A look back at the Mumbai attacks
Four Reuters photographers covered the recent attacks in India. Here Arko Datta, Jayanta Shaw and Desmond Boylan (Chief Photographer, India) recall events.
My first experience of the Taj Mahal Hotel had been as a teenager on holiday with my parents in Mumbai. Those were fond memories. I would never have thought my second encounter with the Mumbai landmark would be so dramatic, tragic and scary.
Just the previous night, I was at the Trident-Oberoi hotel, shooting pictures at the Gucci shop on the ground floor, next to the main entrance of this five-star hotel.
But since there had been no warning of an impending threat, the city continued to go about its daily chores.
Wednesday was a long day at office, and just as I got home and settled down, the first call came in, of a firing at Leopold café. Mumbai is no stranger to trouble or gang-wars and that’s what most of us in the media thought this was, especially as the area where Leopold café stands is known to witness shadowy activity as the night wears on.
But in an instant came the news of another shoot-out at Chhattrapati Shivaji railway station that most of us refer to as Victoria Terminus or just VT.
I sensed there was more to these shoot-outs and I needed to move, and try to get more information on the way. I told my colleague Punit Paranjpe to go on to VT while I headed for Leopold.
On the way I was getting a flurry of calls – with the stories only getting more bizarre – firing and blasts were being reported out of the Taj Mahal and Trident-Oberoi hotels as well.
Slowly it became clear Mumbai was seeing attacks and sieges at different locations. I decided to head for the Taj Mahal hotel first, with reports of gun shots and blasts still being heard from there.
Even as I took cover near the hotel, came further information of a blast near Nariman House and another as far as Vile Parle, close to the domestic airport.
I called Punit and told him to file his first pictures ASAP, and I decided to move. As I walked towards Leopold, I heard a blast behind me near the Taj Hotel. I ran back, only to dive for cover as there were more blasts which turned out to be grenade explosions. People were running in panic, and the darkness added more to the chaos.
There was occasional gun fire from inside the hotel building, but there was very little to photograph. This is when I heard of a fire raging at the Oberoi-Trident. I rushed there, only to be kept at a safe distance by the cops, like the rest of the media. Just then, we got more news of an explosion near a petrol station! A few of us photographers sped off on bikes, getting images of the post-blast debris – a mangled car and two-wheelers and cops on guard at the site.
After criss-crossing the streets of South Mumbai, chasing every bit of news that was coming my way, I was back outside the Taj Mahal hotel.
As I shot pictures of the hotel on fire, my thoughts were to get these to clients as soon as possible, while ensuring I stayed out of the line of fire.
I prepared for a long vigil outside the Taj. The first pictures of the fire had gone and I was trying to digest the reality unfolding before my eyes. The dramatic events would last another forty-one hours, testing our endurance.
Earlier on the Wednesday, I was Guwahati, in the Indian north-east state of Assam, preparing to cover the India vs England cricket match . By 10pm that evening I was outside the Taj Mahal hotel smelling gunpowder in the air, with gunfire all around. I was thrilled for a while. I positioned myself behind a police van watching the hotel in flames before my eyes. I started shooting with my 80-200mm lens and Canon camera. Taking 15-20 frames I stopped at around 11pm to file my first pictures to our pictures desk.
Flying from New Delhi, I landed at Mumbai’s international airport on Thursday morning to reinforce our coverage – 11 hours had passed since the first shots were fired. The normally bustling terminal was deserted, giving me a strange feeling that something was very wrong,
I persuaded a reluctant cab driver to take me to the scene. Normally a 2-hour journey, it took 40 minutes through the deserted streets. Throughout he drive we listened to the radio. There were three confirmed locations under siege – Nariman House, The Taj Mahal and Trident Oberoi hotels .
Arko and Punit were already on the ground, busy trying to cover all angles of the ongoing story while chasing stringers for additional images.
Friday morning Arko called and directed me to Nariman House, the Jewish centre in Mumbai. I arrived at the police barricade after a 2 km walk and found panic-stricken locals watching from the rooftops. It was like a war scene. The sounds of a helicopter startled me.
Commandos were firing at Nariman House from the helicopter. I moved to a rooftop to get a better shooting angle.
The roar of helicopters and exchange of gunfire made a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster. Arko informed me rescued people were coming out of the Oberoi Trident hotel, so I ran there.
For the next few hours I walked around. I heard sporadic AK47 gunfire, and I could hear explosions coming from inside the Trident Oberoi, where hundreds of silent onlookers were gathered.
Hours later, I was still dragging my luggage through the streets and several people approached me asking if I was an escaped hotel hostage. Eventually, I managed to check in to my hotel on the Marine drive.
We established the hotel as a pictures-editing centre. Using its wireless network, we could operate several laptops simultaneously. We used it as a charging point for phones, laptops and camera batteries. It was adrenalin that kept us going.
At the Taj, where the rampage ended, the media behaved like the pigeons and seagulls that perched on the building itself, scattering after each volley of gunfire or explosion, only to return to their initial positions.
During the city siege, Mumbai was panic-stricken, with only a whiff of rumour enough to send people rushing for cover and closing their shutters.
The city’s famed spirit had worn thin, people were shaken. They were feeling vulnerable and exposed by the lack of security. Theaters and other haunts were quiet as residents digested the uncomfortable reality that terror had struck at the heart of the country’s financial capital.
We relied on our instincts backed up by solid information on the ground, knowing from the beginning it was impossible for the four of us to staff each siege location round the clock – each one had over five positions to be manned, some of them dangerous and where you could be stuck for hours, others quickly changing as security forces would push us back. Uncertainty and worries of how long the rampage was going to last went through our minds.
We made sure our first priority was safety, we worked sometimes together at the same location, covering each other. Arko and Punit, our photographers in Mumbai, had done their homework — this was the key to our success, managing a solid local network of contacts in a moment of crisis. From the start, we had all angles covered, we had planned for such a situation.
It was just a matter of putting it all into place and remaining calm.