No fear left in me anymore: Man who saved hundreds on 26/11
10 years after the Nov 26 attacks killed hundreds and exposed gaping security lapses, HT looks at heroes who fought back, the lives lost, steps taken to make Mumbai safer
On the night of November 26, 2008, when two Pakistani terrorists riddled Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) with bullets, Vishnu Dattaram Zende was in a tiny announcer’s booth in the station, using the public announcement system to guide people to safety. “Nobody prepares you for such a situation. It was an instant reaction,” said Zende.
In 2008, Zende was a suburban railway announcer. His usual routine saw him leave from Nalasopara, where he still lives with his wife and two children, and take the train to CSMT. Once at the station, he’d go up to the announcement booth and rattle off details of train arrivals and departures for eight hours. Then November 26, 2008 happened.
“It feels like it was yesterday,” said Zende, now 47. He was on the evening shift when he heard explosions in the long-distance section of CSMT. Realising something was wrong, he took to the microphone and called for on-duty Railway Protection Force (RPF) and Government Railway Police (GRP) to rush to that part of the station. “At the same time, I saw a suburban train arrive in the terminus,” remembered Zende.
The announcer’s booth is above the station master’s office, offering Zende an overview of the station. “I saw the men walking with guns … to the suburban railway section and firing indiscriminately. They were throwing hand-grenades. This is when I realised it was a terrorist attack,” Zende told HT.
Immediately, Zende announced in Hindi and Marathi that passengers should exit the station from the rear end of the terminus, guiding them away from Kasab and Ismail and towards safety. “I told people to use the exit of platform number one and to not come forward as I could see terrorists walking in that direction. The passengers rushed out, following my instructions,” he said. There’s no calculating how many lives Zende saved with his announcements.
The gunmen soon realised what Zende was doing. “All of sudden, I saw a terrorist firing at the direction of our booth. We (Zende and his colleague) ducked under our desks,” he said. They heard the glass window shatter, but Zende escaped any injuries.
After a while, Zende from his vantage point saw the two terrorists walk out of CSMT. He and other railway personnel rushed to the outstation terminus area and found the carnage Kasab and Ismail had left behind. While Zende’s announcements had saved the lives of countless suburban train passengers, the outstation section of CSMT got neither a warning nor time to escape. Nearly 60 people died in the attack. “The bodies lying there, surrounded by blood, it was terrifying,” said Zende. “I started announcing for railway personnel, cleaning staff, porters and whoever could rush to the terminus area to help the injured.” Zende stayed in CSMT that night and returned home the next day.
Later, for weeks, people would come to the announcement booth and thank Zende. He got a cash award of ₹10 lakh and in 2010, when President Barack Obama visited Mumbai, he shook hands with Zende. Welcome as all this attention was, for Zende, who has since been promoted to railway guard, 26/11 wrought only one real change in him: “There is no fear left in me anymore.”