Mumbai: How a South African Security Man Saved 150 Lives

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David Guttenfelder / AP

The Taj Mahal hotel burns in Mumbai, India.

Bob Nicholls hadn't expected to have his skills and experience tested so early in Mumbai. The South African security consultant and his team had arrived in the city last Wednesday to work on security arrangements for the forthcoming Indian Champions League, cricket's equivalent of the European soccer championship that draws the cream of the world's players. The events that unfolded that night ensured the cancellation of the cricket tournament, but Nicholls and his team played an instrumental role in saving 150 lives from the terrorists who had laid siege to the Taj Mahal hotel.

Nicholls, who runs the South Africa-based security agency Nicholls, Steyn and Associates, was having dinner with five of his team on the top floor of the Taj when they were told by other South African diners that friends intending to join them for dinner hadn't turned up because gunfire had broken out inside the hotel. "We carried on having dinner," says Nicholls, "Until there were two quite loud blasts." From prior experience working in India, Nicholls said, he knew there'd be no hotel security or police at hand. And although the restaurant door was locked, it was made of glass. (See images of the aftermath of the Mumbai massacre)

By now, the rattle of gunfire and occasional explosions had made diners edgy. Nicholls and his team decided to take charge of the situation. "We went out of the restaurant to have a look around, and decided that the conference room would be the easiest to secure," he says. So they got everybody in there, barricaded the door with tables and chairs and anything else that came in handy, and even made arrangements for water and toilets. "I got a mic and announced to everybody what we thought had happened — that there was some sort of an attack — and who we were and what we were doing," he says, "We told them to stay away from windows, and stay calms and relaxed." Meanwhile, his staff took positions at the entrances.

The South African team had managed to get hold of the radio sets used for routine communication by the hotel staff, but they could raise no answer for a couple of hours."We needed to get information," Nicholls explains, noting their increasing desperation. "We had to know what was going on, and if anyone had any plans to come get us." Eventually, they got through to the security manager who said there was "chaos" on the ground floor. "He didn't know what had happened, but that there were grenades and bullet-spraying gunmen."

Without adequate information, the South Africans decided not to risk lives and told everybody they would be staying put. Every few minutes, he would address the room to try and keep spirits up. But some hours later, there was "a very loud blast" and they saw fire and smoke. "At this stage, the security manager came to our floor," Nicholls explains, "We un-barricaded the doors and let him in. We talked, and agreed that if there were a fire near us, the lights would go out and there would be utter panic." The security manager initially suggested full evacuation. "But I didn't agree with that," Nicholls says, "I thought that would endanger too many lives."

Instead, they asked everybody to turn their cellphones off, armed themselves with knives and meat cleavers, and turned out the lights. Slowly, Nicholls and his staff led them down the fire escape. "There was an 80-year-old woman who had to be carried down on a chair," he remembers. The street below looked clear, and once at the door, "everybody ran for their lives."

Since then, he been under a barrage of emails and phone calls from the escapees saying thanks, and strangers offering congratulations. "At the airport back home in Johannesburg, the response was overwhelming," he says. Thinking back, he says, he is struck by the fact that it didn't even cross his mind — or that of any of his staff — to make an escape without ensuring the safety of everyone in the dining hall. "It's like our training took over," he says, "It was only later, when I watched TV and saw people who had lost family... it was then that I realised the magnitude of what had happened."

Nicholls says the attack should prompt India to re-think it's attitude towards security. "There's a lot of naivete here about the kind and extent of security threats the country faces," Nicholls says, "Even at big sports tournaments, the extent of security requirement is entirely underestimated." He says his firm has been wanting to set up India operations, but has been deterred by the skills gap. "Both private security and policing need to be beefed up," he says, "They need more, better trained and armed professionals."