Nov 29, 2008

India - Cricket Commandos save 150 lives

Vijay Tagore

Security men of a South Africa-based agency, who were in India for the Champions League, were staying at the Taj Palace hotel on that fateful night

Not everyone can hire them. Their service cost a bomb. Only celebrities, businessmen and rich organisations like the International Cricket Council and the Board of Control for Cricket in India can afford them.

On Wednesday, however, they gave their best service without taking a penny, in the midst of bombs. About 150 people, trapped in the Taj Palace hotel on that fateful night, owe their lives to seven men of Nicholls Steyn and Associates, a South Africa-based private security agency.

Bob Nicholls and his gang of supremely-fit associates — in India for the security arrangements of the now-cancelled Champions League — were having dinner at the tranquil Souk, a restaurant with serene surrounding on the top floor of the Taj Palace on Wednesday night when they suddenly realised that something was amiss. Before they could move, they heard gun shots and grenade sounds. Duty came calling unannounced, they told themselves.

They tried to take control of the situation. While identifying themselves to about 100 people, who were dining in the restaurant even as the incessant sounds of bombs and guns shots were heard, Bob and his men made a quick survey of the area.

They escorted people — of varying nationality and colour, men, women and children — to the adjacent conference hall. They were joined by about 50 more people. One among them was a shell-shocked 90-year-old woman. “It was not difficult to convince them,” Bob said. “They took care of themselves.”

That was not exactly true. Even in the chaos, they ensured that these 150 people were relaxed. The South Africans barricaded themselves with the tables and chairs in the conference room.

Bob & Co, trained to protect VVIPs, tried to contact the hotel security staff but it wasn’t easy. They knew that it would take a while to establish contact with the outside world. Meanwhile, ‘their duty was to make sure people stayed quiet’.

“The hotel staff was very helpful. They provided the best service to the guests,” said Bob, whose only weapon at that stage was a kitchen knife. After more than six hours, a hotel’s security man reached the top floor. They then chalked out a plan to walk down the emergency exit.

Bob advised the people to remove the shoes and switch off the cell phones. They guided all of them down the emergency staircase. It took about 20 minutes. “It was a good walk,” Bob recalled. What about the 90-year-old woman? “Oh, she as very cooperative,” Bob retorted. She was carried on a chair down the steps by his colleague.

So why did they have to rush to aid people? “We thought we had to do it. When I suggested to my colleagues, everyone agreed. There was unanimity. If such a situation comes, we will do it again,” he said.

Bob was not sure what would have happened if they were to encounter the terrorists. “I don’t know. They were carrying AK-47s. It would, obviously, have been difficult for us. But we would have made their task more even more difficult. The terrorists would have had to beat us to attack those people,” Bob said.

Bob disclosed that they would be leaving for South Africa on Saturday morning but with a hope to be back soon. “Cricket needs India. We hope to be back here soon for the Champions League,” he signed off.