The elite National Security Guard (NSG) was under pressure to use gas to neutralise the heavily armed Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists during the Mumbai terror attack last year but the idea was shot down for fear of repeat of another Russian theatre disaster.
JK Dutt, who then headed the NSG and the operations in the two luxury hotels - Taj and Trident - and the Jewish house in Mumbai, dreaded the use of gas because he did not want casualties that could have been more than what the terrorists would have caused.
He actually feared a repeat of the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis during which the Russian forces had used an unknown chemical agent into the crowded theatre where about 40-50 armed Chechens held over 850 hostages.
While the forces killed about 40 attackers, the toxic substance aimed at subduing the Chechenyan rebels killed about 130 hostages.
"....But inside a hotel (Taj), when people are inside a room, if gas is let, how does one know that there are no heart patients, asthma patients and children inside.
"I may be causing more casualties than the terrorists. In fact, if you surf the Internet and look at one of the incidents that occurred in Russia... It had disastrous effects," Dutt told PTI in an exclusive interview recalling the horror that started on the night of November 26.
Dutt said he was sure that he was not going to use gas because he was not going to let any innocent life be lost.
Describing the circumstances in which his force fought the eight determined terrorists holed up inside the three buildings, he said, when the operations were on he not only received a lot of SMSes from the members of the public but a few suggestions from his own colleagues.
"Why don't you introduce some sort of a gas through the air conditioning system?" he was asked.
60-year-old Dutt, who retired from service in February this year, said use of gas was OK if it was a small area or an unlawful assembly of 100 or 200 people had to be dispersed.
He wanted to make sure that his men did their job in a professional way. "In the course of this, if we are advancing even gradually, the fact is we are going to get the upper hand."
Dutt, who had served in the West Bengal police and had a stint in the CBI before heading the 8000-strong anti-terror force for over two years, said the question was why he should do something, which could have resulted in greater number of casualties.
"We have had hostage situations which have lasted over a year. It happened in an embassy for a year. They were rescued. We have had so many operations, which have lasted for over seven days and 15 days. And as I said look at the situation and the scenario the NSG was facing," he said.
Virtually giving a blow-by-blow account of the operation at the Taj, Dutt said, "This is the first time that we had such an incident in a hotel where there are 400 rooms and each room had to be checked, each floor had to be checked.
"We didn't have the hotel plan and then in a subtle way, there was a multiplier effect about the number of terrorists."
Asked which of the three operations proved to be the most challenging, he said the degree of difficulty was almost the same everywhere.
"What happened at Oberoi, did not happen at Taj. It happened in Taj in a different way...In Taj, before the NSG came; they (terrorist) chased some of these persons (guests) to kitchen. They chased some of them even towards the chambers which is in exclusive club and they shot people down," he said.
The former chief who is now penning his experiences said at Trident, the terrorists had taken a number of guests as hostages, who were later shot point-blank once they were taken to the top most floor of the high rise.
He said the terrorists were also using diversionary tactics to dodge NSG commandos by setting various parts of the Taj hotel on fire.
"Whenever they (terrorists) came under pressure, they would set fire to the curtain and as a result of this, there was an apprehension that the fire may spread and destroy the entire hotel. So we had to immediately put in the fire services," he said.
Dutt said the terrorists were using the time taken by the firemen to douse flames to rest and change their positions. "Have you ever thought why the terrorists did not shoot at the firemen? They (firemen) put out the fire and that was the time, which the terrorists were using to get some respite. Had they shot the firemen, the situation would have come to shooting and shooting.
"When the firemen were working, they (terrorists) would either change their positions or rest or either would re-load their weapons," he said.
Dutt said unlike earlier such hostage situations abroad, where the security agencies knew how many attackers were there, "Over here no one was able to give us the numbers."
He said the figures of total number of terrorists that they had to account for varied between 10 to 30.
"It was only in the end, when the shooting stopped, then I said look how many terrorists am I supposed to account for and I was told by no less a person than Director of Intelligence Bureau that you have to account for 10 AK 47s.
"Out of these 10, Kasab's weapons had alreday been recovered. One terrorists was killed by the Mumbai police, two we had got in Oberoi, two we had in Nariman house and three we got over here in the Taj--one body which had fallen out of the window and two bodies which had fallen near the staircase," he said.
Dutt was worried about the 10th weapon and hence even asked his men to go around the Taj hotel very carefully though the shooting had ended.
It was only later when the dog squad was pressed into service that one of the canines sniffed out the 10th AK 47 from under rubble.
"There has been a talk about the terrorist having checked into the rooms. There may be a few more. There may be a terrorist who might be trying to escape posing as a guest. In the conversation that was going, they (terrorists) were told that there were MPs and senior bureaucrats and you can take anyone as a hostage.
"Make your demands and take safe passage. I was getting these inputs," he said, adding probably, if they had the actual number of terrorists they would have been shot down earlier.
When his men had to proceed floor by floor, they did not know whether they would be terrorists in this building or in another building as both Taj and Trident had separate wings.
Dutt said the attack was organised to get maximum publicity and said Mumbai was chosen because it was the glamour city. "Mumbai was selected not because of the weakness of he security forces or their strength. Mumbai is the financial capital of India. It is a happening city.
"It is the place where you have all the glamour, where you have the film stars. Where you have very famous and rich people staying over there. That is a type of place where you find the press covering each and every event. So it has its publicity value as well," he said.