Holiday from hell

Holiday from hell

Sierra Madre woman spends terror-filled Thanksgiving in Mumbai hotel

By André Coleman , John Seeley 12/11/2008

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By the time Indian soldiers finally rescued Nancy Walsh from her room in Mumbai’s Oberoi Hotel, the 65-year-old Sierra Madre resident and member of the city’s Senior Commission had spent 36 hours amidst one of the worst terror attacks since Sept. 11. Throughout the ordeal, Walsh managed to keep cool, partially through her professional training and also because she was largely unaware of the bloodshed downstairs.

Walsh, a retired LA County Health Department executive, told reporters at LAX that she just went into a survival mode as she sat in her hotel room. “I managed several disaster preparedness training sessions,” she told the Weekly, “so I just tried to assess the situation and come up with options.” For several hours, Walsh was under the mistaken impression from confused local television coverage that the fire in another wing of the Oberoi was happening at a different hotel. “Within a certain number of hours you just get used to the gunfire and the bombs,” Walsh said. “There is a point you become impervious to it and you are just waiting to get out. I can see how people in war zones become accustomed to it.”

Thirty Oberoi Hotel guests died in the attacks that began Nov. 27, after armed men with Laskhar-e-Taiba, a group pledged to establishing Muslim domination of Russia, China and South Asia, stormed the hotel. The group’s name, according to a Los Angeles Times report, translates as “Army of the Pure.” Under pressure by the US and Indian governments, Pakistan security forces captured Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, one of the plot’s alleged masterminds, the Times reported.

The terrorists entered Mumbai in small boats and attacked multiple locations around the city. Throwing grenades and firing their weapons at bystanders, they entered the Oberoi Hotel and several other buildings searching for American and British citizens, killing 185 people from 11 countries, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.

After the siege, soldiers escorted Walsh and other guests at the five-star Oberoi Hotel through the lobby, trying in vain to prevent them from seeing the bloody carnage left by the attackers.

“On the floor there was this huge dry puddle of blood,” said Walsh, who was met by family and friends after arriving last Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport. “It led to streaks of blood like someone had been dragged on the floor. Then it became drops of blood, and then there was crushed glass on the floor from a shattered window. It was like walking through a timeline in reverse of the last moments of someone’s life.”

Walsh arrived in India on Nov. 10 and toured the northern and southern parts of the country. She returned to her room at the Oberoi the night before the attack, dining with people she had met on the plane. She had plans to depart  the next day for Dubai, but was awakened by explosions and knew immediately that something was terribly wrong.

“I grabbed my passport and got dressed. Usually, there was always someone in the hallway. I opened the door and I did not see anyone. I ran down the hallway and turned the corner and still didn’t see anyone,” she recalled.

Realizing that the elevators weren’t working and that she might be trapped in the stairwell, Walsh decided to run to the other side of the hotel, where she had seen a service entrance. When she got there, she saw a tray of food sitting on the floor and realized the hotel staff had abandoned the building.

Using the service stairs, Walsh ran down from the 33rd floor to the 27th and joined several Canadians she had met on the tour. At that point, no one had much idea what was really going on. It was several hours before Walsh returned to her room and discovered what was happening from television reports, some of them confused. 

“I hid my passport and started developing a story and a Canadian accent,” Walsh said. “If I encountered the terrorists, my story was going to be I was Canadian and that hotel management had taken my passport to review it.”

Walsh stayed huddled in her hotel room, watching CNN and talking on her cell phone to her daughters, Jennifer Dyer of Sierra Madre and Melissa Studenroth of Pasadena, and with other hotel guests. On Thanksgiving, while people back home were eating turkey and pie, Walsh nibbled cashew nuts and drank a bottle of Merlot while taking pictures of herself to memorialize the moment and keep herself occupied.

“We got a call from her saying that there were bombs going off,” said Jennifer. “There was nothing on TV when I turned to CNN. It was terrifying. We didn’t know if her building was on fire, how many terrorists there were or if the terrorists were going from room-to-room. After a few hours, we realized that the terrorists had their hands full with the hostages they had and fighting the army and that she would probably be safe if she stayed put on the 33rd floor … until we saw on CNN that the hotel was on fire and then we realized she could still die.”

The fire, set on the ground floor by terrorists holed up in the hotel, swept through that floor but was quickly brought under control. Minutes later, Walsh was hustled to safety under tight security.

Despite the terrifying experience, Walsh, who visited Vietnam and Egypt last year, continued to Dubai as previously planned, rather than rushing home, and said she plans to travel again soon.

While other siege victims complain of sleeplessness, nightmares and smoke-induced respiratory problems, Walsh has been luckier. She has had some “captivity dreams — being moved on a boat — but they’re not really that disturbing.” While not sleeping well yet, “I think it’s just jet lag,” she said.

“If you are going to be a hostage, have a good mini-bar,” she said with a chuckle. “I plan to get right back on a plane as soon as I can. We can’t let terrorism hold us back or hurt the travel industry.”

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