On the ground on the night – the Mumbai attacks

November 21, 2012

(Phil Smith is General Manager for Reuters News, South Asia and at the time of the 2008 attacks was Reuters Editor, South Asia based in Mumbai and living in the south of the city near Nariman House)

I was enjoying a relatively early night on that Wednesday at my home in Colaba, when I was jolted awake by a loud bang and several smaller ones. Thinking it was just leftover festival fireworks and people having fun, I turned over, only to be roused by the unmistakable sound of automatic gunfire.

As any journalist would, I quickly left the flat where I lived and made my way carefully towards where the sound of the shots had been coming from. I didn’t know it at the time but this was Nariman House, a Jewish outreach centre where six occupants were killed by the attackers.

When I arrived, the streets were pretty much deserted and remembering my Reuters hostile environment training — that car bodies do not stop bullets — I crouched down behind the engine block of a builder’s truck and started to phone in copy to our bureaus in New Delhi and Mumbai and arousing the rest of the reporting team. At this stage I had no clue that simultaneous attacks on Victoria Terminus and Leopold Café were in progress until the guys in the bureaus tipped me off as local media picked up on the story.

So I took off and ran towards Leopold’s which is only a couple of kilometres from Nariman House. During that trip, aside from wondering what these attacks were all about, my most vivid memory was wondering just when one of the pack of feral dogs chasing me and barking madly would sink its teeth into my calves. Also, that I should beware of the roving police and army trucks who might just decide that someone running along empty streets in these kind of circumstances might be a potential target.

So sticking to back roads and cutting round towards the Gateway of India, it soon became obvious that something was going off at the Taj Mahal hotel itself and I was one of the first on the scene along with a Reuters photographer and a TV colleague from Times Now. At this stage there were few police and army soldiers around, who were still busy at the other attack locations. All the while, there was a great deal of automatic weapon and pistol fire coming from the hotel together with grenades and large explosions.

Once it was clear the Oberoi hotel was also being attacked, I ran to see what was going on but the bulk of the visible action was going on at the Taj so I returned in time to see the fire brigade evacuating people from the upper floors of the Taj heritage wing using long fire ladders while gunfire and explosions still rocked the building. It was an incredibly dangerous thing for the firemen to do and it’s obvious to me those guys saved a lot of lives that night.

I went round the back of the new wing of the Taj later that night to chat to the Sikh soldiers who had taken up station around the rear of the building. I remember one complaining about being dragged out of bed and agreeing with me that the attack would all be over soon, before dawn for sure. We were both very wrong.

As dawn arrived, it was clear that this was not going to be over any time soon, as security forces played cat and mouse with the attackers in the U-shaped Taj heritage wing of the hotel. Meantime, the siege at the Oberoi continued, as did the situation at Nariman House. At the Taj, I remember an unseasonal light rain falling and the sound of the stray bullets as they zipped overhead as all the journalists covering the event sheltered around the Gateway of India area.

India’s crack National Security Guard “Black Cat” commandos arrived to cheers from locals but still the siege dragged on until early Saturday when several bursts of firing ended the Taj siege, followed by explosions from stun grenades or as the Black Cats destroyed ordnance as they made the hotel safe.

And so this somewhat surreal event unfolded before our eyes and I’m sure in most parts of the world there is no way journalists would be allowed to be so close to the scene in the heart of a major city and financial centre. For most of the event, we were only 100 metres or so from the lobby and the smashed and blackened windows of the hotel.

On Friday, at least two journalists were wounded by grenade debris which hit the 100-metre long phalanx of camera crews and journalists.

A few reporters, including me, wore body armour but were often derided amid an air of bravado, until bullets and debris began flying and people were carted off to hospital.

It was hard not to think that prying reporters and cameras would have been kept back much further from the action if a hotel siege such as this had happened somewhere like Britain, rather than this teeming, chaotic, unforgettable city.

READ MORE: Mumbai attacker Ajmal Kasab executed

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