It was about 10:00 p.m. on 26 November 2008—there was only one hour left for Vishnu Zende’s 3:00–11:00 p.m. shift as a railway announcer to end—when he heard an unusual sound.
The ‘unusual sound’ was a loud bang on the Main Line of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station in Mumbai, and it immediately rang alarm bells in Zende’s head. Suspecting that it was a blast, Zende promptly informed the Railway Protection Force (RPF) as well as the Government Railway Police (GRP).
However, within minutes, the railway announcer would realise that this wasn’t an accidental or isolated blast. The CST railway station was under a terrorist attack!
Speaking to The Better India, Zende recalls the fateful day.
“As soon as I heard the loud sound, my first instinct was to think it was a bomb blast. I immediately started making announcements to guide people away from the blast site and contacted the railway police so they could take charge of the situation.”
Right after the announcement was made, Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab and Abu Dera Ismael Khan, two of the terrorists involved in the Mumbai terror attacks walked across the platform, armed with assault rifles and an “evil grin.”
“I saw the men walking with guns … to the suburban railway section and firing indiscriminately. They were throwing hand-grenades,” he told the Hindustan Times.
The gravity of the situation is not lost to us, ten years after the attack. Even as the railway announcer realised that his life was in direct danger, he decided to stay and make full use of the resources at his disposal—his knowledge about the railway station, an overview of the platforms from his cabin and a microphone fit to make announcements on all the platforms.
Right then, while the terrorists were showering bullets on innocent people, a suburban train arrived at the terminus. Hundreds, if not a thousand people, would have disembarked at the station, and come face-to-face with the two terrorists who were determined to kill every human being they encountered at CST.
“Rage was boiling in me as I watched the terrorists firing at the passengers. So, I continued making announcements so the innocent people could be safe.
While we could see the terrorists, thankfully, since we were sitting on the first floor, they could not see us,” Zende told TBI.
For the next 25 minutes, he made continuous announcements in Hindi and Marathi, asking passengers to take the rear gate of the Main Line instead of the exit gate. He knew this gate was much safer than the usual exit.
“Yeh lal shirt wale bhai sahab, kripya aagey mat ayiye, peechhe jayiye (The gentleman in the red-t-shirt, please don’t come forward, go back)” he announced, careful not to invoke too much panic into the hundreds of passengers although the situation was as grave as it could get. “The passengers rushed out, following my instruction,” he told HT.
It wasn’t as though Zende (and his colleague) were completely safe in their cabin. The terrorists were calling out people who were hiding and could have also shifted their focus on the railway staff who was busy saving passengers.
“While firing indiscriminately, Kasab also waved his hand at us, signalling that we (railway staff) come out of the control room,” Zende recalls.
However, he did not stop making the announcements until he saw that the platform was vacant, save for the terrorists. “When Kasab found nobody to kill at the platform, he also fired at a dog,” he said.
A short while later, when the glass wall of his cabin shattered, Zende took refuge under his desk. The terrorists had aimed for the cabin, and the bullet missed the railway announcer by inches. By then, thankfully the station was empty, and Zende knew that had done his job.
“With the sound of bullets only getting louder with every shot fired, I knew my time had come. We were all terrified, but we tried to keep calm and not make things worse. I told my family I was safe for now, but I honestly did not know what was going to happen,” told the Indian Express.
Even as 52 people were killed at the railway station that fateful night of 26/11, Zende’s courage and bravery saved potentially hundreds of others. He later became a witness in the 26/11 case. “I saw two faces of Kasab,” he told TOI, adding, “One with the evil grin during the firing and a dispassionate one, bereft on any emotion, inside the courtroom.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)