The 26/11 Mumbai attacks were witness to extraordinary acts of raw courage. Ordinary civilians and security forces matched their wits against rampaging terrorists programmed to kill as many people as they could.
The unflappable railway announcer Vishnu Zende who calmly asked passengers to evacuate the CST station from a rear exit; assistant police inspector Tukaram Omble who heroically grappled with the armed terrorist Ajmal Kasab and died trying to take him alive. But nowhere was the intervention so timely and critical than at the Taj Mahal hotel. Four terrorists who entered the hotel at close to 10pm on November 26, 2008, had a free run through the hotel for nearly six hours, shooting anything that moved. The Mumbai Police, shaken by the ferocity of the multi-pronged assault on the city were dazed. The terrorists, meanwhile, guided by their Karachi-based handlers, jogged to the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal hotel with the largest suites. The control room set up by the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Karachi’s Malir Cantonment was equipped with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones that allowed them to speak to the ten terrorists, and, rather portentously, four TV screens were tuned to Indian news channels.
Not in their wildest dreams could the diabolical masterminds have expected the extent of information that Indian television channels would relay that night. They first instructed the terrorists to set fire to the heritage wing of the Taj, and then whooped in delight as they saw TV visuals of flames licking the top floors of the Taj.
The masterminds were ecstatic after midnight when Indian TV channels had contacted a few MPs trapped at the Taj. Soon after the terrorists attacked the hotel, hotel staff had bundled away nearly 200 hotel guests, including invitees at a wedding reception and MPs, into "The Chambers", a members-only club above the Taj lobby.
The staff fed and tended the guests whom they placed in the safety of five function rooms of "The Chambers" and waited for the right time to break out to safety. Here, the MPs rashly narrated their plight, on live national TV.At around 3am the masterminds relayed what they had learned, to the four terrorists. “Three ministers and one secretary of the Cabinet are in your hotel. We don’t know in which room,” the handler told the terrorist at the Taj. “Find those three-four persons and then get whatever you want from India.”
This, heartbreakingly, was the precise moment some survivors chose to emerge from their hideaway. The terrorists ran into their quarry and began firing indiscriminately. There were screams, and a stampede. Fifteen guests and hotel staff were scythed down by AK-47 bullets. Seven others lay on the floors, grievously injured. The remaining guests fled back into their sanctuaries and barricaded the doors. The terrorists began clawing at the doors like a school of sharks around seals.
|CCTV grab of MARCOS engaging the terrorists at The Taj Chambers on the night of 26/11.|
It was only a matter of time before they broke in. This is when the crucial turning point of 26/11 came. Eight Indian Navy Marine Commandos (MARCOS) arrived at the scene. They navigated through the smoke-filled corridors, past the bodies of the dead and the dying and the eerie stone corridors resonating with the trilling of cellphones. The MARCOS were among the fittest Indian special forces, trained to operate in all three dimensions and equipped with bulletproof jackets, AK-47s and MP5 submachine guns. A gunfight broke out between the four terrorists and the commandos. The terrorists "broke contact", retreating into "The Chambers Library" that faced the Gateway of India. The commandos pursued them into the library where a second gunfight broke out and two commandos were injured. The commandos retrieved their injured and covered what they thought was the only entrance into the library. They tossed tear gas canisters inside to flush the terrorists out. They entered the library an hour later but there was no sign of the terrorists. Unbeknownst to them, there was an exit through the kitchen which the terrorists used to run back into the heritage wing. The terrorists had inadvertently depleted their arsenal — they left a haversack behind with grenades and ammunition as they fled.
The commandos now focused on rescuing the hapless guests trapped in the various function rooms. The MARCOS, usually deployed for the safety of oil installations or to counter pirates on the high seas, had reached the Taj by a series of coincidences. Their existence was revealed to Maharashtra chief secretary Johny Joseph by a naval officer friend. It allowed Joseph to place an urgent and specific request to the Navy: a request that was swiftly acceded to and was the game-changer that night. One hundred and sixty five persons died in the 26/11 attacks. But for the timely MARCOS intervention, the toll, as we know it, could have been far, far higher. It was the single most heroic act on the night of the 26/11 attacks.