At first, waiter Joseph Joy Pulithara thought the blasts were rows of liquor bottles exploding for some reason behind the Mumbai hotel's sleek bar. Running to the scene, he found a woman screaming _ and a young man spraying gunfire. The gunman was a member of a team that was well-armed, well-prepared and had just begun a two-day siege that would shut down India's financial and entertainment capital, leave more than 150 people dead and 370 injured, and turn the city's ritzy seaside district into a scene of horror.
There was almost no time to escape. "Within two minutes, they were on us," Andreina Varagona of Nashville, Tenn., said from her hospital bed in the intensive care unit. Wounded in the right leg and right arm, her curly brown hair was still caked with a friend's blood two days later.
An Indian commando said the attackers were indiscriminate. "Whoever came in front of them, they fired."
There were 10 targets across the city, including two five-star hotels, a train station, a popular restaurant and an ultra-orthodox Jewish center.
Inside the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi hotels, with their hundreds of rooms, the gunmen often seemed to have the advantage. "These people were very, very familiar with the hotel layouts and it appears they had carried out a survey before," said an unidentified member of India's Marine Commando unit, his face wrapped in a black mask.
The gunmen moved skillfully through corridors slick with blood, thwarting efforts to pin them down, and switched off lights and plunged the rooms into darkness to further confuse the commandos. The militants were ready for a long siege. One backpack the commandos found had 400 rounds of ammunition inside. Some of the gunmen carried almonds. They also had dollars, rupees and credit cards from local and international banks.
One gunman, who was still roaming the Taj Mahal nearly 48 hours after the assault began, was hiding in a ballroom, said army commander Lt Gen N Thamburaj.
"He is moving in two floors. There is a dance floor area where he has cut off all the lights. Sometimes he gets holed up in the rooms and makes that area dark," Thamburaj said. The commandos were hampered, too, because they could not use overwhelming force for fear of hitting the hundreds of civilians who were caught in the hotels.
Many guests hid in their rooms until they were rescued. Others were not so lucky.
The gunmen "appeared to be a determined lot, wanting to create and spread terror," a commando said.
Pulithara found panicked diners and staff running through the hotel bar. In the chaos, it took him a moment to realize he had been shot.
"My friend said there was a hole in my pants, and I was bleeding," said Pulithara, 22, who was hit in the leg. He saw another colleague shot in the head _ "She died on the spot," he said _ but he said he managed to pull a tourist to safety through a fire exit. Then he ran down a flight of stairs, and was free.
For hundreds of others inside the hotels, however, the ordeal was just beginning.
Varagona, 45, a meditation teacher, says on her Web site she had taken the name Rudrani Devi, Sanskrit for "one who takes the pain away from others," in 2002. She was having dinner with friends in the Oberoi's plush restaurant when the gunshots rang out. Survivors said the gunmen checked passports and looked for Americans and Britons, but Varagona said they just sprayed the room and didn't seem to care who they killed.
"They might have been targeting Westerners, but they still shot the wait staff," she said. "They were of Indian, Asian descent. There wasn't a foreigner among them."
Varagona said the gunmen kept firing, and bodies fell to the floor, at least a dozen.
"There were bodies everywhere. I felt like I was in a movie," Varagona said.
She dragged herself past the bodies and into the restaurant kitchen, where employees were huddled for safety. They picked her up, she said, and carried her out.
"If it wasn't for the wait staff, I wouldn't have made it out," she said.
Among those killed was a friend on the meditation retreat who had been dining at Varagona's table, Alan Scherr, 58, of Faber, Va., of the Synchronicity Foundation. Also slain was his 13-year-old daughter, Naomi.