Taj Mahal staffer recalls 26/11 terror attacks: I decided, if I die it may as well be with lights on
Senior staffer at Taj Mahal's Golden Dragon restaurant recalls his ordeal and escape
It was houseful that night when assistant manager Anup Sheth looked around at the Golden Dragon restaurant in the Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba. "We had at least 150 patrons," said Sheth, currently based in Pune. Around 9.30 pm, guests heard sounds inside the restaurant. Sheth said, "We thought there is a wedding, and firecrackers must have been set off. But soon, the sounds grew in intensity, and we realised they were gunshots. We then decided to lock the door of the restaurant."
Just as the key turned in the lock, Sheth said he saw an attacker, but not knowing then he was one, walk across. "You would think this is your regular college dude: orange t-shirt, red cap, cargo pants and sports shoes; but he had a gun in his hand. Then, I saw him turn around and fire at the ceiling. I dived behind a pillar; the staff couldn't switch off the lights as the switchboard was close to the door where the firing happened. We told the guests to lie flat on the floor and make as little noise as possible," he added.
Sheth said that hours later information filtered in that this was a terror attack. "We were told on phone to take them to the Chambers. I knew the hotel well; all the routes and exits are part of our induction training. We took the guests from the kitchen, through the Harbour Bar, through Wasabi, and into the Chambers, which had become a sort of holding area. We tried to calm everyone by telling them security forces were fighting the terrorists. "At 3 am on November 27, we were told it is evacuation time. We have to start moving the guests out; it was helter-skelter from there on: gunshots restarted, people were running; we lost chefs then to terrorists' bullets. I wanted to run back to the Chambers but couldn't make it. I took a fire exit and came to the mezzanine floor of the food & beverages office."
Sheth was separated from the group. He said, "I knew I was alone. It was me, God, and the blood curdling sound of firing and grenades. It is strange how I took a moment to think what to do in this madness and utter desperation. In a minute, I heard gunshots above the mezzanine floor and the ceiling started shaking. I dived underneath a massive desk, thinking, if the ceiling falls I may be saved."
Sheth said, "I thought I must switch off the lights, but then decided if I have to die, I may as well die with the lights on. Suddenly, I heard footsteps. I tried to keep so quiet that if I could stop my heart from hammering, I would have. I stopped breathing. From beneath the desk, I saw a pair of legs in black pants, or was it olive green? I can't remember, I was consumed by fear. Then, I heard a voice say 'yeh clear hai' and instinctively knew it was a security personnel. I shouted 'main hoon, main hoon' and put my hands out from underneath the desk, showing I had no weapons, in case they were suspicious. Then, as if in a dream I was walked out of the lobby, which had been sanitised, and out of the hotel into the early morning light. Impossibly, incredibly, unbelievably, I was alive and I was free."
Sheth summed up, "Earlier, I would take a lot of things for granted. This taught me we may not have enough time. Today, when I go out for dinner with my family, I am in the moment, I enjoy every minute. As a child on temple visits, I would always ask God for something; now, I don't. I only thank him for giving me another life."
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