MUMBAI, INDIA — A large black crow pecks at the white Christmas tree lights sparkling on a topiary tree beside the veranda where I am eating a breakfast of potatoes masala with curried chick peas and an egg white omelet.
The setting is the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, India, the finest hotel in which I have ever stayed and also the most proudly defiant.
Six years ago, on Nov. 26, 2008, the five-star luxury hotel became a death trap when Islamic terrorists from Pakistan invaded the property, killing 31 people.
It is strange to be a guest in a hotel that for 60 hours was a war zone, but the Taj is now back on its feet, receiving more guests than ever — an Indian landmark filled with memories of fear and bravery.
A walled-in waterfall at the back of the lobby is sided by a discreet marble memorial plaque listing the names of the 31 dead — 12 of them were hotel employees. It says. “For now and forever, you will inspire us.”
Anselm Fernandes, who served me a gin gimlet one evening in the hotel’s roof-top restaurant, told us he was working the night of the terrorist attack and lost friends.
Another employee I talked to by the elevator said, “I was coming for the night shift. The Islamists were already inside. It was horrible. I couldn’t enter. I watched from the outside.”
The night of the attack, 10 Pakistan-based militants from Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant group on the U.S. terrorist watch list, swept in from the Arabian Sea in an inflatable boat to attack seven separate targets in Mumbai, including the Oberoi Trident Hotel and the Taj Mahal Palace. They killed 164 people throughout the city.
I remember the day the terrorist attack began vividly. When word of the invasion came through the KITV newsroom where I was working as a reporter, all of us scrambled to try to get in touch by phone with 1973 Saint Louis High School graduate Raymond Bickson, the CEO of the Tata Hotel Resorts and Palaces, the company that owns the Taj.
Bickson is the son of Joan Bickson and the late Irwin “Bick” Bickson, who established Budget Rent-A-Car in Hawaii and was a leader in Hawaii’s tourism industry.
There was also another Hawaii connection. Ratan Tata, whose family built the Taj hotel, was a member of the East-West Center’s board of governors during 1993 and 2004. Tata, now retired from chairmanship of the huge Indian conglomerate, the Tata Group, is currently serving another term on the East-West Center board.
On the first night of the attack, we had heard in the KITV newsroom that Raymond Bickson and his wife were having dinner in the hotel when the jihadists, armed with AK-47s and Chinese-made grenades, charged into the lobby to begin what would become a three-day siege.
In a New York Times interview after the attack, Bickson said during his dinner he got word there was some sort of gang shooting taking place in the hotel’s main lobby.
When he took the elevator down to investigate, he said he found the hotel under full attack with the lobby filled with shattered glass.
Karambir Singh Kang, the hotel’s general manager, shouted to Bickson to go back upstairs, which he did and he said he was stranded there for 12 hours until he was rescued.
Military officials are trained in what to do during a crisis. We all know the code of honor that a ship’s captain is to not leave his or her damaged ship until all the passengers have been rescued.
But for the hotel workers in the Taj Mahal Palace, this attack by militants hurling grenades and randomly slaying hotel guests with assault rifles was a first.
The bravery of the hotel’s staff during the attack has become the subject of a case study in the Harvard Business Review by Harvard University business professor Rohit Deshpande.
A clear focus of his study, called “Customer Centered Leadership During a Time of Crisis,” is why so many Taj employees choose to stay to help when they could have easily escaped through back exits.
Many of the workers knew secret passages out of the hotel but they remained to protect and help evacuate the terrified guests.
General manager Kang was one of the first affected when his wife and two young children were trapped and died after the terrorists set the sixth floor on fire — that’s where the family resided in a suite. With the floor fully engulfed in flames, Kang was unable to reach them. “I don’t think they made it, “ he called to tell his parents.
It is strange to be a guest in a hotel that for 60 hours was a war zone, but the Taj is now back on its feet, receiving more guests than ever.
Yet Kang remained on duty, working on and on to help save guests through the entire siege.
Telephone operators stayed at their desks to call guests cowering in their rooms to warn them to lock their doors, and turn off the lights as the terrorists roamed the halls searching for targets.
In the hotel’s Masala Kraft Indian restaurant where my husband and I had dinner one night during our stay, the manager, on the first night of the siege, turned off all the lights, locked the doors and directed the guests to hide under tables and in hidden corners of the room.
They remained safe even after one of the terrorists fired shot after shot into the door of the restaurant before moving on. Today, careful remodeling has hidden the bullet holes.
As another example of employee sacrifice: chefs and kitchen employees formed a human shield to save the lives of guests who were evacuating through the back corridors of the kitchen. Terrorists killed many of the kitchen staff as the shielded guests ran to safety.
Even the hotel’s security dog was slain.
During our stay, while I was waiting to join the hotel’s nightly free tour for guests, I chatted with a Mumbai resident who was in the lobby waiting to meet a friend for tea.
She said, “Every time I go up the stairs here, I can’t keep the thought of the attack out of my mind. The victims were innocent, all innocent.”
Yet, she keeps coming back to the hotel for afternoon tea and to meet friends, as do thousands of other Mumbai residents for whom the hotel is a place to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries — and now, maybe to say “screw you” to the jihadi fanatics.
Nine of the perpetrators of the attack now known as “26/11” were slain. The sole surviving terrorist was executed by hanging in a Mumbai prison in 2012.
Three weeks after the attack, the tower section of the hotel reopened for business and 21 months later, after extensive remodeling, the heritage Palace Wing opened to guests.
The Taj Hotel paid all the medical expenses of the victims. And the families of the deceased employees will be paid the employees’ salaries for life as well as medical benefits and education expenses for all their children up until age 24.
According to a news release, Hawaii-born Bickson this August stepped down from his job as CEO of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces “to pursue other professional interests.” I was unable to find out where he is now.
And former Taj general manager Kang, who lost his wife and two sons in the sixth floor fire, has remarried and has a new daughter and is in the United States, where he manages the Taj Boston.
This month the Taj Mahal Palace celebrated its 111th birthday. It has been completely restored and made very secure.
All guests must walk through a metal detector and have their baggage and personal effects put through airport-type screening each time they enter the hotel.
Security cameras are everywhere and there are certainly many other protection measures that remain hidden to guests.
Vehicles coming up to the hotel entrance must be scanned and their hoods and trunks popped open.
Not that anybody minds. It’s reassuring.
Today, the only creatures allowed to soar freely in and out of the Taj Mahal Palace are the crows, ubiquitous and defiant.