Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

We were caught in Mumbai massacre

Flames come from a room of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008. Black-clad Indian commandoes raided two luxury hotels to try to free hostages Thursday, and explosions and gunshots shook India's financial capital a day after suspected Muslim militants killed people. (AP Photo/Gurinder Osan)

Two business workers from Northern Ireland told last night of their fear as they lay barricaded up in a hotel in Mumbai.

The managers from Belfast firm Sepha were in the financial heart of India to attend a trade show when terrorists stormed hotels targeting westerners and firing indiscriminately into crowds.

Chief executive Aubery Sayers and regional sales manager Claire McGrath spoke last night to the Belfast Telegraph from their hotel rooms where they have been protected by an armed guard and told to remain since Wednesday night.

As events continued a car bomb exploded and tore through the streets around their hotel.

Sepha CEO Mr Sayers said: “I lived through the Troubles in the seventies so I have seen rioting but this is something different.”

Mr Sayers arrived on Wednesday and was unaware of the chaos that had erupted on the streets of Mumbai. From his bolt-hold in the north of the city he said: “When I left everything was fine. When we got to the airport the guys had set up TVs but the channel was in Hindi so we had no idea what was actually happening.

“One of the girls from work phoned to tell me what was happening but it was all very confusing. She thought it was rioting.”

As the horror of what was happening was revealed Mr Sayers said that he began to fear for his own safety. He said: “When we went out, there was armed personnel everywhere and when we got to the hotel we found the army guarding it. It was then that I realised that this was more serious than rioting.”

Local authorities and colleagues advised the managers to stay in their hotel and not venture onto the streets because westerners were being targeted.

Mr Sayers said: “We have been in lock-down ever since. The police have said that all foreign nationals should stay in their rooms.

“Because of that it is hard for us to assess what’s happening.”

He said that the normally bustling streets of Mumbai were deserted while commandos stormed the Taj Mahal hotel: “The place was like a ghost town,” he said.

Claire McGrath, regional sales manager for Sepha has been in Mumbai since Sunday and was setting up for the trade show when news broke of the running gun battles.

She said that the trade show has been cancelled because the authorities fear putting too many westerners in one place.

Mrs McGrath told the Belfast Telegraph that rumours and fear are circulating and it is very hard to get any information on what is actually happening just a few miles from her safe haven.

She said: “There were rumours that some of the terrorists were unaccounted for and that westerners were still under threat. There was a lot of confusion and scaremongering going on.”

Her fear was compounded when they were told of the car bomb close to the hotel.

She said: “About two kilometres from us there was a car bomb.”

One of the main problems is getting their hands on current information. Mrs McGrath said: “It is hard to know what's going on but the news are asking whether the police reacted quickly enough to this when it began.”

Mrs McGrath said that they were all told that the terrorists were seeking out people with British and American passports. One of the glimmers of hope that she then had was that she travels on an Irish passport which may have kept her safe.

Both Mr Sayers and Mrs McGrath are astounded by the scale of these attacks. Mr Sayers compared it to period he saw during the Troubles and said it was far worse than anything like that.

The Sepha management team are trying their best to keep themselves appraised of the situation via rolling news channels which Mr Sayers says often black out as the army mount their operations.

They have flights organised for the weekend and are hoping to be home safe by Sunday but Mrs McGrath posted a message on the Belfast Telegraph and told of how all air and train travel out of the city had been suspended and “the siege continues.”

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