Debra was trapped for days during Mumbai terror attacks. This is what she remembers

Debra Bayne pictured at the Taj Mahal before she flew to Mumbai. Source: Supplied

On the 12th anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, the memories of that time are still vivid and present for Debra Bayne who found herself trapped in the Oberoi Hotel for two days awaiting rescue.

I have two abiding memories of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008. I don’t know if they will ever leave me.

It was my first trip to India. I’d arrived in Delhi a few days ahead of my colleagues, wanting to explore the country. I had a friend at Delhi university. We sat on stools in the dust sipping chai tea and eating samosas, watched the sun set over the rose gardens. In local parks smiling school children jostled to be in our photographs.

We drove on potted roads covered with bullock carts, lorries laden with grinning men, motor bikes, push bikes, cars with drivers who honked continually to ensure their place. Every moment of the long journey was worth the reward of the experience of the amazing Taj Mahal.

The people in this bustling swarm of humanity were friendly and helpful and everywhere. I found India fascinating.

Debra has fond memories of Delhi where she spent time before flying to Mumbai.

My colleagues soon arrived for the NSW Trade delegation to India. Our group of Australian business people were given a warm welcome to India. Days of engaging meetings followed. Then it was off to Mumbai.

It’s a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Delhi. Each of our group made their own way. The airport and the drive to the hotel was all that I was to see of Mumbai.

I was shown to a beautiful room on the nineteenth floor of the Oberoi Hotel, with stunning views of fishing boats bobbing out to sea. Inside the cocoon of this luxurious hotel, I relaxed in my pyjamas and settled in for the night. I’d finished my dinner and a phone call to my daughter in Canada. I was enjoying a glass of wine as I went through tomorrow’s itinerary.

Strange noises erupted outside my room. Possibly gunfire? Something exploding? Not close or loud. It didn’t make sense.

I dressed, gathered my passport, wallet, phone and room key, read the safety evacuation plan, grabbed towels, kept telling myself not to panic. My mobile rang. A colleague asking what room I was in? He was on the same floor. He arrived in my room amidst smoke alarms going off, resounding all around us.

The Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai burns during a terror attack.
The Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai was one of several locations targeted in the 2008 terror attacks.

Smoke was pouring into the rooms and corridors. We made our way to the fire stairs. They were full of smoke. We could barely see or breathe. We made it down one storey. There were 18 more to go. We knew we’d die if we stayed there.

Back on our floor all visibility had gone. We felt our way along the corridor, hoping to find the right door. But my room was full of smoke. We had to smash the windows. They were hard to break. We tackled the two smallest panels. It was good having the two of us. We worked well as a team.

We sat for a long time breathing the air to stay alive, clearing the room of smoke. We started calling the people we loved, to let them know that we were alive, and to stop ourselves from becoming overwhelmed. We told them we were safe on the 19th floor, everything was happening in the lobby.

The smoke alarms continued screaming from every part of the hotel, throbbing inside our heads. It was exhausting.

Suddenly the explosions and gunfire made us leap away from the windows. The noise and closeness shattered our minds and bodies. Fear engulfed us. Blind panic took over.

Terrorized. I knew the word in every part of me. What it was. Incessantly taunting, frightening, harming. Killing, at any moment.

We knew with a certainty that this was not going to end quickly.

Throughout the hours of the night we stayed hidden. We didn’t want our loved ones to know that the terrorists had moved to our floor. At times the gunfire was outside our room. It sounded like people were being killed. We heard the terrorists in the room next door, and in the corridor, next to our bathroom. Explosions jarred the air intermittently. Then long periods of silence.

Indian National Security Guard (NSG)
Indian National Security Guard (NSG) comandoes during the Mumbai attacks.

My mobile was our lifeline. Friends sent us texts. We read them when we could. We heard from people in government roles and the military. They knew where we were, that we were still alive. In the dark, hiding out for our lives, knowing that people cared about us was very comforting. Our room was the safest place for us to be. We agreed that we would not leave until there was a safer place for us to go to. Being in the room with a colleague, a friend, gave each of us a reassurance in the fear and the silences.

The day was long. We made as little noise as possible. We were heading towards our second night. My daughter was in regular contact. She was working in a remote part of Canada, staying in a small hotel. I knew how she would feel watching the news. As the day was drawing to a close, I had a text from her. Two of the people from the First Nation group that she was working with had come to her hotel. They knew I was in danger. They knew she was worried. They took her to their home and said they would look after her until her mother walked out of the hotel in Mumbai alive. I cried with gratitude.

It had been quiet for a few hours. I was concerned my lack of a daily coffee might lead to a headache, affect my concentration. I told my colleague that, for this reason, if things stayed quiet, I might boil the kettle. Then all hell broke loose. The kettle was never bolied.

Pounding on our door. Explosions. Gunfire. We hid out between the bed and the wall, covered in cushions and doonas.

The explosions were now in our room. We didn’t move. Silence.

A rifle barrel slid through the cushions, into my head. “Come out with your hands up!” Certain that we were being taken hostage, I tried to hide my phone in the back pocket of my jeans. Climbing up over the pillows and onto the bed, holding my hands up in the air, I was so nervous that I had missed my pocket completely. My phone was sliding down inside the leg of my jeans, heading towards the floor. My colleague had a rifle at his neck. I looked at the face of one of the black clad men, as I grabbed the back of my leg saying, “That’s my mobile phone”. He responded, “You can keep your mobile phone.” He was not a terrorist. The black clad commandos now realized that we were not terrorists either.

Indian activists of the Bharatiya Janata
Indian activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party protest against the terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

It was the first stage of our rescue. We were still in danger. The terrorists were still at large. The hardest part was having to go out our door, and step over the people they had killed.

The commandos continued rescuing people. One of them held my hand as we made our way down the street to the next safe building. Here the police were processing people, taking details of who had come safely out of the buildings. We called the Australian Consulate. They said a man would come and pick us up and take us to their offices.

But on the streets, it was chaotic. We had no idea where we were. Indian people came up to us repeatedly, offering food and drink and asking if they could help us in any way at all? Many apologised for what had happened. We said categorically that we did not blame the Indian people. We explained that the one thing we did need was to find the Australian man who was looking for us. A young Indian man climbed the nearest telegraph pole and searched the area until he saw a person he thought fitted the role. Incredibly, he united us. We arrived at the consular offices to find one of our colleagues and other frightened Australians. We were all given help that was immeasurable in the shattered state that we were in.

One hundred and seventy people died – Indians, Muslims, foreigners.

One of my colleagues was killed. In the other hotel my friend’s husband was killed.

Of my two abiding memories, the first one only hits me from time to time. It is a deep, wrenching, sadness. I start to cry, and it is some time before I can stop. I always feel the same when it happens - a profound sadness at the absolute waste of human lives, of the two young men, coming into our hotel with no purpose but to terrorize and to kill.

But the second memory is far more constant, and incredibly sweet. It’s of all the kindnesses that I experienced, and how much it makes me GLAD to be alive.

Source Insight

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