house safely was to call Siddharth*, a colleague at the hotel, who had been operating the 2 pm to 11 pm shift before me. Up until now I had no idea that the Taj was under siege from terrorists and I was horrified when he told me what had transpired and that he was still trapped inside, along with several other members of staff and hotel guests.

At about 9:30 pm, Siddharth, who works in the main lobby, said he heard screaming from the front porch of the hotel, which is where the main entrance is located. When he and a couple of employees rushed to the spot to investigate, the scene that greeted their eyes made their blood run cold. Six to seven young men carrying heavy-duty guns and grenades were indiscriminately firing at hotel guests and employees on the porch and then proceeded to barge into the lobby. They continued to fire at everyone in the lobby, lobbing grenades left and right as they stormed in, destroying everything -- according to eye-witnesses, there is practically nothing left of the Taj's famed ground-floor coffee-shop, Shamiana.

By this time, Siddharth had retreated into the lobby and taken cover under furniture as best he could. The terrorists then divided themselves up into three smaller groups and moved deeper into the recesses of the hotel -- some of them headed into the heritage wing, while the others stormed the tower and the kitchen. They opened fire on several staff members in the kitchen and I heard from Siddharth that three to five chefs were killed, among them Kaizad Kamdin, a friend who had attended the same college as me. His parents live in Pune and he was working in Mumbai -- my prayers and thoughts are with his family at this difficult time. According to other witnesses, the terrorists have also seized the engineering department in the basement of the hotel and are using it as a control room.

As soon as the terrorists had left the main lobby, the staff, showing great presence of mind and risking their own safety, ushered guests who had managed to survive the attack into the back rooms of the hotel like the men's gym locker room and the laundry. Siddharth and a few of his colleagues guided some guests into the house-keeping department and they remained there through the night, praying that their hiding place would not be discovered. That was when he received my call, at 11:45 pm. After that phone call, I was unable to establish contact with him till the next morning and I spent an anxious night wondering if he would be alright.

I got to speak to him at only 11:30 am the next morning. Finally, at 10:30 am, the police had been able to open up the staff entrance of the hotel around the back and slowly, those trapped inside had made their way out, among them Siddharth. Several shaken hotel guests who managed to survive the ordeal have been transferred to the Taj Wellington Mews in Colaba, where staff continue to report to work.

I escaped the whole ordeal by less than two hours and I will forever be grateful to God for that. I have no idea as yet how many more of my colleagues have lost their lives. I have heard that our two doormen at the main porch were among the first to fall prey to the firing and God knows how many more hapless employees succumbed to this horrific attack.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

As told to Sanaya Dalal

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