By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 30, 2008
MUMBAI, Nov. 29 -- About two dozen Americans, their cameras filled with photos of Hindu temples and Buddhist caves, were eating a sushi dinner in the posh lobby cafe of the Oberoi hotel when a young gunman raised an assault rifle and opened fire.
It was just after 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, the start of a terrifying siege that would last about three days.
"We all dived under the table," said Linda Ragsdale, a children's book illustrator from Nashville who was visiting India with a Virginia-based meditation group. "I tried to lay my head down and pretend I was dead."
Bullets whizzed over the diners' heads. The sound of grenades reverberated off the polished marble floors of the cafe. Ragsdale pulled a young girl under the table. But it quickly became apparent that the girl, Naomi Scherr, a spunky 13-year-old with red hair, had been hit. Her body was pale and limp.
"I was taking in the enormity of the moment, thinking that this energetic child who I had been playing with in the pool the night before -- and had made a pact to do somersaults with -- was dead, shot. That's when the shooting started again. It was loud and continuous. And there were constant bomb blasts," Ragsdale recalled. "Within minutes, I saw another gunman coming around the corner. He shot me. I felt nothing, and I again tried to play dead," she said. The bullet ricocheted off her spine. She spoke from her bed at Bombay Hospital, where she was being treated.
After a wave of coordinated terrorist attacks turned parts of Mumbai's financial district into a combat zone, the full extent of the 60 hours of violence came to light Saturday in the stories of victims who filled the city's hospitals. The assailants killed at least 195 people and wounded about 300. Among the dead were 22 foreigners, including six Americans.
Nashville resident Rudrani Devi, who works as a homeopathic healer, recalled that 10 minutes into the ordeal, she heard another flurry of gunshots. Then, Naomi's father, Alan Scherr, collapsed after a bullet pierced the back of his skull. The 58-year-old former University of Maryland professor was a member of the Synchronicity Foundation, the meditation group whose members were dining together in the cafe when the assault began.
"His blood had gotten in my eyes and in my hair," Devi said. "In that moment, I felt his soul leave his body."
A bullet took a chunk of flesh from her left arm.
"I didn't dare look up," she said. "I wouldn't say it was a war zone, because we weren't able to shoot back. It felt more like a massacre."
Suddenly, the gunmen vanished, and hotel workers told the guests to get out of the cafe before the attackers returned.
Ragsdale and Devi had to step over bodies to get out of the cafe, then down a service stairway leading to the hotel's kitchen and then out a back door, where other hotel workers had commandeered taxis as makeshift ambulances for transport to hospitals.
At the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel nearby, Sarita Hegde Roy, an Indian public relations director, was meeting with a group of European businesspeople to promote tourism. Through the glass doors of the Sea Lounge cafe, where she was holding the meeting, she spotted three young men with guns walk into the hotel's lobby. Then she heard the crack of gunfire. "Lock the door! Switch off the lights! Lay down flat!" shouted a quick-thinking hotel worker. More than three dozen terrified guests hit the floor.
A few minutes later, the gunmen started shooting at the Sea Lounge's doors. Glass shards showered the room, Roy said. Then, she said, she noticed her foot was covered in blood.
As quickly as the gunmen came, they vanished into the upper floors of the hotel.
"Laying on our stomachs, we started getting text messages on our cellphones from senior hotel managers warning us to stay down or that gunmen were on the fifth floor," Roy said.
Inside the Taj's rooftop conference room, which faces the Arabian Sea and the Gateway of India arch, South Korean businessman Kim Dong-yer was finishing a meeting with his Indian partners at 10:30 p.m. when he heard windows being smashed and firecracker-like sounds of gunshots. "We knew something was very wrong. All 100 of us squeezed under a conference table," said Kim, who has lived in Mumbai for three months. They spent the entire night wide awake under the table. "It was a horrifying feeling of being trapped," he said.
At midnight, on the floor of the Sea Lounge, Roy heard the screams of women. Minutes later, the guests received a text message that a young girl had been shot.
Then a portion of the ceiling caved in. Apparently, a pipe had burst. Cold water and ceiling debris poured over many of the prostrated guests, who were too terrified to move. Some held hands. Roy said she heard others crying.
They lay there for five hours, some of them soaking wet. By 3 a.m., the blasts became louder and more frequent.
"Our eyes started to sting," Roy said. "My sari was soaking wet. But I remained frozen. I thought I would die. I didn't know how the hell we were all going to get out of here alive."
As dawn broke, hotel workers guided Roy and the others out of the cafe to a second-floor window, where fire crews had a ladder waiting for them. Once outside in the morning air, Roy said, she looked around and saw parts of the hotel in flames.
"There were snipers all over this hotel that I have loved since my childhood," she said.
In the back of the ornate Taj, white bedsheets tied together to make a rope dangled from the sixth-floor window of one of the rooms, a sign of a desperate escape by at least one of the hostages. Kim, the businessman, saw the flames when he escaped at dawn. "We took a chance and rushed down the stairs," he said. "We were able to sneak out, but we were lucky."
Hundreds of others remained trapped in the 565-room hotel at the start of the day Thursday. A team of Indian commandos, dressed in black body armor and toting assault rifles, began combing the structure in pursuit of the assailants. Commando Rajveer Singh, 33, said he conducted room-to-room searches starting at the sixth floor, the hotel's top floor.
"We listened at the door, then we would knock on the door, ask who was inside, then ask if anyone needed help," said Singh, recuperating at Bombay Hospital, where he was being treated for a gunshot wound to his left hand and severe burns on his face. He had reached Room 471 at the Taj and heard nothing, he recalled. He opened the door with a key card and spotted a man in a red shirt, "who didn't raise his hands when he was told to." Singh made a movement to run or grab a weapon. Someone else in the room started shooting, he said. The room caught fire from all the fighting. Singh said he passed out.
By that time, in the hotel's main kitchen on the first floor, 10 members of the kitchen staff were dead. They had been some of the first to be attacked. One of them was the soft-spoken Vijay Rao Banja, a father of two and one of the top chefs at the Taj.
While commandos took control of the still-burning hotel, a funeral was held for Banja at the stately St. Thomas Cathedral. The hotel's cooks came dressed in chefs' smocks in honor of Banja. Hundreds of Taj employees sang "Amazing Grace." In the wide wooden pews, under spinning ceiling fans, Mumbai's Christians, Muslims and Hindus stood shoulder to shoulder, many weeping.
At the hospital, Ragsdale said she still loved India and praised the nurses tending to her wounds. But the meditation expert was having trouble relaxing after the ordeal. "Every time the hospital door bangs shut, I jump out of my skin," she said.