Reportage

Hotel hell

'IT WAS SHORTLY after 3 pm that our worst fears were realised. There was a loud banging on the door and the call for us to "come out, come out". We knew this was our moment of truth. They would get in and kill us or our barricade would be successful.'

It was November 2008. Drew Dixon was hiding with his colleague Debra in her room at the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai. Outside, terrorists had taken over the hotel and after nineteen hours of waiting for the knock at their door, it arrived. They pulled all the pillows and cushions they had set up as protection against explosions over themselves and waited. More banging and more calls to come out and then an almighty blast against the door, in front of which the two had placed a heavy desk.

'It felt like a small explosive device,' Drew says. 'Our hearts were racing but this first attack appeared to have had no impact on the door. There was a moment of quiet and I thought "Yes, our barricade is working". I prayed that they would now go away. They called out again but I couldn't make out the words. They obviously knew we were in there and wanted us to come out. But of course we were not going to move.'

Another few seconds passed and their hopes rose again. Then there was another massive blast; larger than the first. There was still no effect on the door and again they dared to hope. But then there was a third blast and the splintering of timber.

'My heart sank as we lay motionless on the floor,' Drew says. 'There was nothing we could do – our lives were in the hands of others right now. A few more seconds elapsed and then a small grenade was thrown into our room and the sound of timber being blown apart – the heavy desk we placed against the door was demolished. I knew at this stage it was over for Debra and me. Frozen stiff, hardly breathing, we waited.'

Drew had been reluctant to go on the trade mission to India, which the New South Wales Department of State and Regional Development had arranged. It wasn't the travelling that was the problem. His architectural practice had a number of international clients and it was common for him to go overseas to meet with them or to network to find new clients.

No, he was reluctant because he had only recently become engaged to the love of his life, Lisa Montgomery, and it was the first time since the announcement that they would be apart. But three days into the trip another reason emerged for not wanting to have gone: he was right in the middle of a terrorist attack.

The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks ran for three days from 26 November. The attacks, which were attributed to members of Lashkar-e-taiba, the Pakistan-based militant organisation, left 164 dead and 308 injured. Drew was staying at the Oberoi Trident Hotel where thirty-two hostages were killed. While he stayed hidden with Debra, many thousands of kilometres away in Sydney, Lisa was trying to cope with the thought her partner could be killed.

 

DREW'S STORY: OUR first point of call was New Delhi and after three successful days our trade mission flew to Mumbai. I was booked to stay at the Oberoi and remember how lax the security was compared to Claridges in New Delhi. After I checked in, I was taken to my room on the nineteenth floor.

Everyone from the delegation met in the lobby at 7 pm except for one, Brett Taylor, who had caught a later flight. We discussed what we were going to do that night. At my suggestion, we decided to go to Leopold's Restaurant as I had read it was an icon in Mumbai. But when I asked the concierge for directions he suggested we should try the Khyber Restaurant for the best Indian meal in town. Fortunately we took his advice, as Leopold's was one of the first sites targeted by the terrorists and we would certainly have been there at the time of the attack. When I was reflecting on my terrorist experience later I realised a number of 'miracles' occurred that night that kept me safe. Going to the Khyber was one of them.

When Brett rang to say he was running late and to go without him, three other delegates decided they would eat at the hotel and get an early night. So it was just the four of us enjoying a couple of beers and excellent Indian dishes before returning to the hotel about 9.30 pm.

At the hotel I went to reception to see if they had a power adapter so I could charge my phone. Meanwhile, Brett had arrived and was having a drink in the lobby bar. As I got out of the lift in the lobby in search of my power adapter, Brett would have been drinking by himself not more than ten metres away. If I had glanced up and seen him I certainly would have joined him for a nightcap. Fortunately I didn't see him. This was my second miracle.

My request for an adapter was successful and when I returned to my room and plugged in my phone I heard some loud bangs outside. It was precisely 10 pm. My initial thought was that some sort of fireworks display was occurring in the lobby and I remember wondering how that could occur in an enclosed space. I thought perhaps what was not possible in Australia may be possible in India so I walked out of my room to see what was happening.

 

THE OBEROI IS an atrium hotel, it has a large open space in the centre extending the full height of the building with all the rooms on the floors accessed by a corridor open to the atrium. From my nineteenth floor corridor I was able to look down into the lobby. I couldn't see anything but what was odd was there was no movement or noise. The music had stopped; the people were gone. It was if the hotel had been evacuated.

As I was about to return to my room I saw two armed men enter the lobby from a corner of the hotel. They were dressed in civilian clothes and carrying backpacks and what I learnt later to be AK-47s. Even at this moment I wasn't particularly alarmed. I thought perhaps these men were security staff undertaking an exercise, or at worst, criminals attempting an armed robbery of the hotel. I did not consider the possibility that they were terrorists. Sometimes it is hard to believe the unbelievable.

The two men stalked the lobby for probably ten to fifteen seconds. I then saw them walk into the café, and as they entered I heard the rapid fire of thirty to forty gunshots ring out. I knew instantly that a massacre had just taken place.

Shaken, I returned to my room not knowing what to do. I didn't know the emergency number for the police so I rang the concierge, stupidly thinking that he would still be at his post while the carnage was happening. Of course there was no answer.

Probably three or four minutes of quiet elapsed and I began to think the gunmen might have fled. Mumbai is notorious for its criminal element and I thought this might have something to do with a gangland war – a short sharp attack that was now over. I opened the door and ventured out again. Later I realised how stupid this was, but at nineteen floors up I felt quite safe. As I peered over the balcony I noticed three police officers standing tentatively at the same entrance used by the gunmen, revolvers in hand. They appeared perplexed as to what was happening and what they should do. Then more rapid gunfire rang out and I could see bullets ricocheting off the walls in the direction of the police officers. None are hit but as they dived for cover I returned to my room. This time my heart raced with the realisation that a serious situation was unfolding.

There were a few more minutes of silence but then a massive explosion erupted in the lobby and the atrium began filling with smoke. It seemed within a minute the hotel was on fire and smoke began to enter my room. I had the phone numbers of several of the other members of the trade mission and I began to ring them. I managed to contact one – Debra. She sounded terrified and spoke in little more than a whisper. I asked her what room she was in and found out she was two doors away from mine – 1958. This was a freakish coincidence, or as I call it now, my third miracle, as the members of the mission were in rooms scattered throughout the twenty-one floors of the hotel. For Debra to be the only one that I could contact and for her to be only two rooms away was amazingly good luck for us both.

I told her to stay put and that I would come to her room. The smoke by this time was quite thick and I covered my face with a wet towel and stepped into the corridor. Visibility was extremely poor – I could not see the balustrade two metres away. My eyes were stinging and my lungs were filling with smoke. I hoped I was heading in the right direction and knew I didn't have much time. I found Debra's room only because I could hear her calling my name.

The smoke was suffocating and I knew we couldn't survive much longer if we stayed where we were so we decided to make a run for it. I knew in this modern hotel that the fire stairwell is pressurised – that is, there is a fresh air supply that in theory will prevent smoke from getting into it. Out in the smoke-filled corridor with wet towels over our faces we felt our way along the wall. After what seemed an eternity we came to the fire stairwell but to my dismay the door was open and it was full of thick smoke.

Convinced that this was our only means of escape we decided to push on but with the smoke unbearable and my lungs aching we quickly realised it was futile. We would certainly perish before we made it to the ground. I told Debra we needed to get back to her room and she didn't argue.

 

WE FOUND OUT later that this decision was my miracle number four. The terrorists were making their way up the fire stairs with their hostages just as we were commencing our descent. If we had continued we would have run into them. This is the group that was slaughtered on the roof with only two surviving – two Turkish Muslims who we would later meet.

Back in the room we wet some towels and tried to block off the smoke coming in under the door. I was gasping for air. I knew we could not survive this situation much longer. It was about this time I sent a text message to my fiancée, Lisa, telling her I loved her and asking her to tell my children, Amy and Ben, that I loved them too. I realised this message would cause them alarm but I was so uncertain of our fate that I did not want to risk dying without getting that final message across.

As Debra and I stumbled around in the smoke and darkness, she tripped over a wastepaper bin that took a lump of skin off her leg. This rogue garbage bin became another saviour. If we were to survive we needed to get some fresh air and the only option was to smash the windows. There were three windows, a small one each side of one large one, but they were all fixed and could not be opened. Using the garbage bin and covering the windows with the curtains to protect us from shattering glass, I was able to smash each of the side windows after several attempts. The combination of my weakness from the smoke inhalation and very tough glass made this apparently simple task very difficult.

Debra took a position at one side window and I on the other. While Debra seemed to be coping I was still having great difficulty breathing; the smoke was so thick. I knew I had to get outside the room so I climbed onto the forty centimetre-wide ledge to breathe in fresh air. I was standing upright on the ledge holding onto the window frame and, despite the precarious position, I felt safe and relieved that at least I could breathe. I tried to attract the attention of people below. Twice I yelled but to no avail. The smoke in my lungs meant it was difficult for me to make a loud noise.

In the cold light of day I realised how dangerous it was to go out on the ledge. But I doubt very much if I would have survived if I'd stayed in the room.

It was astounding that after what must have been at least half an hour since the attack began and with the hotel well ablaze there was very little action happening on the ground. Our expectations were that police and emergency services personnel would surround the hotel. Here, however, only a handful of police had arrived. Then we saw two fire engines cruise past and take up positions three hundred metres away. There appeared to be no sense of urgency or appreciation of the seriousness of the situation. There was certainty no evidence of a plan to rescue the people in the hotel.

 

PERHAPS THE STRANGEST moment of the night for me occurred at this point. As I stood on the ledge nineteen floors up, I noticed a man in the bathroom of his apartment directly opposite me on the other side of the street. I thought how odd it was that on one side of the road a five-star hotel was being bombed and burnt and on the other was a man cleaning his teeth as though nothing was happening.

The smoke began to dissipate and breathing became easier. Our minds turned to how we could make our room as safe as possible. Text messages from the Australian Federal Police had warned us to lock and barricade our doors and to stay in our rooms away from the doors until we were given the all-clear that the hotel was secure. Debra and I agreed that no matter what, we would follow this advice.

We pushed the writing desk in the room up against the door. I was confident this barricade would take some getting through, as both the door and the desk were very solid. The room layout was also of benefit to us. The front door led to a hallway about three metres long and a metre wide. To the right was a bathroom before entering the bedroom area. The side of the bed was sixty centimetres from the bathroom wall and we figured that if we laid down in this space, the bathroom wall would protect us from a corridor attack and the bed would protect us from anything coming in from outside. This proved to be correct.

Regular grenade explosions and gunfire assured us of the terrorists' presence. Every time this happened we would dive into our 'safe' place between the bed and the bathroom wall. After a few minutes of quiet we would crawl out again.

We were aware from the messages we received that the terrorists were on our floor. We also understood they were looking for foreigners to either execute or take hostage. It was crucial that we kept quiet. We spoke in whispers, kept the TV off and didn't flush the toilet. I was even concerned about turning on the bathroom light; not because the light could be seen under the door but I was not sure how sophisticated the building management system of the hotel was. I thought turning on a light may register power usage on the hotel's computer system somewhere and the terrorists may be clever enough to monitor it.

 

APART FROM A pre-mission briefing earlier in the month, Debra and I had only got to know each other at the start of the trade mission in New Delhi. During the periods of quiet we would talk about our lives, our families, our careers and dreams and even try to make the occasional joke to keep our spirits up. Then with every explosion we would huddle together silently just hoping that this nightmare would end.

Months after the attack was over, Lisa told me how she found the thought of me sharing such a horrific ordeal with another woman very difficult for her, even though she knew such a thought was illogical. I, on the other hand, was so pleased to be with someone during this time and felt for all the other guests who were alone.

When dawn finally broke it was quite eerie. The view from the window across the silvery, glass-like Arabian Sea was serene and peaceful. There was no movement in the street; just total silence. Then we heard the tinkle of glass on the window ledge. Were the terrorists coming into our room? A cold shudder went through us. There was no way we could get out of the room before they came in – but then a bird flew off. We looked at each other and laughed. Of course the terrorists wouldn't try and get in through the window, placing themselves in full view of the police snipers outside. It's funny how fear takes over from logic sometimes.

Around 9.30 am the terror returned. We could hear the sound of windows smashing in the room next door. We held our breath as we heard the rapid fire of gunshots. We jumped into our safe space beside the bed and a chilling thought hit me. All the terrorists had to do was reach around the corner and lob a grenade through our open window.

The worst thoughts are always the first thoughts. As the seconds passed I then thought the terrorists wouldn't know our window was broken or that someone was in this room. And surely they wouldn't expose themselves to the snipers. I began to feel a bit more secure but still concerned that they were so close by. Was our room the next target? What if the police tried to fire an explosive device into their room and got us instead? What if the terrorists decided to blow themselves up and blew us up in the process?

The gunfire only lasted a short time and the terrorists must have left the room and returned to their base. The hours ticked by and the tension remained high. It was taking its toll on us and there were some emotional times but we both felt very lucky that we had someone to share the moment with.

But now our room had been singled out and the barricade we had set up against the door was blown up. I heard something small land on the floor in the room and then there was a massive explosion. Through the slightest gap in our covering I could see the flash of the grenade and the air buffeted our bodies even under all the pillows and cushions. There was a crashing sound of glass as the remaining large window blew out and the furniture in the room shattered into pieces. Miraculously we weren't injured.

We heard voices and I looked through the same gap in the cushions and saw a man dressed in black with an AK-47 pointed at my head. In that split second I knew I was going to die. I remember hoping he would be accurate and I would die quickly. I didn't want to feel any pain. I was surprised by how Debra and I reacted at this time. I thought there would have been some panic, crying, loss of control, but instead we maintained our positions, quiet and motionless, tearing apart internally but still keeping our composure on the outside. We were later told it was probably the effect of adrenalin over an extended period of time that had helped us keep our composure.

I made eye contact with the gunman and when no bullet came I realised he wasn't going to shoot us on the spot. 'Get up,' he yelled in a strong Indian accent. 'Put your hands in the air.' I realised we were going to be taken hostage – another opportunity, however small, for survival. I pushed the pillows away and struggled to my feet.

There were four gunmen in the room, all dressed in black and all carrying automatic rifles. The gunman still had his weapon trained on me. He took me over to the window and said: 'Why didn't you come out? We are the police.'

At that instant I thought, he had just taken us hostage so why would he be saying he is the police if he wasn't? I looked into his eyes and said, 'Are you really the police?' He nodded. Never in my life have I felt such relief. I still had my hands in the air but I couldn't help myself. I grabbed this man and gave him a big hug. I looked around the room at the other commandos and started shaking their hands like a gambler in a casino who had just won a million-dollar jackpot.

By now Debra also realised these were the good guys. She told the gunmen she had her mobile phone. 'You may keep your phone madam,' they said. She knew if they were terrorists they wouldn't allow her to keep her phone.

We had been rescued.

 

LISA'S STORY: I must have been in a very deep sleep when Drew's text message came through at 4.28 am. I jumped out of bed, grabbed the phone and read what appeared to be at first glance a strange message from Drew telling me how much he loved me, to tell his children he loves them and that 'no matter what happens' I am his one and only true love. Drew sends messages of love all the time, so at first glance this wasn't unusual but then I realised it was different.

Immediately I tapped back: 'Are you ok?' But as I pressed the send button I was overcome with a sense of terror. I called Drew's number and I found myself repeating over and over out loud, 'he is not okay, he is not okay'. The anxiety began to well inside me, and as the call began to connect with Drew's phone and then quickly disconnect I felt a rising panic. What could have happened? His plane landed safe in Mumbai, he was safe in his hotel, what's going on?

The phone rang. It was Drew, who frantically told me his hotel had been hit by a terrorist attack. There is a fire, he can't breathe, he can't get any air. I am running up the hallway now, crying out, unable to help him, still trying to comprehend the situation. He isn't joking; this is real. As Drew tried desperately to breathe I didn't know if this was the last time we would speak. I tell him I love him over and over again and I tell him to find a way to stay alive. I keep telling him. He tells me he has to go to find some air, the phone disconnects.

Still in a panic, I run to the television. CNN is already reporting the attack. The phone rings again. It's Drew. 'Babe,' he says, 'the smoke is a little better now, I think I'm going to be okay.'

The urgency of the situation subsided slightly but I was still trying to get my head around the fire, the terrorists, what floor Drew was on, what the hell was going on. CNN starts to report several sites have been attacked. This thing is big, the Taj, the Oberoi, something about a train station, hostages, people dead everywhere.

Stay in your room Drew, I kept thinking, stay in your room. He calls again and tells me he thinks he will be okay and tells me whom I should call: his kids and Russell (his business partner). I keep saying, whatever you have to do to stay alive, Drew – do it. He tells me he loves me, he tells me it will be okay, but I can hear in his voice that it's far from okay.

 

I CALL DREW'S office. Russell starts work around 4.30 am every day – he will be there. He answers, I tell him what has happened. He can't believe it. We talk. Russell and Drew have a special relationship based on knowing each other for many years. He says to me, 'Don't worry Lisa, he's a prick and they (meaning the terrorists) don't kill pricks.' I am not taken aback; this is Russell's way of coping. In a way his comment brings me back to earth. I promise to keep him informed and hang up.

Drew phones again. Thank God he is alive, I say as his name comes up on the display. His name on that display would be the sight I long for over the next twenty hours, four letters that would tell me in a split second he was alive. 'We are okay, babe,' he says. 'We have broken the windows and can breathe now. We have put towels underneath the door, the smoke is getting better.' The urgency has left his voice but I am watching this thing unfold on the television and I am even more worried. How many terrorists are there, where are they, how many hostages, are they going to blow up the hotel?

We talk a few more times on the phone before Drew tells me that his phone is low on battery. This can't be happening; it's our only lifeline. We agree to save the battery. He will text me from now on unless something changes.

I am watching the television when the first of many, many text messages comes in from Drew. It's 5.27 am. It reads, 'still ok xxxxxxxx'. Drew always signs off with kisses, it's just what he does. I always feel loved but now I feel out of control. I can't be there to take the pain away from him, and CNN is telling me it's getting worse.

The news reports are coming through thick and fast now – all of the international channels. They are showing the Taj Hotel but what about the Oberoi? It is so frustrating, the reporters don't know anything, Drew is the best source of information at the moment.

Each time my phone buzzes with a message I jump. How long before they catch the terrorists, surely the police are in there now? I kept texting Drew that I love him so much.

Later I realised that during this time Drew must have been more desperate for news about what was happening rather than my declarations of love. But to me I needed him to hear it. I thought I may never see him again and if that happened I wanted him to know how much he was loved.

Sometimes minutes would pass, which seemed like hours and I would be so distraught and in need of reassurance that I would text Drew with the words 'still ok?' If I could just get an 'ok' back I could move on and deal with the next passage of time. Where are the police? Who are these terrorists?

One of the greatest features of my mobile phone at this time was its report mechanism, which notified me when a text had been received. I use this feature a lot when Drew travels as when I get a notification I know that he's landed safely. Receiving these reports during this ordeal gave me comfort because I knew he was still alive.

Just after 7 am I get the message I knew was coming. 'Babe, I won't text again unless something happens to save my battery, it's been quiet for twenty minutes.'

Drew's son Ben and his girlfriend Min are with me now. I had also called Drew's daughter Amy. She is controlled and calm but still deeply worried about how this is going to turn out.

As the morning progresses we start to get a feel for the reporting of the different TV stations – CNN, BBC Fox, SKY UK. But the best of all is NDTV with live reporting from the Indian TV station right on the spot at the Oberoi. For the other stations, the Taj gets more airtime, probably because it's on fire and makes for better TV, but all we want to see is the Oberoi.

At 9.17 am Drew texts: 'No change xx'. Those kisses at the end are just what I need, especially as we are nearly five hours into this. As we hear more reports of the terror I do begin to wonder whether he will ever get out of this alive.

At 9.51 am Drew sends another text: 'Lots of gunfire, do you know what is happening?' At this stage we don't, it could be the police but more than likely it is the terrorists. We are all in the dark.

 

DREW TELLS ME later he was desperate for news during this time. I remember at the time trying every news source I possibly could. These were the days before Twitter took off. Today finding out what was happening on the other side of the world would be a different story.

Around 10 am, Drew texts to tell me the phone will cut out soon. I ask him whether there is another number, perhaps Debra's phone? He sends me her number as a back-up, which give us peace of mind. He turns his phone off and only turns it back on for a minute at a time about every thirty minutes. For the rest of the day, this is a grueling exercise.

It's around this time that Russell calls. He tells me a representative from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade wants me to call her. This woman is the organiser of the mission and wants to help. I call her and we begin a phone exchange that will last the rest of the day. She uses her mobile phone as a connection point with the families at the command centre at DFAT. There are members of the New South Wales and Federal Police terrorist squads on hand to help those in contact with family members inside the hotel. They are also collecting information to send to the command centre in Mumbai, which is then being communicated to the taskforce members who are co-ordinating the activity on the ground. As time passed I would take over the communication as the situation changed.

Just after midnight Drew sends me a text: 'Hi babe, got your text...still ok...I'll be home ASAP XXX'.

The words 'I will be home ASAP' send shivers down my spine because I know there is a chance he won't be. It makes me cry and Ben and Min see this. They are my rocks throughout the whole experience. Every text message is important to them too.

I recall needing to stay strong for Ben and Min and coherent for the anti-terrorist squad when they called. Many months after the ordeal, Ben and Min told me they couldn't believe how I managed to switch on when talking to the police. They both said I was incredible but I remember going into my bedroom and falling apart.

I found it very difficult and I was caught up in my feelings. Even though I was worried about Drew it was all about getting as much information as I possibly could to him. At the time I didn't know if he was in survival mode. He was trying to stay alive and that meant not being in constant communication with us, but that communication was all we had.

At this point there has been no news for ages and I couldn't wait any longer so I send a text. He replies: ' Yep – okay – but loud gunfire nearby...it's scary babe I love you xxxxxxxx'

This sent a chill through me. It must be bad for him to send a note like this. He has been brave all day long but now he is scared. The three of us huddle on the lounge overcome by tears. We tell ourselves to be patient; he is still okay. But it is gut wrenching, we have no control; all we have are words on a four centimetre by three centimetre screen.

The next couple of hours are difficult ones – until Drew calls. To hear his voice is overwhelming. I cannot control the tears. He sounds like he has been to hell and back. I can hear it – I can't describe it, but I can hear it.

I tell him I love him and then quickly pass the phone to Ben. If anything happens, he needs to talk to his son and tell him that he loves him – then he is gone.

The next few hours were torturous but the texts kept us going.

4.41 pm: Still okay xxxx – all good

6.15 pm: Ok (from Debra's phone)

7 pm: Room 1958 still okay

7.02 pm: You too – Gotta turn off

7.23 pm: More bombs do you know what's happening?

9.06 pm: Okay

Then came the text that we had been waiting for since the first one came through at 4.28am, causing our lives to change so dramatically.

10 pm: Out – okay

 

DREW HAD BEEN rescued but even now, nearly four years after the event, how they made their way to safety gives rise to his anger. They were made to walk along exposed hotel corridors despite the police admitting they didn't know where the terrorists were; they stepped over dead bodies on carpets of blood, and stumbled down unlit stairs into unknown territory. They were brought face to face with what could have been for them. But eventually they made it to safety and the picking up of lives resumed.

The end of an ordeal like this is really only the beginning of something new. Lisa and Drew say the events confirmed and strengthen their feelings for each other. Brett Taylor, who was enjoying a drink in the lobby bar, was killed while the other members of the trade mission survived by staying in their rooms. The surviving members meet each year around the time of the anniversary to talk about how they are coping. There are many tears.

After Drew returned home, he had nightmares for months and his body went into trauma, which took a long time to recover from. However, he is adamant that if he needed to, he would return to Mumbai. 'People cannot commit an act of terrorism and expect to get away with it,' he says. 'I guess I'm much more alert to noises in hotel corridors now but the experience has not stopped me from travelling.'

And while Lisa was never in any danger, there are emotional scars. 'When I was reunited with Drew I met the other members of the trade mission who had shared this incredible and unusual bond with my now husband,' Lisa says. 'I have to admit, and I know it's irrational, but I do find it difficult to deal with the fact that my husband went through nineteen hours of trauma with another woman. I know they were trying to survive and of course I know Debra now, but it is difficult. Still, after an experience like this we have learnt not to sweat the small stuff.'

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