As security men battled the 26/11 terrorists, guests and staff of two five-star hotels under attack made distress calls to the Mumbai police control room, seeking help and guidance on what they should do.
It now emerges — The Indian Express has obtained and authenticated 4,396 phone calls made to the PCR, running into 89 hours of conversations — that control room operators failed to relay to personnel on the ground specific information about people hiding in different parts of the two hotels.
Through the night of November 26 and much of November 27, callers from the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and the Oberoi Trident received standard responses: “Civilians will be rescued”; “There is no helpline”; “Stay there if you’re safe”; “We can’t tell you where the security personnel are”; “Don’t budge from where you are”; “We can’t share any information at all”; and, “Chalu hai, chalu hai, rescue operation (rescue operation is underway)”.
These are snatches from the many calls made to the PCR through the night of 26/11 and the morning after:
One of the first callers from the Trident, clearly in shock, struggles to speak but manages to say “shootout”, “bullet injury” and “Trident five star”. The PCR tells him the ordeal should be over in a few minutes.
10 pm: A woman calls frantically. Her husband is hiding near the pool at the Taj. She wants to know how many policemen have been sent. “Maine khud shooting suna unke phone se (Through his phone, I could hear the shooting),” she says.
Within minutes, the PCR gets dozens of calls from different locations in the two hotels: the pool, systems room, pantry, pastry shop, lobby, corridors, a stairway, and rooms identified by floor and number.
At Regal Room in the Taj, guests are locked inside. The PCR advises them to stay inside from where they can hear gunshots. The operator says: “Please understand, it’s for your own safety.”
Some calls come from eyewitnesses around the targets, informing the PCR that guests can be seen at their windows, some on phones, some trying to jump from the windows.
00.54 am: A staffer calls from the bookshop at the Taj. He has just helped three foreigners to safety but is now stuck inside with two attendants. “What if they bomb the entire hotel,” he asks. The PCR tells him to stay inside, hidden.
Another staffer calls from the Taj store-room where he’s hiding with six guests. The glass door is shattered, and he can hear gunshots. He asks if he should lead them to make a run for it. An operator keeps him on hold for a minute and ten seconds, then replies, “Aap andar hi rahiye (You stay inside).” The staffer says he has just heard two explosions, one next door and one from above. The operator says, “Police aur unke beech firing chal rahi hai (There’s firing on between the police and them)”. But he offers some comfort, telling the staffer to call back if needed.
1.35 am: A woman calls about her son who works at the Taj, his phone unreachable. Her sobs get louder. The operator tries to calm her: “Am sure your son will be safe. Don’t cry. The terrorists have been caught. You could get a call from your son soon.”
1.39 am: A caller from Taj says several guests are holed up in the basement. “Shamiana ke neeche, ladies locker room mein hai (They’re hiding in the ladies locker room below the Shamiana restaurant). They are foreign nationals,” he says, adding that they have been holed up there for two hours. Some are even locked inside a bathroom. The caller wants a policeman to call and speak to them. “Unko confidence ki jaroorat hai (they can do with some confidence),” he says. The operator says the police are busy handling the “bahar ka situation (the situation outside)”, and no one can help them right now.
1.51 am: A friend of a guest at the Taj calls from Juhu. A grenade had exploded a minute ago and shattered the glass screens in her room. The caller wants to know when will evacuation begin. It will take another three hours at least, says the operator. “You will check each room, right?” asks the caller. The operator says not an inch in the hotel will be left unchecked. He assures her that her friend will be rescued.
Another caller gives detailed information on where her younger sister is hiding in the Taj. She’s locked in a staff room and debris from grenade explosions have caused “blockages” in the corridors. She wants to go and rescue her sister herself. On being told to stay at home, she says: “They are all young, and have just picked up jobs. They are 20 of them with her. They are trainees and they are all crying.”
2.36 am: The mother of the Taj staffer calls again. Someone answered her son’s phone and said he was a terrorist. He threatened to shoot her son if his phone rings again. The operator repeats this information to his colleagues who ask him to hang up. She calls back, and is assured help. She says she’s asking relatives to stop calling him.
Past 4 am: A woman calls to say her friend can sense a blaze approaching his room. “There’s smoke everywhere, they can see the fire. It’s coming closer to where they are,” she pleads. The operator says: “Ten fire tenders have been sent.” The caller asks whether they should open the door and run. “The police officers there are guiding people. We can’t say anything from here,” the operator says. No details of the man’s room or the floor are sought. The caller wants to be directed to a “deciding authority”. The operator tells her to get in touch with the Taj manager and hangs up.
4.56 am: A girl calls from behind the Taj. She can see a man and a woman hanging from a window ledge of a third-floor room, at the swimming pool end. The PCR tells her the police and armed forces are on the spot. “Kaam chalu hai madam (Work is underway).” She corrects him, saying the securitymen are in front of the hotel while these two persons are trying to escape from a window in the rear. The operator repeats: “Verification chal raha hai (Verification is on).”
Another caller says his friend and others are trying to help a man who has taken a bullet in the stomach and is now in the Lavender Room of the Taj. This group has been running from one room to another, evading the gunmen and fire. The caller says they’re scared that army personnel will simply walk in and shoot them — the rooms are dark. He asks for the man with the bullet wound to be helped. “Sir, you are right, but we have also lost men. Sixteen officers have died,” the operator says. The caller is confused. “So what should I tell my friend? That man won’t survive long.” The call lasts three minutes. The operator says “step by step clearing” is underway. He refuses to take the man’s phone number, saying too many people have been calling anyway.
Calls are now coming from parents of staffers, friends of guests, from embassies and consulates. Until sunrise, the PCR maintains that no telephone numbers can be taken from callers seeking help for those stuck inside one of the two hotels, stating that the army, not the police, is now handling the operation. Calls from the Lavender Room come repeatedly, the man who was shot is losing blood, and time. The PCR response remains consistent.
9.19 am: From the NCPA Apartments next to the Oberoi, a caller helps with details of guests stuck on the upper floors. The PCR directs him to another helpline that is now coordinating with the army.
Noon: The police helpline calls the main control room and asks if there is any specific line where callers regarding Taj and Oberoi guests can be directed. “Direct them to the press room, we don’t have any information,” the operator replies.