By Jason Motlagh
November 17th, 2009
III. “It’s Do or Die”
November 26, 2008. Late Night. Nariman House.
Assistant Commissioner of Police Isaque Bagwan was sitting down for a late dinner at his Colaba home, his hair still wet from a shower, when the phone rang: gunmen were shooting up the Leopold Café. He grabbed his revolver and ran out to his car.
En route to the restaurant he heard an explosion in the near distance. The noise told Bagwan it was a bomb. One of the gunmen had hidden an explosive under a vehicle at the Express Petroleum station on Colaba causeway; its timer had triggered. Pump manager Ram Bhuwal Yadav, having locked himself inside his office after hearing the nearby gunfire, was thrown to the ground. Afraid the pumps would catch fire, Yadav sprinted outside; everyone was running away from the scene. Within seconds, Bagwan received another phone call from his superior, who directed him to reroute to the Jewish center at Nariman House, around the corner from the scene of the blast. Expecting the worst, the decorated veteran made a quick stop at the police station to rouse a dozen constables who brought .303 bolt-action service rifles with them.
- The Express Petroleum station, near the Nariman house, shortly after a time bomb had detonated there (Vinukumar Ranganathan).
The team had to fight their way through the alley crowd to get closer. The gunmen were firing scattershot at the narrow street below, tossing an occasional grenade to stir the gathering panic. Rounds smacked on the pavement and ricocheted at random, pocking the walls of the Rex bakery opposite. One neighborhood man, Harish Gohil, a twenty-five-year-old would-be choreographer, had already been killed here. Gohil had been on the terrace of his house next door when he heard shots ring out. Knowing the Holtzberg’s had children, Gohil and some friends had hoped to effect a rescue. They were crouching in a nearby ravine, still plotting their approach, when Gohil muttered, “My chest is hurting.” He opened his shirt and blood poured from the bullet hole. He was dead before he could reach St. George’s hospital.
With this in mind, Bagwan and his men took cover underneath adjacent buildings, their ground floors open to the street but protected from incoming fire from overhead. Still, Bagwan knew his men held a weak vantage point. He was experienced in such shootouts—going back to Mumbai’s first police encounter in 1983, when he helped take out a gangster in a street engagement. The best he could do was try to project greater strength than he could actually muster, while spiriting residents out of harm’s way.
Several neighborhood men sprang to help, including Puran Joshi, a friend of Bagwan’s involved in local politics. Joshi was in his office catty-corner from Nariman House, chain-smoking and talking with neighbors when the gunmen struck. “No one move from here, and keep quiet,” he had said, before heading out to find the police who had converged on his backstreet. Like them, he would stay awake for the next three days as a liaison between the community and law enforcement officers.
Bagwan and his men found three more dead bodies as they encircled the building. An elderly couple was later shot in front of Bagwan as they tried to run across the lane below. He agonized over whether to try to withdraw their corpses despite the gunfire from above. He had to wait.
At quarter past eleven, six soldiers from the State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) bearing semi-automatic rifles arrived on the scene to the ring of sirens. They joined the constables already in surrounding buildings where they cleared rooms and took up positions. Until backup arrived, Bagwan’s order was to deliver sporadic fire from all sides to keep the gunmen guessing but not to attempt to enter.
Late Night. The Oberoi.
The crescendo of gunfire had accelerated as Parambir Singh, an additional commissioner of police, pulled up to the hotel. Almost as troubling as the gunfire was the posture of officers on the scene, dumbstruck and keeping their distance. Only one carried a service revolver. The rest had only bamboo lathi batons. The air fell silent for several minutes, interrupted by a few gunshots. Then came a chain of blasts, which Singh could identify as grenades from his anti-terror training.
He walked into the Oberoi alone, pistol at the ready, broken glass crunching under his soles. The once grand lobby was completely deserted, in ruin. When he reemerged Singh encountered the hotel security chief, who debriefed him on the layout of the complex, using maps to point out entry and exit points as gunshots above continued to ring out. No matter what, Singh thought, the gunmen could not be allowed to escape. Two platoons of State Reserve Police reinforcements had started fanning out to various exit points when the hotel was rocked by a far bigger blast. The bomb placed by a gunman in the driveway had gone off, powerful enough to shatter all the glass on the ground floor.
Minutes later, Singh received a phone call from Hemant Karkare, the chief of Mumbai’s Anti-Terror Squad (ATS), checking to see if a quick response team had reached the scene. They had not. Karkare, calling from CST, assured Singh they were on their way. Singh and Karkare were old friends, having worked their way up the ranks from a district posting as young officers almost twenty years earlier. The brief conversation would be the last time the two friends ever spoke.
Late night. CST.
From his desk, Sebastian D’Souza could hear the muffled crack of gunfire. The newsroom of the Mumbai Mirror daily newspaper is one of several publications that rents space at the faded Times of India building just opposite the train station. D’Souza, the newspaper’s photo editor, snatched his Nikon D-200 camera and lens bag, took the stairs, and dashed out the door. The shots grew louder as he hit the pavement. Though just two years shy of retiring to a home near the beach in Goa, his birthplace, the pull of the moment was irresistible to D’Souza. He ran to the northwest entrance of the terminal, a hundred yards down track from the gunmen.
They controlled the platform. Passengers had either fled or died trying. Police were dead or hiding. Without haste, the gunmen reloaded banana clips from their rucksacks, daring officers to confront them. D’Souza was tracking the gunmen to get just within range to snap a picture without making a fatal misstep. He ran alongside the carriages, moving in and out, looking for a safe angle. Advancing behind a concrete pillar, he crouched next to an armed police officer who looked on as the gunmen blasted rounds into the ticket windows. “What are you doing! Shoot them, they’re sitting ducks!” D’Souza said, to no response. For a moment, he wished he’d had a gun instead of a camera.
The photographer advanced and retreated to get the picture he needed. He witnessed a newspaper vendor in front of his stall get shot as he tried to close the metal shutter, apparently worried about getting robbed. D’Souza clicked his camera. He moved closer using an idle pushcart as cover. The gunmen were less than thirty feet away when it dawned on D’Souza that his light-colored shirt could catch the eye of the shooters. As he turned and darted through the train cars back toward a distant platform, he heard more gunshots but never looked back.
A train was pulling into platform two. “Your attention, please,” the station announcer said. “Please stay inside the train and be alert. Walk to the back and leave the station through Gate No 1.” The gunmen were distracted when D’Souza, crouching behind a pillar, took the first shot of the pair standing together. When the incoming train ground to a halt, about fifteen people alighted and ran toward the back of the platform. D’Souza took aim with his telephoto and got the shot that epitomized the whole ordeal: Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, rifle in hand, mid-step and expressionless.
- Gunman Ajmal Kasab strides through the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station (Sebastian D’souza / Mumbai Mirror / AP Images).
10:30 P.M. Outside CST.
Kasab and Ismail Khan exited CST through an enclosed overpass that connects to the parking lot of the Times of India building. On their way across, another photographer on the third floor chanced a picture of Kasab. The flash drew a burst of shots. The pair then tried to break into the building where hundreds of nightshift employees were on duty but were thwarted by a quick-thinking security guard who had secured the door from inside.
Continuing along a back alley, they shot Vijay Khandekar, a constable attached to the Azad Maidan precinct. “I am bleeding heavily,” he told a friend by cell phone. “I am going to die; you have to save me.” Their next victim was Thakur Wagela, a cleaner at the nearby hospital who was eating dinner and watching cricket highlights outside his shanty when they approached and asked for a drink of water. Their thirst quenched, the gunmen shot Wagela in the chest in front of his five-year-old son. A neighbor who looked out of his window to check on the noise met the same end.
- Father of victim Thakur Wagela (pictured, right), who was shot outside his shanty near Cama hospital after giving gunmen a drink of water (Jason Motlagh).
The sign at the rear of Cama hospital read: ONLY FOR CHILDREN AND WOMEN. It was 10:59 when Kasab and Khan jumped the back gate. A full half-hour had elapsed since police at Azad Maidan radioed control that the pair had left CST, and was heading their way. Fifty-three people were already dead at the station, and these guards had locked themselves in and turned off the lights. Mumbai police headquarters was just two blocks away. And still no resistance. Kasab and Khan shot two guards on the terrace. “Let’s hide here,” Khan said, and the gunmen entered the pink and maroon building and hiked the stairs.
10:40 P.M. Ekta Nagar.
Fulchand Bhind’s cab threaded the narrow streets of Ekta Nagar, a maze of shanties not far from the docks and wharves on the eastern shore of Mumbai. Reema Rabuil Sheikh and her mother Zarina Shamsuddin Sheikh were on the way to visit Reema’s sister Ruma Arif Sheikh. They had just stepped from the cab and Zarina had paid Bhind for the fare. “Do you have change?” he asked.
The sudden blast of the bomb under Bhind’s seat blew the roof off of Zuma’s house and left a crater in the street below. Nineteen people were injured by the spray of shrapnel. Reema and Zarina were killed instantly. So little of Fulchand Bhind’s body was left that it took authorities nearly a week to ascertain his identity—though, for those days, the crows of Ekta Nagar picked his remains from the lower branches of surrounding trees.
10:40 P.M. Vile Parle.
Fifty-five-year-old Laxminarayan Goel couldn’t believe his luck. He had been scheduled on the 9:50 pm Hussain Sagar Express to Hyderabad, but he had arrived late at CST. He didn’t even bother going inside the station. Instead, he flagged a cab and called his family to say that he had missed his train. As the cab wended back north to his hotel in the Vile Parle district, the radio was suddenly filled with reports of mass carnage at CST and word that the gunmen had been targeting night commuters. But before Goel could call his family again, a bomb under the seat of driver Mohammad Umer Abdul Khalid, left there an hour earlier as Khan and Kasab exited the cab, detonated. The car was blasted apart and engulfed in fire. It would take an hour for authorities to extinguish the flames and deliver the charred bodies of Khalid and Goel to Cooper Hospital.
10:50 P.M. Cama Hospital.
Viju Chauhan, a twenty-seven-year-old woman who worked at the Sassoon Dock in Colaba peeling prawns for two dollars a day, was in the delivery room, her contractions now coming hard and close together. She was a few pushes from childbirth—and everyone was terrified. Minutes before, one of the emergency doctors had informed the nursing staff that gunmen had opened fire on the crowd at nearby CST. There were reports that they were now moving on foot through the area. The nurses had hurried through the maternity ward, instructing the young mothers to switch off their cell phones and feed their babies, so they would be sleepy and not crying from hunger pains. They then set to locking the doors, but Chauhan’s husband, Ramu, had just brought her to the emergency room in labor and they were on their way upstairs to the delivery room, when the sound of gunfire rang out from the back terrace. The ward doctor came running: “The watchman has been shot.” Five doctors, a nurse, a nurse-in-training, and a midwife whisked Chauhan to the delivery room, and the ward boy locked the door behind them. Chauhan was told she would have to endure her labor in silence, and they would do their best to muffle the newborn’s cries. At 10:55 P.M., the baby girl who Chauhan would later name Goli (meaning “bullet”) was delivered. The doctors pulled the mattress to the floor, switched off the lights, and all huddled in the corner away from the door.
Minutes later, the gunmen came shouting down the corridor, calling out for the terrified to step out and meet their fates. “We killed two bastards,” one yelled. They banged on the door to the ward, shot out the windows, but still couldn’t gain entry. The hospital staff had locked doors and barricaded the entry with furniture. As Khan and Kasab worked their way upstairs, they fired randomly down the corridors. On the fourth floor hallway the straggling relative of a patient was caught and stabbed to death.
On the fifth floor, the gunmen found an open door. They encountered four people inside, including fifty-six-year-old Harishchandra Shrivardhankar, who had been leaving the Ear-Nose-Throat clinic when he heard shots outside CST. He had run back inside the hospital for refuge, entering the ward through the same open door Khan and Kasab had discovered. The gunmen ordered everyone out to the balcony and told them to lie face down. Shrivardhankar, believing he was about to be executed, swung his bag at Kasab and kicked him. Kasab slashed Shrivardhankar’s neck twice and, after he had fallen to the ground, shot him twice in the back. The remaining hostages were locked in a bathroom.
Unsure where to proceed, the armed duo chose to make the hospital their stronghold. But police had infiltrated the building. There was noise on the floors above and below them. The gunmen threw two grenades to force the police back, the shrapnel wounding two of the officers. Despite their carbines, bulletproof vests, and superior numbers, the constables held back.
11 P.M. Taj Hotel.
Half naked and face down on the floor, KR Ramamoorthy expected to be shot. The back of his neck throbbed from the glancing blow of a rifle butt delivered by one of the two gunmen who had commandeered his room—632—just moments earlier. Stripped of most of his clothes, his hands bound tight with his linen kurta and pajama bottoms, he found the abuse dizzying. “I’m sixty-nine years old. I have high blood pressure. Please let me go,” he begged. “We’ll leave you, we’ll let you go,” replied a voice in accented Hindi.
Without his glasses it was hard to make them out. They were young, probably in their early twenties, he thought, and able-bodied, with large black assault rifles and matching rucksacks that sagged from the weight of their contents. The pair immediately started making calls on satellite phones. Ramamoorthy could not understand the language they were speaking, but figured they were describing their situation to people at the other end. Their tone was calm, remarkably so given their age and present circumstances. One word he could understand was “grenade,” which was repeated several times.
In the twilight of his career, the balding non-executive chairman of ING Vysya Bank could indulge in lodgings like the Taj during his occasional work trips from Bangalore. After eating dinner in his sixth floor room, he had stepped out to go to the business center on the fifth floor for some bottled water. A knot of security guards in khaki uniforms gathered in the corridor had told him to go back inside and lock his door. Suspecting trouble, he rushed back to his room and switched on the flat-screen television. Every channel flashed the same breaking story: the Taj and the Trident-Oberoi Hotels were under attack by an unknown number of gunmen.
He had called his wife and children to assure them he was okay, keeping an eye on the television set. A short while later, the newscasts were cut. For the better part of an hour, Ramamoorthy waited upright on his bed, unaware of the havoc unfolding on the floors below. His anxiety swelled as the minutes passed. Then, at around 11 P.M., there was a knock on his door. “Room service,” a voice had called out. The veteran banker was hesitant and stayed quiet. “Shoe polish,” the voice said. “I don’t need it,” Ramamoorthy finally answered.
No response. Ramamoorthy was frozen.
Gunshots blasted the door open. Ramamoorthy tried to lock himself into the bathroom, but the gunmen moved quickly and overpowered him as he fumbled. With warm Kalashnikovs trained on his head, Ramamoorthy was ordered to his knees.
Late Night. Taj Hotel.
Deputy Commissioner of Police assigned to Zone 1 of south Mumbai, Vishwas Nangre Patil could scarcely hear his own footsteps in the carpeted hallway of the hotel’s south wing when he rounded a corner and saw two men with assault rifles. His heartbeat was in his ears. He took cover behind a pillar and fired three rounds from his Glock. The gunmen returned fire.
Patil cut the right figure to oversee his beat’s tourist attractions and fine hotels. A brass belt buckle complemented his crisp beige uniform and neatly trimmed moustache. This attention to detail also applied to police work. Two months earlier, after receiving a warning from Indian intelligence of a possible attack on the Taj and Oberoi, he had drawn up a detailed list of security upgrades—but it went unheeded. Now his worst fear was playing out before him. When he reached the first floor of the Taj, he encountered a chilling scene: a pair of bodies slumped on top of each other, made worse by the howl of a young girl in the far corner of the room who was missing part of her hand. His instinct was to help, but others behind him would have to assist. Shots from the floor above quickened him to their source. He was a career police officer, first and foremost, and the people responsible were on the loose.
Patil knew he was outgunned. Most of the constables in south Mumbai were armed with lathis or, at best, dated service revolvers and rifles that few had actually fired in the line of duty. Patil was no longer among them. After the exchange in the second floor corridor, he charged in pursuit and did not wait for backup. Only the hotel’s unarmed chief of security, Sunil Kudiyadi, followed by his side. But he was still unsure by how much the attackers outnumbered him. He had seen three gunmen. But they had moved off. How many more were there? And where were they now?
Thinking he could see better from a higher position, Patil made his way with Kudiyadi to the sixth floor by way of a back staircase. This was where prominent guests, and potentially high-value targets, stayed, making it a logical place to start. He worked his way along the corridors, scanning, bursting through doors, with occasional glances over the railing down the atrium in case the gunmen tried to slip away. No sign of them. Figuring they might have proceeded to the north wing of the old Taj, he went back to the ground level to enlist more personnel. Again, he rode the elevator up to the sixth floor and systematically his team worked its way down.
Just after midnight, Patil and a group of ranking officers now on the scene resolved that they needed to gain access to the closed-circuit security cameras to determine who they were up against and to monitor their movements. A platoon of over fifty SRPF forces had since reached the hotel and spread out. Along with several constables, Patil took an elevator to the surveillance control room. The live feed from a sixth floor camera at a corner of the south wing showed two gunmen on the prowl. One wore a hat that said YESHU.
In a gambit to see how many more lurked upstairs, Patil stepped out of the room, leaned over the banister, shot a round at the center of the vaulted atrium and darted back inside. On camera, three gunmen emerged and started firing and throwing grenades over the rail. He relayed the news back to police headquarters. “It’s do or die!” he said. Police commissioner Hassan Gafoor implored him to play it safe. “The army is on its way,” he said. “Wait for backup.”
The gunmen were setting fire to carpets and mattresses. “Where is the backup?” Patil radioed back. “Where is the backup?” On the TV screen, he looked on as hostages were dragged to the floor below. His orders were not to leave the security room, but this was too much. People were going to die as police stood by. To hell with the chain of command.
“I am going in,” he radioed.
“No!” Gafoor shouted back. “Keep them pinned down!”
Patil was ordered to wait for commandos. He agonized but obeyed his boss.
November 27. Midnight. Outside the Cama Hospital.
Sadanand Date, an additional commissioner of police for central Mumbai, was not supposed to be at Cama. The attacks were taking place out of his jurisdiction. But he was asked to go to CST and headed to the hospital as soon as he heard the gunmen had moved on, stopping on the way at a police station to get a carbine issued. It was his team that penetrated the hospital to face heavy fire and grenades from Kasab and Ismail, who they had isolated on the sixth floor. At 11:19 he made his first call to control for backup. Six more calls were made, with no response. The seventh, at 11:28, went through moments after a grenade blast critically injured two men; Date’s right eye was blinded by shrapnel. “Central Region walkie-talkie sends out an SOS: Heavy firing. We are all injured. Need help. Please send reinforcements.” Date traded fire with the gunmen until midnight. He was hit again, this time by a bullet to his left leg.
Khan and Kasab decided to abandon their position. They released a hostage to provide cover, lobbed another grenade, and rushed toward the exit. In their hurry, Kasab dropped his rucksack, which contained several magazines and the satellite phone, but they had made it outside. The gunmen fled through the front entrance and headed north, under cover of darkness, past the stone archways of St. Xavier’s College and down an alley. They ducked into some bushes when they saw the headlights of a Qualis police SUV on patrol coming their way.
The gunmen waited for the vehicle to pass and when it slowed, perhaps trying to make out their forms, Kasab and Khan opened fire, showering the van with bullets. The officers returned fire, hitting Kasab on his left wrist and right forearm and elbow. But the gunmen kept up their fire until they were the only ones shooting.
They dragged five bodies from the van out into the street, but Kasab’s bleeding arms hurt too much. They left two constables in the backseat. There officer Arun Jadhav had been shot three times but was still breathing under the motionless body of a colleague. Had he not given his pistol to an unnarmed officer at Cama, he could have shot them both at point-blank range. As it was, all Jadhav could do was lie still. He heard Khan laugh. “Look,” the gunman said, in Hindi but with a thick Punjabi accent, “they’re wearing bulletproof vests.”
- Investigators inspect the site where five police officials were shot and dumped the night before (Priyam Dhar).
Khan started up the Qualis and sped off down the dark backstreets. A cell phone went off in the pocket of the motionless constable. Kasab in the passenger seat wheeled and fired several shots. If the motionless constable was not dead already, he was dead now—but Jadhav underneath was unhurt by this second volley. The van swerved past the neon marquee of the Metro Big Cinemas multiplex, where a crowd of journalists and bystanders had converged. The gunmen fired from the window wounding several people, but not before a police bullet punctured a rear tire and sent them careening away on a flat.
Sharan Arasa was driving with two friends to Nariman Point to pick up another friend who had been at the Oberoi when the attack began. As they approached the Vidhan Sabha, the state assembly for the government of Maharashtra, Arasa saw a police SUV approaching. Someone leaned out the window and ordered him to stop, firing a single round into the air. Now Arasa was staring at the barrel of a gun as Khan grabbed him by the collar and dragged him from his silver Skoda. Kasab ordered the other two out onto the sidewalk. The gunmen demanded Arasa’s keys. He tossed them down but they slid under the car. Arasa turned away, bracing for the worst, but he was ordered to retrieve the keys. He handed them over to Khan. For some reason, the gunmen spared Arasa and his friends and sped away.
12:30 A.M. Chowpatty Beach.
Tukaram Omble, a forty-eight year old assistant sub-inspector, was on the night beat when his supervisor radioed about the attacks and instructed him to stake out a post on Marine Drive. Some time after 12:30, he got an update over his walkie-talkie: two terrorists had hijacked a silver Skoda and were heading for Chowpatty Beach. Omble hurried to his motorcycle and stood ready. Minutes later, he spotted the Skoda and gave chase. Khan at the wheel tapped his brakes and sprayed wiper fluid in an effort to shake the motorcycle, but Omble kept up his pursuit.
Speeding down the Marine Road, they quickly approached a barricade that police from DB Marg station had erected at a choke point on the way out of south Mumbai. Kasab fired out the passenger window at the roadblock, but in slowing down they had allowed Omble to overtake them on his motorcycle. Khan gunned the engine and attempted a U-turn, only to get stuck on the center median. Kasab fired a volley out the passenger window that killed one officer. Omble jumped from his motorcycle and managed to grab the hot muzzle of the shooter’s AK-56, but Kasab fired off several more rounds, perforating Omble’s stomach and intestines. He crumpled to the ground but kept grip on the barrel until he passed out. The other officers fired their rifles into the Skoda, drilling the windshield. Khan was shot dead. Kasab tried to get off another shot as constables closed in, but they dragged him from the car and knocked him unconscious with their lathis.
- Investigators inspect the scene where Khan and Kasab drove their carjacked Skoda into a police roadblock (Priyam Dhar).
Back at the Oberoi, the second bomb had exploded in the hotel lobby, sending police outside ducking for cover. In an instant, waves of guests rushed out of the hotel, some half-dressed and streaked with smoke, clutching passports, in tears. Additional Commissioner Singh tried to get information from some of them, but most were too stricken for words. He needed to calm the crowd. He was walking around, barking for police personnel to get back to their posts, when he heard more shots coming from the southern end of the Oberoi complex. He grabbed a Kalashnikov and drove around to investigate.
He found a police SUV broken down in the middle of the road. One rear tire was shredded and bullet holes pocked its side. A voice moaned from within. It was Arun Jadhav, bodyguard to Vijay Salaskar, a senior inspector known for his lethal encounters with underworld figures; Salaskar, Singh knew, had been with ATS chief Karkare when he called from CST. Singh and his guard removed the bloodied officer and rested him on the pavement. Jadhav said two gunmen had hijacked the van after killing Karkare, Additional Commissioner Ashok Kamte, and Inspector Salaskar, along with another constable. Karkare, Salaskar, and Kamte were three of Mumbai’s best. “That can’t be true,” Singh replied, thinking Jadhav was in shock. He had just spoken with Karkare on the phone. But Jadhav was adamant. The officers’ bodies had been pulled out of the front and strewn in the street while he, barely breathing, hid under the dead constable in the backseat. “Sir, I am telling the truth,” he insisted. “Listen to me.”
Just then, Singh got the call—two men had been shot at Chowpatty Beach. He raced three miles north under the sepia lights of Marine Drive, the seaside promenade emptied of its usual strolling couples. On reaching Chowpatty, he found the gunmen, immobile, being hauled away on stretchers. He slapped them both hard in the face. The stockier one gave a faint shudder. Singh pinched his nose to check his breathing. He gasped. “This one is still alive,” he shouted. “Take him to the hospital.”
12:50 A.M. Headquarters of the National Security Guards.
It was well past midnight when Jyoti Krishnan “JK” Dutt got the call he had been waiting for. “Get your men down to Mumbai now,” Cabinet Secretary KM Chandrasekhar said. Dutt, the director general of the National Security Guards (NSG), India’s elite anti-terror force, had been riveted to the TV since the shooting began, waiting for authorization to deploy his men. Scant as details were, the emerging reports indicated running gun battles with automatic weapons at far-flung sites around south Mumbai. This was not, he thought, typical hit-and-run gangland violence.
Before receiving the formal request, Dutt had already given the order to suit up. Inside the barracks at the NSG complex in Manesar, Haryana, some 200 commandos quickly strapped on the dark Nomex cover-alls and assault helmets that earned them the nickname the Black Cats. Shouldering special issue Heckler and Koch MP-5 sub-machine guns, they boarded buses and sped to Delhi airfield. A hulking Ilyushin-76—requisitioned from Chandigarh, 165 miles away—was supposed to be waiting, but it was late arriving.
Worse still, Dutt was initially briefed that terrorists had seized the Taj, the Oberoi, and Nariman House. But when the commandos finally reached south Mumbai late the next morning, they saw that gunmen had overtaken a total of five buildings, not three. As a result, a second round of commandos had to be summoned. (Dutt would later admit that television reports offered better information, going in, than the Mumbai police.) The snafus piled up. When the advance force arrived in Mumbai, delayed further by a government minister, no helicopters were available to bring them into the city; they had to wait for buses. They reached downtown nearly ten hours after initial reports of an attack. (Some counter-terrorism experts say trained commandos must be on the scene no more than thirty minutes after the start of an assault.) It’s not known how many lives were lost during the wasted hours.
Tomorrow: “No Hostages Should Remain Alive”