Trapped in Mumbai: A Survivor's Tale

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Desmond Boylan / Reuters

Indian policemen are seen in the besieged Trident-Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai November 28, 2008.

Indian security forces began storming the Oberoi hotel in Mumbai, the first of the three hostage sites to be cleared, at around 11:30 a.m. local time on Friday. Within half an hour, the first batch of released hostages were emerging. By 2:30 p.m., it was over. Two terrorists were killed, and security forces began combing the hotel looking for people trapped during the fighting.

David Jacobs, an Australian who works in New Delhi as head of India operations for the law firm Baker & McKenzie, was among those inside The Oberoi since Wednesday night. He was one of 148 people — hostages held by the terrorists or people trapped in their hotel rooms — who were brought out safely from the hotel; 24 others were killed. Jacobs described his harrowing experience — at one point, he said he had composed goodbye messages to his family — in an exclusive interview with TIME. (See pictures here of the two days of terror in Mumbai.)

Jacobs had come to Mumbai for a meeting with about 10 of his colleagues. They were all staying at the Oberoi but had gone elsewhere for dinner on Wednesday. Jacobs had just checked in, he remembers, when he heard a loud explosion. "I thought it sounded like a bomb," he says, "but I told myself it couldn't be — it was probably just construction work. Then I heard what sounded like gunfire, and I thought that really does sound like gunfire. So I went out into the atrium, and heard more explosions and gunfire. Part of my mind said it was a terror attack, but another part of my mind couldn't believe it. Then I looked down into the lobby, and I saw there was no one there, and three suitcases were left abandoned, and I realized it really was a terror attack.

"So I went back to my room, locked it, and started watching TV. I can't remember what, though. I also called my firm, and they put me in touch with a security agency who kept me advised on what to do. I was still hearing gunfire and explosions, but I assumed that the attackers would want to cause maximum damage and run. I didn't think they'd want to lay siege to the entire hotel. I didn't think they'd come into rooms, and start coming into the upper levels. Then I saw on TV that they were targeting American and British citizens, and I thought my Australian [passport] wouldn't save me. Especially since I'm a Jew, and what could be worse when confronted by an Islamist terrorist?

"So I started unpacking and kept watching TV. I was constantly getting e-mails from family, from friends and colleagues... during these two days I must've got 2,000 e-mails. Some people would write in six to eight times a day, just to let me know they were hoping I'd make it out safe. Some would send humorous messages... it felt nice people were trying to keep me amused.

"Then I smelled smoke, and started to worry. I looked out of the peephole, and saw that the atrium looked hazy. I looked out of the window, and didn't see the fire brigade. So I filled the bathtub with water, put a towel under the door and changed into clothes I thought would work best if I had to face a fire. Some time later I went back to the peephole and couldn't see anything. The smoke was unbelievably thick. I thought now I was in serious trouble, and got ready to escape. I took the door key and a torch, and got down on my hands and knees, and went out. When I saw the [flickering] light [from] the door, I figured if the lights went out I wouldn't be able to get back into my room. So I put a wet towel in the door, and tried to get out again. I only made it past two and a half rooms before realizing it wouldn't work.

"Then I came back to my room, and thought I'd try to get onto the ledge outside the window. I made an escape rope with bedsheets, and to make it longer, tied up curtains as well. But those were too slippery. The rope had to be abandoned anyway when I realised the fire was just beneath me.

"Then I decided to give up and wait. But first, I left messages for my wife and four children to say goodbye. Then I checked my mail and found this outpouring of support and affection, especially from my colleagues at my firm. I got myself something to eat from the mini-bar — in all I had water, soft drinks, three plums, two biscuits and two small Toblerones in two days. I wasn't scared, really, though I was anxious.

"I didn't sleep much... there was still gunfire and explosions every now and then. By midday on Thursday, there was no internet, and no water. I still had my Blackberry, and all the time it took to answer e-mails kept me busy and emotionally stable. I didn't break down or anything. For some reason, I always knew I'd be fine if I wasn't burnt to death. On the second night there was another fire. There was also a phone call, and I didn't answer as my security agency had warned against it. They said it could be the terrorists trying to find out which rooms were occupied and who was in them, so they could come after us.

"On Friday afternoon, I heard someone trying a key in my door. They couldn't open the door because I had deadlocked it. When they knocked, I remembered what the security guys had said. Tiptoe to the peephole, if you see someone suspicious, get away from the door. In this case, I looked out and saw commandos. I raised my hands and opened the door. And I thought, well, I've made it.

"Looking back, what these two days have done for me is ... they have reinforced the preciousness of life. It's so tragic that some people are so consumed with hatred that they can try and take this precious gift from people. "