Pen to Paper
I survived the Mumbai attacks on the 26th November 2008. When I have re-connected with friends around the world they have asked me to describe my experiences and in most cases I have relayed the story probably over the period of about an hour. I have found that recounting the events help me cope with the memories of that night. This memoir is now an over whelming need to put pen to paper and I believe represents my way to demonstrate respect for all impacted as well as processing the events in my own mind. Each and every anniversary I am aware falls on Thanks Giving Day and I will never forget that I have a lot to be thankful for.
In April 2006, Janet my wife and I moved to New Delhi, India. I took up the role of Chief Operating Officer, InterGlobe Technology Quotient (ITQ) an Indian company headquartered in New Delhi. ITQ is the Indian distribution company of Travelport’s Galileo and Worldspan Global Computer Reservations systems. I had been working for Galileo since 1993 in various parts of the world – UK, Hong Kong, USA and as I said now India.
A year later, April 2007 I was promoted to head up the organization as their President and CEO. An organization with 350+ staff, located in 21 offices around India meant I had the opportunity to see a lot of this huge country. I lived in Gurgaon, close to New Delhi but travelled a great deal. Most of my trips were to the other Indian metro cities of Mumbai, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Bangalore although my most fond memories are when I travelled on staff regional team builds to magical destinations such as Pune, Jaipur, Kodaikanal, Shimla and Mandarmoni.
My story, A Week in the Taj, begins on the 24th November 2008, in the Taj Bengal Hotel, in the city of Calcutta.
An Ordinary Week at the Taj in Calcutta and Mumbai
Calcutta is a very diverse city and is India’s second largest city. The city is full of contrasts, it is noble but at the same time squalid; refined and fraught. On the drive from the airport to the city the views of the jam packed streets and alley ways make you question how so many people can survive and even thrive. The name Calcutta conjures up images of human suffering to many visitors but locally it is regarded as the intellectual and cultural capital of India. There are dozens of places showcase theatre, poetry, art, music, film and Bengali dance. While poverty certainly remains in-your-face, the local gentry continue to frequent grand old gentlemen’s clubs, placing a bet or two on the horses at the Calcutta Racetrack and play rounds of golf at some of India’s finest courses.
As the former capital of British India, Calcutta has some very dramatic colonial architecture such as the magnificent Victoria Monument. The city still has many slums but like most Indian metros it is also developing dynamic new-town suburbs, many air-conditioned shopping malls and some of the best restaurants in India.
I always found Calcutta to be a very friendly city.
Monday 24th November 2008.
I was here in Calcutta to meet top customers and of course meet with my staff in the East Region. They are the liveliest bunch of people I know in India. Always lively, always ready with the warmest of greetings and always ready to take advantage of having the boss in town to get some quick decisions and closure on anything that they believed I could resolve for them. Who could resist their energy and eagerness to win?
I had a top customer lunch meeting that day. This time, a thank you lunch, for a long loyal customer who had decided to remain with ITQ after an aggressive competitor bid. These were always my happiest meetings. A genuine mutual appreciation lunch! You have to savour these moments when working in India!
That evening I returned to the hotel and like most trips I had been requested to stop off at two more customers on the way – one to reassure them that we will continue our service excellence if they renew their contract and another to reassure them that they will not regret moving from the competitor to us and promise my personal oversight into their migration to us! Although the staff had boundless energy during these meetings, once business was concluded, I was quite happy to retire to Taj Bengal Hotel for a relaxing evening and re-unite with some of the hotel staff who consistently have the warmest of greetings.
The hotel is a landmark in the city. It is unmistakably Taj boasting a large attractive atrium-lobby, with all the brass and glass highly polished, bright and shinning. Majestic sandstone columns invite you through the vast lobby with luxury seating areas and are overlooked by some of the city’s very best restaurants. Smiles are in abundance from Taj staff, all eager to welcome you by name upon arrival and from this moment you know every need will be catered for and expectations exceeded. The service is most personable, friendly and genuine.
My evening went as planned. I relaxed with some food and drink and had a short chat with some of the staff and other guests. When I walked into the Junction bar and restaurant I was greeted with great excitement by Sujoy, Debayan and Vikrah. They always had interesting conversation and tonight was no different. It is wonderful to watch these young guys deliver the highest customer service consistently each and every time to each and every guest. After listening to some live music I was off to bed. It is a great hotel to reflect on the day’s activities and also plan for the next. I remember looking forward to the next day as I was to travel to Mumbai and meet up with Sonia Mehta. Sonia is the Associate Vice President of Marketing and eCommerce for Galileo in India. Not just a great colleague who I called, ‘one of the smartest people I know’ but also a long time friend since we first met in India in 1998.
You can no doubt tell the Taj Bengal is a very special place for me. The service provided is the most amazing and I believe can only be delivered in India. I have commented often to my friends and colleagues, “How do the Taj staff do it? Each and every time they raise the bar.” They raise expectations and immediately exceed that expectation over and over. So my stay this time at the Taj Bengal was again, memorable.
Tuesday 25th November 2008
Next morning I was up bright and early (as always), that morning I had been to the gym and then had a quick breakfast. Now it was time to check out and head to the airport for my flight to Mumbai. My room was on the fifth floor, the Taj Club Floor and had a private check out facility. My visit this time had been too short to avail of their other special facilities such as private dining room and butler service etc. At that time David appeared.
Mr David Aaron is the Adherent Member Les Clefs d’Or Singapore, Concierge Manager. David had greeted me many times before with a warm welcome but this time, at check out, was the first time our paths had crossed on this trip.
He immediately commented, “Mr Hanna, how have we missed each other? Are you leaving us already?”
Can you imagine such dedicated service for a hotel staff team member and to be so personalized?
“My stay was too short”, I agreed.
I also shared that I felt this week was one of my best ever as I have had the privilege of revisiting Taj Bengal and now I am off on a three night stay at Taj Mahal Palace and Towers Hotel, in Mumbai.
David asked, “Have you arranged a car transfer from hotel for airport pick-up?”
“Yes all arranged I believe.” I replied.
As per Taj standard David began dialing his Mumbai counterpart to ensure all was arranged as per my expectation. Even on the way to Calcutta airport I got a call from David to, yet again, re-confirm Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai were ready and waiting for my arrival that afternoon.
Arrival at the Taj, Mumbai
The last minutes of the flight approach into Mumbai airport takes you over the world’s largest slum. It seems to go on and on forever. It is difficult to believe Mumbai’s richest live nearby, next to squalid slums. Mumbai is also the most cosmopolitan of India’s cities and home to the world famous Bollywood. The city handles a third of India’s foreign trade and is known for its financial centre. Many more people around the world today are aware of Mumbai’s spirit and distinct flavour through the Oscar winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire!
The drive to the city’s south area can take between one and a half hours on a good day to three hours in rush hour. Over crowded streets, smells, noise and colour give you plenty to view on the stop start taxi ride.
The Taj Mahal Palace and Towers Hotel is a landmark. I remember the first time I saw a photo of the hotel. It was when I first joined the travel industry back in 1981, when the hotel graced the cover of the ABC Travel Guide, then travel agents’ and airlines’ global flight bible. Little did I know then that I would be able to stay in this hotel often and even become a frequent guest known by name.
Entering the Palace wing you are greeted by a magnificent staircase rising up through 5 floors twisting and cascading upward to the dome. The atmosphere is regal, a true palace fit for a Maharaja or a business traveller like myself!
If the walls could speak there would be no doubt many tales. The Taj had many famous guests over the years: from Gregory Peck, The Beatles, Pierre Cardin, George Harrison, John Lennon, Margaret Thatcher to President Clinton
Since it opened in 1903, The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai has created its own unique history. From Maharajas and Princes to various Kings, Presidents, CEOs and entertainers, the Taj has played the perfect host, supportive of their every need..
The hotel is an architectural marvel and brings together Moorish, Oriental and Florentine styles. It offers panoramic views of the Arabian Sea and the Gateway of India and showcases contemporary Indian influences along with beautiful vaulted alabaster ceilings, onyx columns, graceful archways, hand-woven silk carpets, crystal chandeliers, a magnificent art collection, as well as an eclectic collection of furniture.
Checking in at the Taj Mahal Palace needs to be experienced first hand in order to be fully appreciated. Firstly the reception area is one of the most beautiful and prestigious rooms I have seen. Dark wood panelled walls, huge crystal chandeliers and once again in Taj style, the most welcoming, professional and knowledgable staff seated at antique dark wood desks. Sounds imposing – yes - first time it was but I was fortunate enough to have been through this before so I was fully at ease.
Within minutes I was being escorted by reception staff to my room on the 5th floor – room 527. A number I will never forget for how ever long I am here on earth. The room was on the Taj Club floor again and I could avail of the club privileges – I couldn’t be happier.
A quick shower. Well not that quick, as at Taj Mahal Palace the bathrooms are so luxurious. Surrounded by marble is not an everyday experience – Molton Brown products, walk-in rain shower, white fluffy towels – keeps you in the shower! Pity one has to leave it!
Anyway after leaving the room I headed for the Starboard Bar and Lounge. I had been there many times. On the way I couldn’t help notice and savor the ambiance of just walking from my room – the feeling of peace with cream coloured Victorian style wooden atrium walkways. I stop twice before the lift to appreciate the architecture and grandeur. This was not my first visit of course but again I would stop before the lift doors and raise my eyes upwards to the Dome - Majestic – that’s the word.
Coming out of the lift, on the ground floor is always a moment to appreciate, opposite the glass antique doors to the residents only area and pool. Quick right takes you along the corridor to the tower lobby – passing the Mont Blanc store and others hotel shops, passed China Dragon restaurant, happy memories of evenings with key customers and staff. I crossed the lobby and into the Starboard. SMILES. Very often in India I am greeted with by bright smiles and Starboard is just one of those places for me. I sit down and immediately I am welcomed back and reminded “Long time sir”. It seems a week is a long time in these guys’ minds. This time it had been 2 weeks but again it is great to feel missed and my return celebrated!
Creature of habit or maybe it’s a ‘laziness’ thing but it’s always been my preference to order the same thing when I come across something I like! My primary school teacher gave me a ‘lazy’ in my first school report (I was only 4 years old) so maybe that’s true.
“Chicken quesadillas sir?”
“Yes please but make it vegetarian.” was my reply.
Two minutes later the waiter came back and said chef says you always have the chicken quesadillas not vegetarian. Chef Aniruddha Agashe makes the best quesadillas ever and he was obviously taking good care of me. I explained that this time the doctor had put me on a vegetarian diet so unfortunately ‘no chicken’. This caused a few moments of laughter all around!
During the evening I chatted to a NRI (non resident Indian) who now lived in the USA and a guy from Australia. They would be in the hotel for the next couple of nights – just like me.
26th November 2008
Next day I met Sonia Mehta. Sonia was staying in Taj President Hotel, a ten minute drive at most to mine. We were heading to ‘Eye for Travel’ event. By this stage, I had been in India for over two and a half years and Sonia asked me “Why did we stay so far from the event?” It was then I realized that I was actually staying downtown but the conference was closer to the airport, probably an hour and a half drive away. Oh well anyone can make a mistake.
‘Eye for Travel’ event was good and I had the opportunity to meet with some of our top customers. Lunch was with one of my top customers Mr Malvinder Singh Rikhy, Chief Operating Officer of HRG India. Sonia and Malvinder along with Aditya Ghosh, President of IndiGo airlines were to become my closest helpers in my hours of need later that night.
4.Not an Ordinary Night - 26 November
So back to hotel. I was exhausted after the busy day, big lunch and that ‘long drive’. I was also getting hungry again! I headed up to my room, dropped off my bags and went back down to the Harbour Bar. It’s an elegant and sophisticated bar for a drink and an informal meal. Opened in 1933 it was Mumbai's first licensed bar and has a classic ambience and a good international food menu. I asked for a snack menu but was told they didn’t serve snacks until 7pm. It was 6 45pm and I decided I couldn’t wait. It maybe was impatience, tiredness or a bit of annoyance that I had to wait so I decided to go to Shamlana, the 24 hour coffee shop, buffet restaurant across the lobby. After a diet coke, mushroom soup and cheese and tomato sandwich I left and by 8pm I was back in room 527 and got into bed. The TV was on, of course!
On my pillow, beside the normal chocolate and I also noticed a printed card. Normally these have inspirational quotations or poems.
Tonight it read:
Yet a little sleep;
A little slumber,
A little folding of
hands to sleep
Out of all my stays at the Taj hotels across India I had seen many of these cards but this was the first time I have ever had one with a quote from The Bible. I tucked the card into my travel wallet and next thing I knew I drifted off to sleep.
9.40pm. I was immediately startled by 3 loud bangs. BANG! BANG! BANG! These bangs were really loud. My heart jumped and raced. The bangs had a vibration, as if reaching into my soul. I literally jumped to the window from my bed.
My window view was of the swimming pool. The Taj Mahal Palace Wing is built like a U shape’ courtyard design. Starting from the dome, the building continues to the corner where it extends back into two further wings and then extends back to the road behind. The swimming pool is in the middle of the ‘U’. My room was left side of dome which was to be the part that suffered the most fire damage later that night.
Staring with wide eyes from my window I saw there was a poolside BBQ set up. There were long tables presenting the food and a number of round small tables where people could dine. I remember blinking three or four times as I realized the area was deserted. No guests at the tables, no chefs at the BBQ counters. No-one at all. Blinking again. I can see food on plates but there are still no people. No-one is there. “What are the shapes?” I was talking out loud to myself asking, “Where is everyone? What was that noise?” I knew that the noises were shots. I knew someone was shooting.
At this early stage all I can say is that I felt an overwhelming sense of doom. That feeling in your stomach when you just know all is not good. This time it was fear, probably at its highest. It was now 9 .55pm I immediately called my wife, Janet. She was back in Northern Ireland and I knew she was starting a college class that day but thank goodness, she answered.
“Hi it’s me. I’m at the Taj in Mumbai. I went to bed early and woke up just now with three loud bangs. Really loud bangs.”
“What time is it there?”
“Five to ten. I am looking out my window and there is a buffet at pool but no-one is there. There’s something wrong.”
‘Why don’t you ring Sonia’ Janet said. ‘Call her and tell her what’s happening and call me back.’
With the help of recovered text messages and phone logs from my cell phone along with my own memory I have been able to piece together the sequence of events of that night. I have removed some names of those who tried to contact me and failed. I literally had hundreds of text and email messages and hundreds of aborted calls. Thank you again to my family, friends and the media who helped keep me informed. I now know at a time of crisis, information is the most critical requirement to keep you focused and calm.
26 NOVEMBER 2008
“Sonia, it’s Bruce here. Have you heard if there is anything wrong here in Mumbai? Any security alerts?”
“No Bruce.” said Sonia
“Are you sure? I think there is. I was in bed and woke up to massive loud noises like gun fire” I said.
“Let me check things out. I am sure its all OK Bruce. I will call you right back.”
I went to the door and opened it slightly – I saw a person run along the opposite corridor and rushing, fumbling with their key. It was a guest. A Chinese guy and he was clearly alarmed. He quickly jumped into his room and shut the door behind him. Another sign to me that danger is too close.
“Hi Bruce, Sonia here. There is a security alert at the Hilton / Oberoi. Not the Taj. Don’t worry it is not at your hotel.”
“Are you sure? There seems something strange Sonia. It was so loud. I think there is something here too.” I said.
Sonia then said, “There seems to be something on the news saying there are explosions at the Oberoi. What in the world is happening Bruce? OK let’s stay calm and I am sure you will be fine. Why don’t you call reception and ask them if they know anything.”
“Sonia, I’ve been trying but can’t get through. The line is busy. Let me try again. Call you back. Bye.”
As I tried to get through to the operator I tried the TV. All channels were blocked.
I sent a text message to Sonia.
'Phone busy in room. Too scared to put on lights.'
Another text to Sonia.
'There's something going on here. I can see some others at their window.''
Malvinder called me. I confirmed yes I was at the Taj Palace. He said there were reports of terrorists on the loose. We agreed to talk often from now.
Sonia called my cell. We agreed again one more try to contact hotel. Sonia stayed on the line on my cell phone. The hotel operator answered.
“Good evening Mr Hanna how may I help you?”
Now at this stage, although I was not aware, terrorists had entered the hotel, shot a number of guests and staff. The hotel operator was fully aware of the dangerous situation.
“Is there something happening I have heard loud noises?” I enquired.
She replied calmly, “Mr Hanna there is a security alert in the hotel. Please stay in your room. Do not answer your door to anyone, turn lights out and keep away from the windows. You will receive a call from us when it is safe to come out of your room. Make sure you do not leave the room until you receive a call from us to say it is safe.”
“OK. OK. Yes, thank you. Thank you, I will.” I replied.
Deep breath. I then relayed the message to Sonia and I said I wanted to go and call Janet.
I called Janet and shared the latest information. We were on the phone for just short of ten minutes. Janet’s evening class at college was about to begin and she said she will keep phone on and beside her.
Called Sonia but I aborted the call as a burst of gun fire filled the silence. I can hear people running along corridor outside room. I thought it could be on my floor or 6th floor as the palace is an atrium lobby so I could easily see and hear noises from any of the 6 floors. I can feel their panic and terror. Gun fire. More running footsteps. Women screaming. I went to the window and open curtains enough for me to see the pool area. Others are looking out their windows. I drop my guard also and stare then realize it is a body. A large man dressed in an all white suit, lying face down with one leg bent. Another body by the pool half covered under one of the tables. I could feel my eyes involuntarily stare and my heart beginning to ache more with fear.
I sent a text to Malvinder.
‘There's a person lying by the pool. About 15 gun shots. Shit I'm staying in my room.’
Text to Sonia.
‘Body lying by pool’
Sonia called and told me that the Commissioner of Police had been killed by the terrorists. Also his next in command had also been killed on arrival at the scene.
I believe it was at this early stage that the gravity and full danger was unveiled. It would take all my focus and energy to stay alive.
Malvinder called and said he had some more information and asked me to stay calm. He then shared with me that he had lived at the Taj Hotel for 18 months when he was based out of Mumbai a few years ago. He and his family lived in a suite on the 6th floor and he had many, many contacts at the hotel and he currently was in contact with them. They know I am in my room and he will pass the vital information to me as he hears more. Instructions for now are to stay in my room and don’t make a sound.
Malvinder had been in a restaurant at the back of the Taj hotel when the first shots rang out. His driver alerted him of danger and they had been able to jump in a car and drive towards the airport and out of the city.
“I am coming back for you Bruce.” Malvinder said.
Even though I was eager to see him and be rescued I said,
“Malvinder, don’t. It is too dangerous. Please do not.”
I said I wanted to call my wife again so we dropped off the call. I sent the following text to Malvinder again as he sounded so determined to come get me.
‘Malvinder don’t come near here please. It’s still going on.’
I called Janet again.
Text to Sonia
‘2 bodies by pool now being removed by staff. Another gunshot just now. Inside hotel. I'm shaking.’
The staff was using a baggage cart to remove the bodies. They struggled lifting the large man and were constantly looking around behind them and side to side. You could feel the fear. Regardless of their fear, they did it.
Text to Malvinder
‘More gunfire - so loud.’
Text to Malvinder
‘Curtains closed. No-one around. All numbers in hotel busy / engaged.’
Malvinder then called.
“Bruce this is serous. There are an unknown number of terrorists in your hotel. They are in room 631. You must, you must remain in your room and be as quiet as possible. There are lots of people dead around the city. These terrorists in the Taj have been asking people to open the doors offering shoe polishing or room service. Do not open door to anyone.”
I called Sonia and again updated her with what I had just been told. She relayed what was being said on the Hindi News channels on TV. All seemed to be saying the same.
I called Janet to update her.
I called Sonia again. The information was vital. It was keeping me focused.
I sent this text to Sonia.
‘Just heard 2 blasts but don’t sound close.’
A Mumbai staff member sent me a text saying:
‘Sir they have defused a bomb at Taj hotel. Please take care.’
Text to Sonia.
‘It's so bloody quiet with no TV!’
I spoke again with Sonia.
Spoke with Malvinder
I sent text in reply to a message from Aditya Ghosh, President of IndiGo who was also in Mumbai that evening but had escaped from the Oberoi.
‘I'm hiding in here. Scary. There were another 2 shots about 5 minutes ago. Otherwise pin drop silence. TV not working.’
Spoke with Janet.
At midnight I had a good conversation with Aditya. He was also in contact with Taj management and was able to receive and share more information on the terrorists. Like Sonia and Malvinder he was able to give me simple bits of information which helped me remain calm or as calm as I could and also keep me from wandering out of my room.
27th November 2008
After midnight the sequence of events repeated. Numerous calls to Sonia, Aditya and Malvinder. The hotel entered into a very silent and quiet stage. With air conditioning off, no traffic noise outside the eery silence made me nervous. I could not help but strain my ears in an effort hear anything or anyone. An hour later and the silence was broken.
There was a massive explosion in the hotel. The building rocked.
The terrorists had blasted an improvised explosive device containing RDX. It had such magnitude it was to trigger off a wild fire on the fifth and sixth floors.
I was on the phone with Sonia at the time. I screamed and broke down immediately. Sonia told me she heard the explosion at her hotel as well as over the phone. It was an all consuming blast. The windows at the back of the Dome were now floating in the swimming pool. There was a lot of debris blown over the lawns. I found the destruction to be very upsetting. How is this happening? Why is this happening? Why am I here to witness it? What will happen next?
Aditya called me and I dropped off the call from Sonia to speak to him. He reassured me that as long as I do what he says I will be safe. Orders remained the same, stay in room etc but I needed to hear this again to keep me in that room. Again information is so vital. My lifeline.
The next hour I spoke with Aditya, Sonia and Malvinder. Each one told me that they were determined to think of a plan to get me out.
I replied on text to some staff who by this stage had been trying to contact me for the past four hours.
‘Yes I am in Taj palace. In room. Very scared. There was a big blast 5 mins ago. Gunfire for 2 hours.’
'Operator says still stay in room'
'I'm just hiding still with lights off'
Janet called me. She was now at my parent’s house and the phone was passed around.
Received text from a colleague.
'Bruce hope you're alright. The army is coming.'
Received another text
'Army has entered the hotel'
Aditya took charge of my safety instructing me to make a bed with pillows on the floor, between the bathroom wall and the bed. Lie down and put the duvet blanket from the bed over me. We didn’t know when or if there would be another blast. Next time it could be closer and protection from ceiling collapse or any gun fire even was a priority. I had ear phones for my cell phone and shirt pocket to hold the phone so I was able to keep connected and have my hands free.
I called Sonia and told her what Aditya had told me to do. She kept me talking while I stared up at the ceiling.
Malvinder called again keeping me informed.
Sonia was on the phone again. In mid conversation I said,
“Hold on Sonia, wait, wait. I can hear something. Can you hear it? Shit there is a hell of a racket out in the corridor. Can you hear it?”
Sonia said, “No Bruce what is it?”
“Plates smashing I think. They are out side my door and smashing the whole place up. Oh Sonia help me. They are right outside my door. The noise is getting worst. Sonia, I think I have to look out the door spy glass. I must. Can I?”
“OK go ahead but be quiet. Just go slowly and look through it”, Sonia said.
I crept to the door as quietly as I could.
There was so much noise, crashing and smashing I was pretty sure no one could have heard me in the room. I opened the spy glass cover and I saw a bright glow of orange.
“Sonia it’s orange. I have to open the door I can’t tell… Oh no I think it is a fire.”
I opened the door and saw the most terrifying full blazing fire the full height of the hotel – 6 floors. The beautiful Victorian ornate wood was crackling and was in a complete inferno.
There was debris flying around all in flames and the crystal chandeliers were exploding with the intense heat.
“Oh God, Sonia.
The whole place is ablaze. It’s on fire. Oh God I have to get out.”
I closed the door and raced into the bathroom soaking a large bath towel and wrapping it over my head and shoulders.
“Sonia I have a wet towel I am going to try and get to the fire escape I know it is at the end of the corridor about 5 rooms along.”
I got half way out the door, loosing my breath at the devastation and the heat just hit me full on. I had one foot stuck in the door way and I am thankful for that as I had no room key in my pocket so if the door closed then I would have been in the middle of the fire with no where else to go.
“Sonia it’s impossible. I can’t get out.”
I came into the room again and slammed the door behind me.
“It is so intense. I can’t get out. I will have to go out the window I think. I’m five floors up. Oh God. The smoke, it’s thick black and coming through the top and sides of the door.”
Sonia was shouting down the phone at this stage hearing my panic. “Bruce stay calm. Put the towel at the door.”
“I’ve done that but it’s coming in the top and sides. Oh God, Sonia. I have to break the window.”
“OK Bruce what is there you can use to break the window. It’s ok. Are you listening to me? What is there to break the window?”
“I am lifting the heavy armchair.”
“GOOD. DO IT.” shouted Sonia.
I lifted the armchair and I remember the sheer weight but I was determined I would win. The window was large but was made up of 4 slim long panels which formed the shape of an arch. The sidings were made of PVC or similar. I struck the window with the armchair legs hitting the glass full on.
“Sonia it’s not working. Its so tough. The glass hasn’t even marked.”
“Do it again Bruce.” screamed Sonia.
By this time the thick black smoke was filling the room .. to make this situation worse I was now completely out of breath. Lifting the chair I smashed it as hard as I could into the glass.
“There’s not a scratch Sonia. It’s like bullet proof glass. Help me.”
At this point I have such a vivid memory of chocking, coughing, wretching, spitting. My throat felt clogged. I do not know how Sonia remained focused. I pleaded with her to stay with me saying sorry she had to listen to me.
Sonia continued, “AGAIN BRUCE. YOU MUST BREAK THAT GLASS”
I tried again and failed again.
“Bruce stay with me. Tell me what else is there in the room?”
I lifted the steel ice bucket. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang on the window with the base of the ice bucket. It made no mark on the glass. I realized that it was doing more damage to my hands than to the window so knew that was a bad idea.
I then began to struggle and could not see any way through this.
I asked, “Sonia have you got Janet’s contact number?”
“OK I am sending it to you on text. I can’t do this anymore. I will just lie at the window.” I was honestly ready to give up.
I think I muttered or if not I certainly said it to myself.
“What was the point in all this? What was the point in my life? I can’t believe it is over.”
I then remember Sonia at full voice now screaming at me,
“There must be something else. TELL ME. Bruce you must. I am not allowing you to go anywhere. BRUCE”
Having the ear phones from my phone in my ears I felt Sonia was beside me. Screaming at me. She gave me no choice. Thank God.
I then said, “There’s a marble top table.”
"USE it BRUCE…!" Sonia shouted.
I lifted it. It was a heavy one. Throwing all my energy I hit the glass …
"no good Sonia" I said.
Reply came back ‘AGAIN BRUCE’
Aaagh… threw it again as hard as I could.
"NO Sonia … I cant do it … it is no good."
"BRUCE, COME ON AGAIN …. YOU MUST YOU MUST .. COME ON "
I lifted the table again and it hit the handle lock. It sprung back and broke off. The window frame opened.
Throwing my body from the waist up out that window and filling my lungs with air … I said ..
“Sonia. It’s open. I am hanging out; hanging out the window.”
I could feel the thick black smoke rush out of the room over my head to the outside. I could hear other people attempt to break their windows. One person did and I fear many others could not.
I began to cry out into the darkness. “Help me. Help me.”
Above me, two rooms along, I heard two people. One of the hotel butlers and another gentleman, he was European.
“Hello. Are you OK?” he asked.
“Yes. There is a huge fire. Are you OK?” I said.
“Yes we saw the fire, it seems to be out now. I hope we survive.”
“Yes I hope we survive.” I replied.
Sonia said, “Who are you talking to?.”
I explained it was people above me on 6th floor. They were now tying table cloths together. Sonia and I decided then I must do the same. I stripped the bed clothes and start tying.
Now, when I was a child growing up in Northern Ireland I was a member of the Boys Brigade (similar to scouts). I know we learnt how to tie knots, those that slip and those that don’t. I would have thought that those skills would have come back quickly at this hour of life or death, but they didn’t! The first few knots simply slipped out with a sharp tug. Then I seemed to get the hang of it. Apart from the hand cramps as I pulled and tugged on the knots to check their strength all went quite quickly. Under sheet, top sheet, four pillow cases, duvet cover and all from a king size bed. I was five floors up and beneath me were palm trees. The pool was too far off for me to be able to jump into.
I used the marble top table as an anchor making sure it was big enough to stop going through the window. I through the sheets out the window and then realized that five floor at the Taj Palace is not the normal five floors. With at least double height ceilings in each floor my sheet rope was about half way. Better than nothing I thought.
“Sonia, it’s not long enough.”
I stood on top of the desk in the room and stretched barely able to reach the curtain hooks. They were firmly strung along each curtain. I would not be able to unhook them. I bent down and opened the desk drawer and found a pair of scissors. I wasted no time in cutting along the silk curtains. I added these to the sheets and was confident it will do, I can do no more. I was now ready to leave the room if the fire or smoke was to return.
I returned to the window and hung out of it again … the people from upstairs were gone or silent… I virtually had forgotten that there were terrorists in the hotel and again began shouting “Help me”.
The building was still ablaze and seemed to be intensifying. From my window I could make out three rooms away there was a fire inside the room. How long would it take to reach me or will they put it out by then?
The rooms over looking the pool are at the back of the hotel. The rescue operations were 100% at the front of the hotel. I did not see one rescue team member – no cops, no army, no commandos, no firemen.
“Help me.” I continued to cry out.
At that, there were a group of people in a building across the road from the hotel on their rooftop. They held flash lights and were flashing these and saying help is on its way. “We have told them you are here … “
Tell them to bring ladders I said.
Then I heard …
“HELP ME… HELP ME…”
Looking across into the dark highlighted by the orange glow of a room fire I could see another person.
“HELLO” I shouted
“Hello … can you help me?” was the reply.
“I need help too but I am sure it is on its way.”
“I am very old. I am 70 years old. I cannot get down. Help me.”
An Indian gentleman had climbed out of his room and was standing along the roof edge of a turret that was outside his window. It was a sheer drop of about three floors onto the flat roof of the resident lounge below.
He continued to cry “help me.” for some time.
The flames had entered his room and the blaze was now licking the walls above his window. He was all but five foot away from the flames.
“I do not want to die”, he said.
He was then able to get a leg either side of the room pitch and was shuffling slowly towards the end. He made it and held on to a white ornate pole.
He began beating the pole with outstretched arms. “Help’ Help.”
He then seemed to quiet down probably with exhaustion. I was relaying the scene to Sonia throughout.
Flash lights again from facing buildings started to draw my attention. They were residents of the houses on the opposite side of the road. They shouted out “help is on its way, we have told them you need help”
I screamed back “Tell them to hurry. We are trapped.”
This went on for sometime but help did not come to the back of the hotel.
I called Janet and told her the latest ordeal. It was difficult to tell her what had happened but I blurted the story out as best I can. I asked her to wait for me to call or try and call me but my phone is constantly in contact with Sonia, Malvinder and Aditya. “Text me if you want me to call you.” I said ending the call.
I then called Aditya. Again I found it difficult to relay what had been happening to me but again blurted it out. At this stage I had become very reliant on Sonia, Aditya and Malvinder – to tell me what to do. I struggled to trust myself in doing the right thing next.
My concern was no one was trying to rescue me and the few others at the back of the hotel. Aditya told me he would come up with a plan.
Taj Hotel issued a helpline number on TV and Sonia relayed the number to me. I tried it many times but failed to connect. It was a glimmer of hope but then faded.
I called my mum and dad. The conversation was difficult for us all. We talked about how I would not stay in the room if flames came back but also then risk that the sheets were not long enough to take me to the ground. I remember my mum talking to me about having TRUST. This seemed to be the best idea and did reassure me.
I called Aditya. ADITYA had a plan.
He had a class mate at college who was a reporter with CNN IBN. It was important for us to let people know I am in the hotel needing help. If we can build a profile about me it would make it real then the media will not ignore me and then the security forces would have added pressure to find and rescue me. Sounded a great plan and so practical.
One and a half hours later I was asked by a CNN reporter to prepare to speak live from my room on my cell phone to the studio presenters. It was a further one and half hours before I went on air live via cell phone. They asked me some simple questions and I was eager to tell them anything. Even my room number! Many have told me that this was such a dangerous thing to do but in my defense I am still here to tell the story!
Here is the transcript of part of that call.
“I was in my hotel room. I went to bed early and I was actually asleep at about twenty to ten I heard gunfire and that woke me up.
I am in room 527 and I am overlooking the swimming pool at the back courtyard. We can see flames. We can hear the blasts. my problem was the thick black smoke and I couldn’t get my window open.”
“Are you still inside the hotel?? Or have you managed to climb out?”
“I am hanging out the 5th floor window at the back of the hotel. There is a fire in the corner. ….In the corner at the back of the hotel there is a fire at the back of the hotel, but there is no one I have seen dogs. Bomb disposal dogs. Police dogs. I have also seen one gentleman fall from his balcony and he is on the ground.”
1 minute 16 seconds.
This was then transmitted around the world. Many of my family members and friends back in Northern Ireland first knew of my whereabouts when they heard me on the radio. My parents heard it and promptly recorded it.
My mum told me they had spelt my name wrong on the TV. 'Hannah' !
Spoke with Sonia and she had missed the interview. She was due to check out of her hotel and had gone to reception to say she was staying longer. Rooms were almost impossible to get in the city.
Another TV station had picked up on the story and again they interviewed me live on air with their studio presenters. Live broadcast was on News Channel X.
InterGlobe Corporate VP of HR, Mr Harish Gandhi called me. Although part of his job, I was very pleased to receive Harish’s call. Harish had joined the IGE group company 3 months after me. A very experienced and seasoned HR executive. He re-affirmed the company’s full support and he would look after communication across the company to my staff. He shared words of confidence that I would be safe. And prayed that it would be soon.
Spoke with Aditya. Reviewed the interviews and said that the TV channels would keep my name on the screen and mention me every hour until I was rescued. This was a true sign of hope.
Speaking to Sonia. Sonia asked, “Bruce where are you?”
Just then I saw texts were coming on my cell phone - 'Praise God you are safe.!!'
She told me on TV a number of hostages had escaped from the front doors. There seemed to be my look-a-like walking out of the hotel on live TV.
“NO, NO, NO! I am here, here in the room.”
I felt I was accused of pretending to be in the room and had escaped!!
Even though I was not one of the westerners to escape then it was yet another sign of hope.
Anyone in India who has known me for any amount of time knew I liked access to constant air conditioning. In fact, probably the only time I raised my voice in the office was five minutes after the AC would fail. This happened a few times each day with the frequent power cuts but my assistant Nalini, used to work wonders (scream in Hindi at maintenance) and get the AC working again within a couple of minutes.
It was a humid day; another hot day in Mumbai. Silence surrounded the hotel. The AC had been off all night and now as the morning sun was coming up and the temperature was rising but I was not struggling with the heat or feeling too warm. It may have to do with the body being so focused on the intense listening. Listening for danger. It was of course the most absolutely frightening situation I had ever been in.
This morning was my longest uninterrupted call with Sonia. No doubt I can’t recall every subject we covered whilst whispering down the phone but I know it did include me asking advice if I should make a cup of tea and doing so as quietly as I could – kettle on carpet to silence any sound and also an intense discussion on what should I do if ‘they’ come to the door. What should I say and in what language?
Also who would burst in first, NSG commandos to rescue me or the terrorists? I was ready to shout “Gora Gora” (Hindi for white guy, white guy!) Sonia also told me that she had booked us on the 5 30pm IndiGo flight back to Delhi and she was confident that we would both be on that flight. She was not going without me. That was the confidence she instilled in me. I had no option to join her in her belief, especially when she made me say it over and over.
I received a text message from Viraf. Viraf was my National Customer Service Manager based in Mumbai. He was with two others, his boss Anesh, my General Manager for West region and friend and customer Vijay. They had been able to reach the street at the back of the hotel and were standing across the other side of the road looking up at the bedroom windows. Viraf wanted to know which bedroom window was mine. After many texts back and forth he was able to locate my window. I was too afraid to look out but we were able to identify a white t shirt placed over the window sill earlier in the night. Viraf told me that they were with the police and security forces who were surrounding the hotel. They pointed out my window to them. Help would be on its way. Encouraging but … when and how?
I received a text message from Aditya. He had a newly released number for the Taj Hotel Helpline set up for anyone in distress. I immediately tried the number. First try - someone answered. WOW. But it was the wrong number! In excitement or nerves rushing I found it difficult to press the right numbers. Tried again and busy so thought I must have right number now. I tried 6 times and then it connected.
“How can I help you?” said Taj Hotel Helpline,
“Hello. Hello. My name is Bruce Hanna I am in Taj Mahal Palace Hotel Palace Wing, room 527 and I am trapped. I need help.”
“Mr Hanna I can help you. Please reconfirm you are on the 5th floor of the Palace Wing and you are in your room. Your room number is 527. Correct?”
“Yes. Yes. Can anyone help me?”
“The commandos are in the hotel and are sweeping each floor. I will alert them immediately and call you back on this number. [she read out my number]”
“Yes that is my number. When will you call back?”
“I will be as quick as I can. Less than a minute or so.”
“Thank you thank you… if you cannot get through will you please try again as my phone is constantly receiving calls from friends and staff. I am trying to cut everyone off!”
“Yes Mr Hanna. Do not worry we will find help for you as soon as possible. Wait for my call and do not leave your room and do not answer your door until you hear from me that it is safe to do so.”
After the call I kept hitting the red phone button stopping all incoming calls. As it happened, the Taj Helpline called me back within a minute. Trigger happy on the phone I immediately hit the red button and I cut them off! I am sure I made a whimpering sound just then. I called the number back immediately and thank goodness I was connected. It was the same calm voice.
“Hello I was speaking to you. I’m room 527.”
“Yes. Yes that’s me.”
“The commandos are sweeping the 4th floor of your wing. They will be coming up to the 5th floor next. Please stay in the room and they will get to you.”
“When will they be here?” Not waiting for a reply I continued, “This is so good. Thank you. Thank you.”
“I will call you when they reach your floor.”
“OK. OK. That is great. But I am scared to open the door. How long will they be?”
“As soon as possible, Mr Hanna. They are on their way. I will be calling you again.”
“Thank you again. Please. Thank you.”
Taj helpline calls again.
“Yes, it’s me. Yes.”
“The commandos are 5 doors away from you. When you hear them at the door please open the door.”
“OK. OK. Thank you so much”
I didn’t know whether to hold my breath and listen. I called Aditya and told him quickly the latest update and asked for his advice about opening the door. I had promised him so many times that I would not open the door at all to anyone at anytime. He paused and then confirmed, “Yes Bruce, go ahead when you hear them.”
I then called Sonia. “They are on their way to rescue me Sonia.”
At that I heard something out side the door.
Whispering I said “Sonia I think it is them.”
I heard them but I froze. I heard them pass the door.
“Sonia, Oh no! I have missed them. They’ve passed the door. What will I do?” Panic was setting in.
Sonia had been on the phone with Viraf who was still at back of hotel and he had confirmed that the commandos were visible moving from the fourth to the fifth floors up the back fire escape. Sonia called the Taj helpline and they were all able to get a message to commandos to come back!
Then, BANG, BANG on the door.
Immediately I shouted, “Are you here to help me?” and without listening for a reply I opened the door.
I saw then a face I will never ever forget. A Taj hotel security guy pointed a finger in my face and said quite aggressively, “Any terrorists in this room. Any terrorists in this room?”
Raising my hands to my temples and rubbing in total confusion I uttered “No, No, No. Only me.”
I then backed into the room. A commando following me with gun at shoulder height and another behind him moving into bathroom on left and swinging around the room. Once satisfied that I was alone the Taj security said, “Sit down on the bed.” I did what I was told. Then a commando looked me straight in the eye and with his an open hand raised in front of my eyes, he said “You’re safe. You’re safe.”
What an incredible feeling of emotion.
There were two Taj security guards still dressed in their uniform of black suits and white shirts and black ties. Their faces were tired and dirty with soot from the smoke and fire. Along with them there were four commandos. Dressed in full riot gear they looked straight from a movie. But this was no movie.
The Taj security said, “You are very lucky to be alive. Many have been killed.”
They then explained to me that they needed to sweep the surrounding rooms to see if anyone else was in need of help. They asked me to remain in the room and one of the commandos stayed with me. The two Taj security guys were showing the commandos around hotel as they knew every corner.
I asked the commando if he was OK. Smiling he said, “Yes sir, I am OK.”
“God bless you”
He just smiled again.
It’s hard to describe this feeling or moment. Total belief that I was safe in that moment, after hours of extreme fear. Watching the movies, I expected these guys to be aggressive, robotic like and to be stern and scary. But their facial expression was one of caring with complete eye contact. Very human. They are the bravest people I have ever met.
I received a call which I didn’t recognize, just the fact that it was a UK number, but not from my family or a number I recognised. I didn’t answer instead I chose to give the people in my room my full attention. I had been praying for company and rescue for over 16 hours so it was an easy choice. On the sixth ring I answered the call and a voice said they were calling from The Times in London and believed I had been in the Taj, “Can I talk to you?”
I barked immediately! “What? Look, I am still in the hotel. Why are you calling me over and over again. I am being rescued by commandos right now and you are putting my life at risk!”
“I was not aware. please be safe. thank you.” and he was gone.
I called Janet and told her commandos were with me and I would be safe now.
“OK are you bringing anything with you?”
I asked the commando, “Can I bring my rucksack?” holding it up.
“Yes, that is fine”
“and my suitcase?”, I know… stupid question!
“No sir, best not to.”
Janet then kicked into gear, “Right, have you got your passport?”
“Yes, got it”
“Yes it is in my pocket as it broke when I tried to smash the window.”
“What about your laptop?”
“I can fit it in”
“And the cable?”
“Any more room Bruce?”
“They’re in bathroom.. OK, tooth brush…”
I cleared the bathroom contents into the bag.
Janet continued, “What about other things? Can you pack them into your case?”
I went into the wardrobe, rolled up clothes, work shoes etc and put them all in case and left it in the middle of the bed. I had travel trade magazines from Eye for Travel conference on desk (which were for Sonia!) but decided to leave those behind. (She told me off later for this! In jest I believe.)
I looked around the room and said, “Janet, there is a can of diet coke in the mini bar. Should I take it?”
“Drink half and leave half, you might need your hands free.”
I did just that.
Then the security guys and the 3 other commandos came into the room. “OK we are ready to go. There are no others.”
Instructions were given by Taj security guard. I would be in middle of four commandos and they told me they believed this section of the hotel was now secure but there still could be a sniper. Any noise of gunfire I must hit the ground immediately. I acknowledged that I understood and would do so. I put on a long sleeved shirt and for first time put phone in my jeans pocket. I didn’t plan to use it until I was safe and outside of hotel.
They opened the door and before moving out the drill began. Commandos would first recheck outside the door and then usher me out between them.
This was the first time I have seen outside my room since the fire. It was an unbelievable sight. Charred black expanse. It was catastrophic. The roof was off and I could see sky. Water poured in from above from the fire hoses. The wooden Victorian banisters were gone. Instead there was a drop of five floors. White marble floor was black and wet. We were turning right to go to the fire escape that I had attempted reach during the height of the fire but was unable. I looked left down the corridor. It was a devastating sight and I found it immediately, very upsetting. Words fail me to accurately describe the complete and utter destruction. Through the water falling from the roof and the smoldering dark grey smoke I could see more commandos. It was eery and scary. The feeling of safety was gone all that remained was dreaded fear. Riffles held at eye level, beams of light shinning on targets through the smoke. So dark and it was afternoon.
I took numerous small steps in an attempt to keep my balance on the wet floor. We made it to the fire exit door, as I had thought it was five doors along from my room, 527. Commandos then checked it was safe to enter and again we went through the security drill. The fire escape stairs were wide and circle around a central column so each floor is made up of four sets of stairs. Each corner was an exercise of the safety drill. Each flight storey had to be cleared first by a commando before we would move. The water was rushing down the steps over our feet. The noise of the water was engulfing. A Taj hotel security guard was at the front and at the back of our group. The guard at the back held the back of my rucksack. If there was any gunfire I was pretty sure I would be yanked down to the floor if I failed to drop myself.
Halfway down, the front security guard and lead commando had a debate of how to proceed. Their task was to escort me safely to the police. Hand me over so I could be identified and my name checked off in the hotel Tower lobby which was now set up as the police control centre. The debate was all in Hindi but I had been in India for long enough to make out some of their conversation and knew it was becoming heated. I asked security guard at the back what was happening and he explained they were deciding the safest route out, not to worry and smiled.
We continued down below ground level, into the basement. Deeper water now but it was keeping me cool. We rushed up some stairs and then down some stairs. We then reached outside. Beside the pool. We stood in a corner, along the back gate.
Again the debate started up. They were working out how to get me from back of Palace Wing to the Tower lobby. This was probably about one hundred metres but which route would be best and most safe. Commandos wanted us to exit at the back of hotel which would mean crossing the road. The security guard was asking about over head sniper coverage while we crossed the road. Once he was satisfied that the commandos on the roof could cover us, we made a run for it.
I remember running across the road and looking back at the hotel. I could see my window! I was now out and looking back. I was safe. Then, confusion. They said I had to go across the road again, back into the hotel through another door to get me to lobby.
“No way. I am not going back in there.”
“You must. We must hand you over to the police”
Phone out of my pocket and I began to call Sonia. “They want me to go to lobby and I have to go back into the hotel. I am out right now.”
“Bruce it is OK. Viraf, Anesh and Vijay are in the lobby waiting for you now.”
“I can’t go back in. Are you sure, Sonia? It doesn’t make sense.”
Taj security said, “OK are you ready? You are putting others lives in danger. You must go with us now. You have no choice.”
I then followed him, running back across the road and in through the staff entrance.
To me this seemed like a maze of corridors and stairs up and down complete with blind corners. The commando drill was in action again and I could not believe I was not safe, yet. Back in the thick of things.
Perhaps because I had let my guard down as I had thought it was all over’ this seemed to me to be one of the most upsetting of all memories. There was water, blood, more blood that I have ever seen or hope I will ever see. You could feel the fear that must have been there just hours earlier. All I could think of was the staff and their surprise and struggle. God bless them.
Then climbing up some more stairs we made it to the Tower lobby. I couldn’t work out where exactly I was but then I saw my three colleagues smiling at me from across the lobby. The commandos walked me over to police and the officer in charge asked, “How many dead bodies you see?” the Taj security officer answered “He was hiding in his room he saw no dead bodies.” A tight squeeze to my arm and I knew to keep quiet and not comment further. Then that was it. After name, passport and room number and cell phone number was recorded, I was free to go.
I embraced my three colleagues and we then walked out of front door to small ambulance. It was so strange walking outside. The ambulance took us about half a mile from hotel where Viraf’s car was parked. We were now heading to Sonia’s hotel, Taj President Hotel.
Knocking on room 1414, the door opened and there was Sonia. We embraced. At last. It was so, so great to see Sonia after her constant help and guidance.
Sonia ordered some club sandwiches while we prepared to head to airport. We were indeed booked on the 5 30p flight!
Room Service arrived at the door and I nearly jumped out the window. I was a bunch of nerves! I then had a call from Aditya as CNN were requesting another live interview. I agreed and took it from Sonia’s room.
Now I knew I was safe!
6.Self Permission – return to India?
I spoke to my boss, InterGlobe MD, Mr Rahul Bhatia. We spoke briefly about the ordeal and we were thankful that we were at long last able to talk to each other. He confirmed that flight arrangements were made for me to get back to Delhi.
I was on the flight back to Delhi. I remember as we took off and got higher into the sky I looked down on Mumbai and wished it all the best. It was a city in shock and mourning. It was a city still under attack. Some part of me felt guilty escaping and leaving the people of Mumbai, but I knew I would return.
Landing at Delhi and I sighed another sigh of relief. Aircraft parked on stand and doors opened, I was first out. To my surpise but also delight, Rahul was there to meet me at bottom of the steps of aircraft. Out-stretched hand and comforting words “Bruce you have gone through an experience that very few will ever have to. Harish will be in touch for every assistance you need. Come to the car.” I was driven by car to the terminal. No bags to collect I was very soon outside the airport. There were two staff members, Madhav and Vibhu with flowers. There was also Mary, standing under a tree, waiting to join me in the taxi. Mary had insisted earlier on the phone that I come home with her and her family. This was exactly what I wanted and needed.
Mary lives with her uncle Zach in Gurgaon, close to where I lived. Mary is the General Manager of Product for the company and has been a long standing friend since we first met 10 years prior. Zach and family are a wonderful Christian family. I was blessed to spend the next three nights at their home. Thank you: Mary, Zach and Leela, Anitha and Alex and Ann, Joel and Sarah, and Lisa. You gave me the strength to start my recovery and the opportunity to feel completely at home. I will never forget your kindness.
We spent the next forty hours watching events in Mumbai continue. The Taj was under siege for a total of 60 hours.
My priority was to get a flight back to Belfast, to my wife and parents. Saturday was the first available flight with Virgin Atlantic and I quickly confirmed a seat on that flight.
While waiting for Saturday, my next priority was to see a counsellor. After having to provide justification to my company I was able to have one session with a trauma counsellor at a local hospital in India.
I had never gone through anything like this before and I had two important questions.
1. Is it ok to talk about what I had gone through? Will it help or will it prolong the pain?
2. What if my company doesn’t give me the support I might need. i.e. I don’t know if I can come back to India once I get home? How long will their patience or understanding last?
The counsellor gave me the green light to Talk! Tell those who will listen. We also cleared my worries about what other people might say or think. If I talk will it be seeking too much self attention, I know this is so much bigger than just me. Isn’t it strange the way our minds sometimes work!
With regards to making up my mind about what to do next and the future, the counsellor talked me through the concept of ‘Self Permission’.
What is self permission? I relate it to ‘gut feeling’. Have you ever had a gut feeling about something? Maybe it’s been a bad gut feeling that something is going to go wrong or perhaps a good gut feeling that everything will go well.
Taking gut feeling a stage further, is when we know deep down what the best thing is to do. Not just what we want to do but also what we need to do for our own ‘highest good’.
How many times do we, even knowing this, still not follow through? Excuses could be guilt? Or telling yourself you shouldn’t. Or a big one for me, growing up in Northern Ireland was ‘What will other people think or say?’
However in an ideal world with no excuses or guilt we would go ahead and do it. Well self permission allows you to GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION – because YOU need to.
Giving your self permission is not negative, self-centred or narcissitic. It is the concept that you should always act in a manner that serves YOUR highest good and the highest good of all.
In the workplace and being a people leader I use to talk about the dangers of becoming the victim. Playing the victim or being the martyr will sell yourself short and ultimately rob others of what you most want to give them. For example in my role in India as a CEO it could have been easy for me to use an excuse of taking no breaks for lunch, no vacation time using the excuse that the company / staff need me. But what would happen if there was no downtime? The company / staff would be ultimately short changed as all they would have would be a burnt out, exhausted and perhaps even resentful (consciously or unconsciously) me. We do have this choice.
I recommend, whatever it is - give yourself permission and then just do it. I guarantee you'll feel glad you did. Remember regrets are more about what we don't do than what we do.
The end of the story for me was that as long as I can give myself permission to do the right thing for me that will be the right thing ultimately for all in contact with me. If my company can’t agree to that now then that is not my issue. It is their issue to work on. No malice, no negatives. Just a simple fact and SELF PERMISSION.
I tried to listen to my inner voice to find out what I really wanted or needed to do. I pushed myself and I returned to India for a board meeting two weeks later. I completed the task and probably hid and suppressed true feelings to make it through. After Christmas I remained in India until 19th March 2009 to fulfill my 3 year contract with InterGlobe. To be honest I am not sure that final return was the best thing to do for me. I still regret part of returning to work so soon but this was my first attempt at self permission. For the few in my company, who did give me time to recover, I thank them - sincerely.
7. Returning to the Taj.
In the new year I received a letter from the Managing Director of Taj Hotels, Mr Raymond Bickson. Here is a copy of this letter..
THE INDIAN HOTELS COMPANY LIMITED
The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Apollo Bunder Mumbai 400 001 India
December 12, 2008
Dear Bruce Hanna,
It is incredibly difficult to find the right words of comfort, or understanding to write to you about the terror attack that took place at The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower a few days ago.
But I would say this much; that all of us at the Taj share your sense of shock, bewilderment, hurt and anger. It is still difficult for us to understand just what happened and why. Some actions are beyond comprehension.
Although adequate words may fail us, we are now motivated by a clear and unyielding conviction to rebuild the Taj. We will do this for the sake of our guests. Our colleagues. The people of this brave city who look upon this familiar landmark with such affection. For the global community who have made the Taj their first port of call in India for over a century. And for the citizens of India who will not be bowed down by such a dastardly act. For the Taj is more than just a building, it is a symbol of so much to so many people.
As I am sure it is to you too which is why we would like you to join us in the process of rebuilding and healing. The Tower Wing will be operational on December 21, 2008 and the heritage Palace Wing some months later. I would like to invite you to return to the Taj Palace and Tower for a brief stay as my personal guest, soon after it re-opens. My office and I will be pleased to help you with your reservation.
Please do come back, stay with us, and together we will ensure that the Taj will shine again.
With warm personal regards,
Raymond N. Bickson
Was I ready to accept their invitation?
Was I ready to revisit the scene of my recent trauma?
Would this strengthen me?
Would this serve my highest good and validate my gut feeling of wanting to go?
So on the 6th February 2009 I returned to the Taj and stayed one night. On arrival at Mumbai airport the hotel driver was waiting for me. We drove into the city just like many times before. I requested disc seven on the Taj car CD entertainment system – The easy listening channel.
When I arrived at the hotel my heart started to beat faster. I walked up to the front door, passed through the heavy security now in place, and was greeted by a Taj guest relations executive who had been assigned to my check-in process. The Palace Wing remained closed and as I write today this is still undergoing renovation. My room was in the Tower Wing and they had given me a room in The Taj Club floor. Security guards are now on each and every floor but this meant that there were even more bright smiles to greet me.
It was an emotional time revisiting the scene. I headed out by the pool and stood looking up to ‘my window’. Feeling the energy and memories swell, and initially feeling heart broken at those who lost their life. I did however begin to feel comforted that my window was still there. The building is still there. Those basic raw memories of good and evil flooded my mind. Strange experience but one ultimately I found very healing.
The staff made it easy for me to talk. They were all aware that I too like them was in the hotel that dreadful night. They started conversations and shared experiences and thanked me for coming back. Their attitude demonstrated their belief in the future. So motivating and contagious.
After spending thirty minutes by the pool I went back into the lobby of the Tower Wing I noticed someone standing by the front doors. I walked over and said, “Excuse me are you part of hotel security?”
He turned around and said .. “Yes - Fifth floor?” My eyes filled up. What a feeling to be remembered. This was Sunil. The first person I saw when I opened my door. We talked and shared our stories and I took some shaky photos on my cell phone. He also apologised for making me go back into the hotel to be handed over to the police!
That evening I returned to Starboard where I had been on the 25th evening. I was relieved to see old faces. We again swapped stories and I had my quesadillas – with chicken this time!
Bedtime came and I went to my room. I had fully prepared to stay up all night and not beat myself up if I couldn’t sleep. However I probably had the best nights rest in any hotel ever.
The whole stay was one of healing and made me feel that I now belong to the Taj family. I know I will always carry this feeling.
I still feel that there is a host of untold events and stories but I trust that my story provides you what it was like to be hiding in room 527 and surviving the whole ordeal.
I believe it is so important for these stories to be told. They should be told over and over. We must never forget what terrorism is. Pointless – whether it be in my home city of Belfast or in a far off land.
In 2003 to commemorate 100 years of the opening of The Taj Mahal Palace & Towers Hotel, Taj produced a DVD ‘The Taj of Apollo Bunder’. It describes the history of the hotel as seen and heard by the walls of the building itself. This is how the hotel describes it’s first 100 years:
The words of the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers Hotel:
‘I have seen so much and I have heard so much.
I have held my ground as human history has unfolded in its timeless precession of laughter and tears, courage and cowardice, wisdom and folly.
Friends have gone and remembered, many still here to talk and share my life with, many unknown but soon to be friends.’