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When gunfire drowned piped music

Mumbai's five-star hotels are a stage for furious networking for the business community. On 26/11, they became a death trap. BT brings you accounts of a few who made it out alive.

Print Edition: December 28, 2008

Alok Vajpeyi
Alok Vajpeyi
Alok Vajpeyi, Vice Chairman & Managing Director, Dawnay Day AV Financial Services
The financial context to life is not so key now

I was in a group of eight who had gone to the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower to dine at the Chinese restaurant Golden Dragon. Around quarter to 10 p.m., we heard some gunshots, which over the next few minutes became intermittent and nearer to where we were seated. It was then that the hotel staff told us to get under the table while one of the staff closed the sliding doors to our secluded dining area.

After the noise of the gunfire receded, the door opened and the staff led us across the restaurant to The Chambers (a business lounge on the first floor of the new wing of the hotel), which was packed with 150-200 people. It was while on my way there that I happened to notice a dead body lying in the corridor and understood the full gravity of the situation. As it started to get cold, the staff took out sheets and distributed them among the guests and they also served some canapés and water.

I recall the situation was quite tense but mostly people stayed calm. I did speak with my wife, telling her not to panic and received SMSes from friends who probably thought I had made it out of the hotel in time as the messages read: “hope you are safe”. Through the hours in The Chambers we could hear explosions at times, gunshots far away and had a continuous stream of information through people talking to friends and families outside. There were irritants as we heard that some idiot was talking to a TV channel live and commenting on the fact that senior industrialists, foreigners etc., were in The Chambers.

Why didn’t he just invite the terrorists in? At around 3 a.m., the staff started getting people together for evacuation. It was first families, then the elderly and toddlers, and lastly adult males. As I was going out, and about to enter the corridor, I heard gunshots ahead. That created panic and mayhem and a near-stampede situation as people ahead of us rushed back to get in to The Chambers. I saw some people falling, perhaps from the push and shove—or from the shots. It was then that I took a decision not to go back to The Chambers. I preferred to be on my own and not in a panicked group.

So, while turning back, I noticed a side door, which was luckily unbolted and went through it. The door opened to a staircase, so I kept going down till I reached the lobby level. I switched off the cell phone. I saw two policemen outside the fire exit (which had a glass pane) in the space that connected The Chambers’ stairwell to the lobby. They motioned me through hand signals to wait there; eventually one of the two policemen outside opened the lobby door to let me out.

I was back at work on Friday—having reached home at 4 a.m., watching the news until around 9 and then sleeping till 1 p.m. on Thursday. It was only while watching the news when I got home that I really grasped the enormity of the situation. The incident has, however, changed my outlook towards life. The financial context to life that so overpowers our other sensibilities, as it had mine, is not so key now.

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