On November 26, 2008, one of the most audacious attacks on India’s sovereignty took place. Ten terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out 12 attacks, spread over four days, across the city of Mumbai, killing as many as 159 people and gravely wounding more than 200. Those four tragic days were also witness to extraordinary acts of bravery, by both ordinary civilians and security forces, as the city came together to battle the brazen assault.
For two nights and three days, the burning dome and spires of Hotel Taj Mahal were a sight that scarred the nation’s psyche, exposing how vulnerable Indian cities were to terror. What few people know though is that in the blazing hotel was a man, whose raw courage and quick thinking saved 157 lives, including his own.
This is the story of that unsung hero, Ravi Dharnidhirka.
Ravi Dharnidhirka was a Captain in the US Marine Corps and had spent four years flying more than 200 combat missions in Iraq, including in the bloody battle of Fallujah in 2004. In November 2008, this 31-year-old Indian American Marine was in India after more than a decade to spend his holidays with his family who stay near Badhwar Park in Mumbai.
On the day of the attack, Ravi, along with his uncles and cousins, decided to dine at Souk, the Lebanese restaurant on the 20th floor of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel.
According to the book The Siege: 68 Hours Inside The Taj Hotel, written by British journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy (who were also trapped inside the hotel), Dharnidhirka’s instincts had him on the edge from the moment he entered the hotel. What had made him uneasy was the fact that the hotel security had missed the beeping sound of the metal detector when he entered the hotel. Very soon, many phones started ringing together in the restaurant and his cousin too got a call informing him that shootings had taken place in Colaba.
Once it was confirmed that the hotel was under attack, Ravi, along with a few South African ex-commandos who worked for a private firm, decided it was up to them to do something.
They assembled and decided to take matters into their own hands. They realised the immediate danger to them was from the Souk’s glass doors – a single grenade from the terrorists could cause grievous damage, not to mention mayhem and panic among those inside.
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Two of the South African commandos explained the situation to the guests, while Captain Dharnidharka, along with another commando, did a recce of the surroundings. They found a safe conference hall with a thick wooden door. Having also found the fire stairway near the hall, they blocked it with tables, chairs and anything they could find to make it difficult for the terrorists to reach them. They also informed some members of the Taj staff about this so that, at a signal, they could start unblocking the stairs if they had to make a quick exit.
They then quickly moved everyone through the kitchen into the secure hall, arming themselves on the way with whatever they could – knives, meat cleavers, rods. They knew it was hardly enough to stop gun-wielding terrorists but they wanted to be prepared to fight back if needed and were counting on the fact that the terrorists would not be expecting resistance.
After barricading the doors with every available heavy object, the curtains were drawn and the hall darkened to avoid drawing attention. Instructions were given to everybody to stay quiet and not reveal their whereabouts to anyone over the phone. Dharnidharka and the ex-commandos knew that any information getting out of that hall would risk the lives of 157 people who would be easy targets for the terrorists.
Then they waited, everyone hoping for an opportunity to escape. The Taj staff did a commendable job of ensuring that everybody got food and water during the long wait. Soon, they heard two explosions. The terrorists had set off RDX under the central dome and in the heritage towers of the Taj, setting the sixth floor on fire.
The fire started spreading upwards and Dharnidhirka figured this could severely complicate their escape by blocking the exits. Even if the fire did not spread there were chances of short-circuiting and the power being cut, which could eventually suffocate them.
Dharnidharka and the ex-commandos realised it was time they executed their escape plan. Even though there were rumours that security forces were on their way to rescue them, Dharnidharka knew that with the kind of firepower the terrorists had, the rescue forces may not get to them anytime soon.
While a couple of the ex-commandos made sure the path was clear, Dharnidharka cleared the barricades from the escape route with the help of the staff, before helping the people vacate the hall. Phones were switched off and shoes were taken off – every person there knew that the only way to safety was a noiseless exodus. Every floor had a fire exit with a glass panel from where one could see the floor’s lobby, so crossing the landing of every floor was very risky and had to be done extremely carefully.
The slow moving group was led by the cautious ex-commandos and Taj security men, followed by the women and children. The other men and Captain Dharnidhirka came last. When he realised that an 84-year-old lady among them would never manage to climb down 20 flights of stairs, Dharnidharka took help from one of the waiters and carried her downstairs in his arms even though she insisted on being left there!
After a nerve-wracking 20 floor descent, Captain Ravi Dharnidharka and his team of ex-commandos escorted 157 terrified people out of the burning hotel and into safety. The perfect embodiment of courage and presence of mind in the face of danger, what they achieved can never be forgotten.