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It is so difficult to believe that five years have passed since that night -- the staccato bursts of gunfire, the sight of Taj in flames, the cries of panic-stricken people... the nightmare simply refuses to fade from memory in a hurry.
I was on leave on that fateful day of November 26, 2008, to attend a birthday party with my family. Looking back, I’m so glad that by sheer coincidence the party was also in the Fort area. Back then, I was attached to the Fort fire station as its assistant divisional fire officer.
Bits and pieces of news about the attacked had trickled into the party. My anxiety was growing and I was getting restless as I wanted to resume duty immediately. But, our service rules state that we cannot resume in an emergency unless the control room directs us to.
Finally, at around 10.30pm, I got a call from control room asking me to rush to Wadi Bunder, where a taxi has exploded.
Within minutes, I was at the spot and only then the intensity of the attack hit me -- the body of the vehicle was so badly mangled that I couldn’t make out whether it was a four-wheeler or a two-wheeler. The explosion was so strong that the driver’s body had been blown into pieces. I looked up to see part of one of his legs hanging from a tree!
The next call from control room gave me an idea what had hit Mumbai.
After a few minutes, I was told to rush to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and then St George Hospital, where work on transporting victims of the massacre at the station, was on. All the victims were being taken to St George and hence, I was told to immediately take stock of the number of victims and their condition.
Hardly had the called ended, there was another from control room, telling me about something very bad happening at The Taj and that I should rush there.
Now, while I was aware that a simultaneous attack was on, details were not available. Me and my team reached the lane outside Taj, oblivious to what was happening inside.
As we started walking towards the hotel, I saw a person – a civilian -- walking on the road outside the Taj, not more than 20 feet away from me. A few seconds later, I heard a gunshot and saw the person collapse to the ground.
Still trying to make sense of the situation, I rushed towards the person when a fellow-fire officer warned me, ‘there are terrorists on the windows of the Taj’! We somehow managed to carry the injured man to a safer place and put him into a taxi, off to a nearby station.
Around that time, a senior police official, Deven Bharti, walked up to us and filled in with the details. He was clear, this was a terror attack and they weren’t allowing anyone inside. But there was no fire in the hotel till then, thus limiting our role.
We decided to stay put and went to the Salvation Army building, very close to the Taj.
Sudhir Gopal Amin
Perched on the terrace, we could see the Taj and what was happening inside, through the windows. That was around 12.15am. Under the guidance of senior fire officers, we planned out a strategy in case a situation arose — we decided to have batches of four vehicles (an ambulance, a fire engine, a jumbo tanker and a special appliance van) lined up from a few metres away from Taj, ready to go. Within minutes, we had these vehicles queued up right up till Fort.
The plan was simple — each team was to its own. In such crisis situations, individual team leaders were to plan their own strategies. This was, probably, the first time ever that we had such a bold strategy in place.
Around 3am, we could see the terrorists pulling down curtains and linen and setting the rooms on fire. That image is etched on my mind and, perhaps, I will carry it with me to my grave.
Exactly 15 minutes later, we got our call. The sixth floor was on fire and we were told to rush. I remember vividly going up to senior police officers and telling them, on a lighter note, that now we were in-charge.
We deployed as many ladders as we could, not caring to see what the terrorists were up to. Our plan was clear, rescue the trapped guests. Fire-fighting was secondary.
I targeted the 2nd and the 3rd floor for the rescue operation.
What made rescue difficult was the fact that the Taj’s windows were toughened with double-layered glass. Breaking them open proved to be difficult. While an ordinary glass pane would break open on one attempt, these windows took several such attempts.
Once the panes were broken, we had to clear the shards from the panel so that they wouldn’t injure the survivors while they were being rescued through those windows.
Within minutes, we had rescued 18 people. I left the team’s charge to a fellow-officer and I decided to go to the other side to check the arrangements. It was then that I saw an aerial ladder platform, a specialised ladder, lying unused.
The operator told me it wasn’t working, but I was determined to make it work. After a few attempts, we could get it operational and deployed it for rescuing other people still trapped inside.
As the minutes turned to hours, we continued to drag our weary bodies from one floor to another, from one room to the other – it was only at around 7 or 8am, I realised that we had rescued all trapped survivors including guests and hotel staff, nearly 500 of them.
I don’t remember how many I rescued personally. I don’t think it matters. But I do remember their terror-stricken faces and the gratitude in their eyes after coming out alive.
Many close ones were worried about our safety. I remember my mother-in-law, sitting in her native village in Karnataka, seeing me on TV running around during the rescue and calling my wife up. My wife had panicked and told me to return home, knowing fully well that I could not.
But somehow, during the rescue, fear wasn’t the primary emotion. There was anger and there was determination to save people. The terrorists even lobbed two grenades at us and both failed to explode. They might have even tried to rain bullets on us. But none of us were hit.
That night pitted Mumbai’s courage against the terrorists’ cowardice. And Mumbai won.
(As told to Kunal Purohit)
(48-year-old Sudhir Gopal Amin of Mumbai fire brigade was awarded the President’s Gallantry Award for exemplary courage while rescuing hostages from the Taj Mahal Hotel. He is now a deputy fire officer)