Nov 29, 2008

India - Staff emerge as heroes in Mumbai hotel sieges

Krittivas Mukherjee

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Prashant Mangeshikar could be dead, one of more than a hundred victims of militant attacks across Mumbai landmarks, if it had not been for an employee at the Taj Mahal Hotel.

Mangeshikar, his wife and daughter were in the foyer of the 105-year-old hotel on Wednesday night when Islamist gunmen opened indiscriminate fire in one of a series of coordinated attacks in India's financial capital.

Recovering from the initial shock and chaos, hotel staff shepherded the guests, including the Mangeshikar family, through the service section upstairs -- only suddenly to come face to face with one of the gunmen.

"He looked young and did not speak to us. He just fired. We were in sort of a single file," Mangeshikar, a 52-year-old gynaecologist, told Reuters. "The man in front of my wife shielded us. He was a maintenance section staff. He took the bullets."

The tale of the unnamed staff member has echoed across Mumbai where, time after time, hotel workers have emerged as the people who shielded, hid or evacuated their wealthy guests from militants at the Taj and Trident/Oberoi hotels.

Hotel workers in one case ushered guests into a conference room and then locked the doors to protect them from the militants. The guests were later rescued by the fire brigade.

The staff often proved essential, knowing short cuts to safety and where emergency exits were located.


Within seconds after Mangeshikar's family was saved from the bullets, the guests made a dash for the hotel rooms to hide.

Mangeshikar and a few others dragged the wounded hotel employee identified only as "Mr Rajan" into one of the rooms.

"His intestine was a lump hanging from a gaping hole in his abdomen," he said. "The bullet had entered him from close to the spine."

For the next 12 hours, Mangeshikar and other guests surrounded the wounded man trying to push back his intestines with bedsheets and stop the bleeding. He was finally evacuated, but it was not known if he survived.

"The hotel staff has been very, very brave," Mangeshikar said. "Hats off to them."

As the gunmen went around spraying bullets, on another floor hotel staff struggled to secure the doors with bedsheets and put tables and beds against the doors.

Televisions had gone off. Power also went out. Some people tried desperately to call their family on cell phones.

Kanda Noriyaki, a chef at the hotel's Japanese restaurant, led guests trembling and screaming with fear to safety.

"We hid in the restaurant," Noriyaki told Reuters. "We could hear the firing somewhere very close. Intermittently, there were blasts."

Many evacuees from the hotel hailed the bravery of the staff.

"Just imagine, they even served us food the first few hours," said a hotel guest, who did not wish to be named. "Only when the kitchens became out of bounds did they express regret for not being able to serve us food."

One person recounted how Taj staff stopped panicky guests from rushing into the lobby where militants could have shot them.

"They were brilliant," Bhisham Mansukhani told the Mail Today. "If they hadn't kept their cool, many more lives would have been lost."

The wife and children of the Taj's general manager who lived on the hotel premises were killed in the attacks. Witnesses said many trainee chefs had been killed in the kitchen of the Taj.

Mangeshikar said that, but for the courage of Mr. Rajan, his wife and daughter could have been dead.

"I'm going out today to the hospital to find out what happened to him," he said. "I owe it to that brave man."


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