The 26/11 attack on Mumbai in 2008 remains one of the biggest attacks on Indian sovereignty. 10 terrorists attacked the financial capital of the country, and many heroes perished on that fateful day, trying to save their beloved Mumbai.
But while some were sung enough, many remain unsung. One such hero was Captain Ravi Dharnidharka, a then US marine, who saved 157 lives, including his own on that unfortunate night. The then 31-year-old had spent four years flying combat missions in Iraq, including the bloody battle of Fallujah in November and December 2004.
In November 2008, Dharnidharka was in India after more than a decade, holidaying with his cousins near Badhwar Park, close to the upmarket Cuffe Parade. On 26/11, his uncles and cousins decided to meet for dinner at Souk, the Lebanese restaurant on the 20th floor of the Taj Mahal Palace.
According to the book The Siege: 68 Hours Inside The Taj Hotel, by journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, also trapped inside the hotel, the Marine was very uneasy after arriving in the hotel. He was constantly on edge, his instincts hinting at something that wasn’t right’. Too many phones were ringing at the same time, and very soon, his cousin got a call about the shootout in Colaba.
“Captain Ravi Dharnidharka, the US Marine captain, was no longer looking at the view but was worrying about the great wave of text messages and calls crashing across the room. One of his cousins received a call: Gang fight in Colaba, a couple of blocks away,” reads an except from the book.
Ravi knew something bad was going to happen because, unlike hotel security, he didn’t miss the beeping sound of the metal detector when he entered the hotel.
“Told you, Ravi said to himself, recalling earlier misgivings about the security at the hotel’s main entrance. When he had walked through the security cordon half an hour back, a metal detector had beeped, but no one had stopped him. That had really got him going. Why did people have systems and then pay no heed to them? Who else had got through unchecked? He hoped that his paronia was simply the prolonged repercussion of battle fatigue,” reads the book.
Once confirmed that the hotel was under attack, Ravi, along with a few others who were ex-commandos from South Africa working for a private firm, assembled and decided to take matters into their own hands.
Ravi and the other 6 ex-commandos knew instantly they were in the middle of something big. And so they planned accordingly. After checking with the hotel staff, they fathomed that the immediate danger was Souk’s glass doors. A single grenade from the terrorists would cause mayhem and panic.
While two of the South Africans explained the situation to people at Souk and told them who they were, and that they would make sure everyone got out safely, Ravi and one of the other commandos, Wilmans, did a recce of Souk’s surroundings and found one conference hall -Rendezvous – with a hundred odd confused Koreans. The room was large enough to accommodate 50 more. Wilmans went back to his colleagues and they decided it would be safest to move everyone there since the hall had a thick wooden door.
During the recce, Ravi and Nicholls, another South African, found two fire stairways they could use – one outside and the other inside the conference hall. They blocked the one outside with tables, chairs and anything else they could find, to make it as difficult as possible for the terrorists to come up.
They quickly moved everyone through the kitchen into Rendezvous!
En route, they stopped to arm themselves with whatever they could – knives, meat cleavers, rods, anything that could be used as a weapon – and tucked them into their waistbands, pulling their shirts over them to conceal them. Kitchen tools could hardly stop AK-47-wielding terrorists, they knew, but they were counting on the terrorists not expecting resistance.
Soon enough, the real operation started. The curtains were drawn, lights were dimmed , the doors were shut with wire and barricaded with every available heavy object. Instructions were given to people not to talk loudly over the phone and not to reveal their whereabouts.
Dharnidharka knew that any word getting out of that hall would risk the lives of 157 people who were nothing less than sitting ducks for the terrorists.
Wilmans and Dharnidharka barricaded the fire escape inside Rendezvous and posted a couple of the Taj staff there so that, at a signal, they could start unblocking the stairs if they had to make a quick exit.
Then came the wait
Time passed. The staff at Taj didn’t let services stop. People kept getting food, drink and whatever one asked for. Then there were two huge explosions. The terrorists had set off RDX in the heritage towers of the Taj. The impact was felt all the way up on the 20th floor.
One of the South Africans distributed paper to everyone and asked them to write their names and addresses down. Meanwhile, Dharnidharka and the others arranged to escape.
Around 2 a.m., the terrorists set off 10 kg of RDX below the central dome of the Taj. They also set fire to the sixth floor of the hotel. Rumours did the rounds that police and security forces were heading towards the hall to rescue people. But Dharnidharka knew that with the kind of firepower the terrorist were armed, nobody was getting anywhere soon.
The fire on the sixth floor started spreading upwards. Dharnidharka figured that if the fire spread from the hotel’s old wing, they would have a whole new set of problems to deal with. The fire would spread upwards, blocking exits. Even if the fire did not spread, there were chances of short-circuiting and the power going off.
The seven figured it was time move out. Nicholls sent a couple of his men down to make sure the path was clear. Dharnidharka, others, and a couple of the hotel staff cleared the barricades from the escape route.
The recce party involving Dharnidharka and few others checked whether their path was clear or not yet again. They issued instructions as soon as the coast was clear – phones off, shoes off – the exodus had to be as noiseless as possible.
People started vacating the hall slowly, only to realise an old lady named Rama, 84, who would never have managed to climb down 20 flights of stairs. She insisted on being left there, but Dharnidharka rose to the occasion, and volunteered to carry her downstairs. Since the staircase was too narrow to use a chair to lift her, Dharnidharka took help from one of the waiters and carried her in his arms.
The group moved slowly. First went a couple of the South Africans and Taj security men. Then came the women and children, followed by more security men, and lastly, the men.
The tricky part was crossing each landing. Every floor had a fire exit with a glass panel from where one could see the floor’s lobby. Thus, every landing had to be crossed really carefully.
Slowly and swiftly, Ravi Dharnidharka and six of his South African teammates led 157 people out of the hotel.
The ordeal was over. Also, the untold story of the real HERO!