Last Wednesday evening around 10pm, following a relaxing supper, my friend Eugene and I arrived at the check-out desk at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, as we have done together hundreds of times in our travels as New York investment bankers currently living in Hong Kong.
As I placed my bag on the table I heard a loud gunshot, which I recognized from my years living in South Africa to be the distinctive snap of an AK-47 assault rifle. Hearing another shot a second later, I looked at Eugene and said, “Run, that’s AK!”
We streaked away from the gunfire toward the nearest exit as the terrorists were entering the hotel lobby from various points. I smashed through the doors toward the pool area and ducked into some bushes as the gunfire grew in intensity. I realized Eugene did not make it out of the lobby.
Five or six people had arrived in the bushes before me, all now paralyzed in fear. From the sound of things I realized that a Columbine-like shooting spree was taking place inside, with gunmen walking around methodically executing people. Mind racing, I concluded that being bunched up in the bushes in the corner of the pool area was not safe.
Surveying the scene brought the dispiriting conclusion that we were trapped, surrounded by dozen foot-high walls on all sides. I scanned the walls and then scrambled for a finger or toehold, but found none. I did, however, spy an air conditioning duct about nine feet above me. I leaped and was able to knock a cover away. I jumped again and grabbed onto the unit, but as I tried to pull myself up, I fell, causing the folks in the bushes to hush me to be quiet.
A quick aspiration to the Holy Spirit — “Come, O Holy Spirit, fill the heart of thy faithful!” — and then another leap upward. This time I was able to grab on and pull myself up over the wall where I flipped onto a lean-to roof of the pool shed. I laid low and quiet, partially concealing myself with tree branches.
Breathless, I thought to email my colleagues in London and apprise them of our plight. “Urgent: This is not a joke. At Taj Hotel in Mumbai. Gunmen on loose. People killed. Call police.” Then I turned off my phone, thinking a ring could give away my position and bring on a quick and violent death.
The minutes passed, while screams and sounds of gunfire continued. I began to pray to St. Michael the Archangel: “St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.” I also prayed the first of many Rosaries to see my way through what had suddenly become the single most shocking and desperate experience of my life. I knew that if I was to get through this, it would be Our Lord’s doing.
An hour passed atop my poolside perch. The scene below was quieter now, but infinitely more creepy. Occasional bursts of gunfire would rip through the dark night, indicating that the evil men were still at their cruel business. At one stage, approaching the edge of panic, I prayed, “Thy will be done.” But then I hedged, adding, “I know your will be done, Lord, but I’m not gonna say that now because I fear that by doing so I will somehow be giving up. So here’s the deal: I will hand this situation over to Our Lady and let Her decide how to deal with it.”
Another hour passed. I spent the time spying the scene below, thinking, considering my next move, praying many more St. Michael prayers and Memorares, trying to keep my head clear. I also had to distract myself from my increasing need to go to the bathroom. But I wasn’t ready (yet) to possibly exchange my life for that relief.
Suddenly I noticed hotel busboys down below secreting people out of the pool area via a trap door on the deck. I decided — in hindsight with some regret — to join them. As I crawled to the edge to jump off, I realized the side of the shed from which I was jumping was about 25 feet off the ground. But I’d committed to the jump and only by some miracle was able to slow my momentum and claw onto the edge by my very fingertips. I stabilized myself but a moment later felt the shingles of the shed roof begin to crumble. So I grabbed for a nearby water pipe and somehow managed to inartfully shimmy my way down to the ground unhurt.
I joined the five or six people being ushered down into the hole, and followed them silently through a labyrinth of stairs and twists and turns that ultimately led out into the second floor business center of the hotel. We entered a room where about 70 other souls were huddled together in common terror. I immediately felt that this was not a good place to be: a very soft target with no command or control and no security on the four ingress/egress points. We were extremely vulnerable.
As the terrorists’ grenades, AKs and bombs periodically shook the walls and rattled our minds, I resumed my fervent — though distracted — prayers to Our Lady. With battery power (thankfully) remaining on my BlackBerry, I began praying the Glorious Mysteries with a friend in Mumbai via text, which proved a great comfort.
The scene around me was surreal. Some folks were drinking tea, seeming to ignore our plight. Others were crying and simmering just below the level of panic. My resolve was to keep my senses and continue praying for inner strength. It was possible this siege could last several days, so keeping my wits about me was imperative.
My eyes darted from one ingress point to another as I prayed. I recalled my high school football days when we’d doggedly practice vigilance in awaiting the snap, and quick response time in deciding which “hole to hit” in the activated offensive line. I readied myself thinking, “OK, if they enter through staircase A, I will head for Door B. If they enter through Door C, I will jump out Window D, etc.”
Thankfully, there was a bathroom in the business center. The one time I used it I found several men hiding in the stalls. I learned later through news articles that a number of them spent the entire 8-9 hours locked inside in those stalls.
As the hours passed, the mood inside the room remained tense but controlled. At one point the tiny red corner light on my Blackberry began to flutter. It was a colleague in my firm’s corporate security operation informing me that I should leave the premises immediately, as the terrorists were searching the hotel floor-by-floor looking for Americans and Brits to kill. I’m 6’4″ and an obvious Yank, particularly in a place like Bombay. Once spotted, I’d be a dead man for sure.
Just then a very loud bomb detonated and small arms fire rang out in one of the stairwells. I assumed the end was near.
I hurried off an email to my Mom and Dad, thanking them for my life and everything else they’d given me. Then I emailed my dear wife and sons: “Thank you, Celeste, for being my best friend and soul-mate. I love you!” I wracked my mind and heart for a few pearls of wisdom to leave my three small boys that would edify and sustain them in a life without their father. Asking the Holy Spirit for guidance, I explained to them that life was a gift, and that they should do their best to enjoy that gift. I urged them to take care of their mother, each other, and their community — and not to be afraid to discern their vocations. I counseled them to keep a daily prayer life and live the norms of piety we’d taught them. “Live life to the fullest, boys, and stay in a state of grace.”
My heartache (and heart-rate) increased as the AK fire drew closer. I approached the headwaiter and quietly asked him if I might slip out the back stairs, as my corporate security indicated I should leave the building immediately. The man assured me that we were secure, but the look on his face betrayed his fear and uncertainty. He then huddled with his two busboys while I positioned myself by the back stairs.
A moment later, the busboys announced that they would begin allowing some folks to slip out. This instantly created a mad rush toward the stairs. Though I was positioned near the doorway, a lovely Indian-accented chorus arose, saying, “Women and children first!” Ah, but of course! I gulped and stepped aside.
The women and children began exiting in groups of eight. After about a minute, men began cutting the line. After some dozen men had cut in front of me, at a point when most of the women had gotten out, I joined the outflow and was able to escape.
I am obviously very lucky — and very blessed. I learned later from our corporate security, who were monitoring my emails, that the business center was attacked by gunmen some five minutes after I was able to escape. I also learned that my friend Eugene had been shot in the lobby, but thankfully will make a full recovery. (Eugene told me the next day that I’d sprinted right past the terrorist who leveled his gun and shot him in the hip. Fortunately he was dragged into a security room, from which point he was able to escape the hotel a few minutes later.)
Colleagues and friends have asked how I feel after experiencing such a trauma. I tell them I am fine — shaken but fine. At the end of the day, I am convinced that “bona omnia fecit” (all works for the good). I will forever be inspired by the staff of The Taj, who were polite, courteous and courageous throughout the ordeal. They saved hundreds of lives, many sacrificing their own in doing so.
Agnostic and atheist friends have told me that they’d be a wreck if such a thing had happened to them. But my feeling is that the Lord, for some reason, put His protective hands around me. I had little to do with my deliverance; He was and is in control, and that is fine with me.
What good can come out of this dreadful experience? Hopefully a more widespread recognition that the power of prayer and an unshakeable faith in God’s loving plan can get us through anything. That is why I am offering this account to Catholic Exchange. I want others to pray and draw closer to Christ and His Mother, especially in these uncertain times.
Why God has allowed me to live on? I have no idea. But at this point, the thought that will not leave my mind is, “From him to whom much is given, much is expected.”
I pray that I can live up to His expectations.
Copyright 2008 Catholic Exchange