By Joe Skorupa
Life will never be the same for Mumbai residents after the terrorist attack on Wednesday, November 26, 2008. It was a life-changing event for a great city and also for retail CIO Timothy Kasbe, who has forever burned in his memory bomb blasts, a desperate run to safety through dangerous streets, and what-if thoughts about being at the Oberoi and Taj Mahal hotels at the time of the attack.
I found out about the Mumbai attack in real-time through an e-mail from Jeff Roster, a good friend who works at Gartner. I should not have been in the office at such a late hour prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. Everyone else had left. I was the last person in the building, finishing a to-do list before heading home.
There, in solitary silence, my computer suddenly came ablaze with astonishing messages that seemed to be delivered in surround sound and vivid Technicolor.
It started when Roster responded to a request I sent, adding this note: "By the way, have you heard about the terrorist story just breaking now in India? Timothy Kasbe, the CIO of Reliance Retail is in the hotel under attack. He is safe and sending out text messages. He's saying there's at least 55 fatalities."
What? I hadn't heard anything. So I went to CNN.com. Initial reports of a massive terrorist attack were just coming in. The news was frightening.
Roster's next e-mail included a message from Tim: "We finished review at 9:30 pm and went to Ruby Tuesday for a drink. While there I heard two bomb blasts next door at the Oberoi Hotel, where my wife and I stayed for 9 months and for 9 months after that at the Taj. It is in the hands of terrorists right now. We ran from the Oberoi to Kala Ghoda (An art district. Ed.). Right now, we are in a safe place away from Nariman Point (South Mumbai's business district. Ed.), but heard another explosion on this street at a gas station. We are under security in this building and as safe as one can be."
I had to go home. But first I wanted to find out if Kasbe, who has been CIO for the biggest retail chain in India for the past year and a half, was okay. Then he posted a longer report to his Facebook page. It is too long and personal to be reprinted here, but a portion of his account follows.
Kasbe's Report from Mumbai
"We are only now beginning to embrace what actually happened and is still happening in Mumbai. It's so surreal that it's hard to believe all that we have been through in the past 24 hours. Those terror attacks are meant to happen in far away lands. Sometimes you forget you are actually living in far away lands.
"I was not meant to be in South Mumbai yesterday, hence not meant to be near Oberoi. We almost could have ended up in the hotel for drinks and dinner had we not decided to have a drink at Ruby Tuesday's next door then dinner at Khyber. As I write this, I see God's grace strewn through out my night in South Mumbai yesterday.
"Even the run from Ruby Tuesday to Kala Ghoda, past the Parliament House, Fountain, and Colaba Causeway! Only six of us, (Senior execs from Reliance. Ed.) and yours truly were running the streets at that time.
"The city, which never literally sleeps, was barren with not a soul in sight. I am shouting at my friends and asking them to run on the tree lined footpaths instead of their choice of running bang in the middle of the streets! I said we are open targets, by running in the middle of the road. Only to see on TV this morning, that the police defused about 20 bombs on that footpath under the trees I was shouting at my friends to take instead of the middle of the street! Only now we find out that we were a block or two away from those terrorists that were randomly shooting at people on the streets! The only terrorist caught at Chowpatty Naka was 30 seconds behind us as we slipped past the police barricade at that last checkpoint.
"We ran past Leopold and Churchill bars with no one in them, again to see on TV that they were just bombed before we ran past them. And tonight, Thursday, was going to be a gala Thanksgiving dinner in the gardens of the Taj Mahal Hotel, arranged for us by the U.S. Consulate. Or did the terrorists get the day wrong? Were they a day early?...
"So many firsts for me happened in just those few minutes. For the first time, I heard real bomb blasts and they don't sound anything like in the movies. It is a completely different depth, almost deadness, to anything you have heard. It's still ringing in my ears. I never thought that after hearing it I would walk towards it. To the point, where my friends had to pull me back.
"Why would I walk towards it? You have to understand, when I landed in India my first night and most of the year after, was spent at the Oberoi and then at the Taj. Oberoi to us is not a hotel anymore but a second home. India is stark, constant and continuous in her dirt, smell, bodies and heat. Oberoi has a different air; it's an oasis in the dessert for us. But, apart from being just an amazing place, it's also a place where people embraced us and made us feel at home in such a different and distant locale. The GM, the staff who runs the Bunyan Tree Spa, Smiling Faces at front desk (three of whom were shot at point blank range. Ed.), guys who run food and beverage, and those helpful souls at Concierge are all our friends!
"Our wedding was entirely arranged by the staff at the hotel, from flowers, music, jewelry to the reception at the Taj Mahal, to booking the presidential suite looking down on the gateway of India. These people are like our family, who cared, beyond our stay at their hotel. In the crowd last night, I saw Emmanuel Lattanzi, Exec Chef at Vetro, who comes from Tuscany, weeping uncontrollably! His wife and baby are still in the Hotel. They let him out because he was Italian! (Kasbe later learned that Lattanzi went back to the hoel with milk powder for his baby girl and 24 hours later came out with his wife and baby. Ed.) I called the GM at Oberaoi at 2:58 am, and he was distraught. While his own property is under siege, his first question was, are you and your wife safe?...
"Yet still, there is so much to be thankful for at this Thanksgiving. How fleeting can life be? How easy it is? Just blink an eye, a wrong foot step and it is all gone. My wife is a red headed Irish American. She can hardly blend in here. Also, she is not a type that simply sits in the house. She has learned the language and adopted this country and people as her own. Apart from the work with orphans, her highlight of the day is to go to the Sabhji (spinach) market and haggle with the farmers and fisherman to get a better price on items, knowing full well that she pays double what the locals do! There was so much freedom, fun, adventure in all this...
"How do we think now? I never thought we would be forced to answer some of the questions facing us now. For now, once the roads open back up to South Mumbai, I plan on heading back there to see my friends. Ensure they are OK, alive."
Postscript to a Frightening Episode
I couldn't get Kasbe's postings out of my head throughout Thanksgiving. I absorbed all the news reports over the holiday weekend and nothing approached the impact of sitting alone in my office and getting reports from Kasbe in Mumbai. Thankfully he and his family made it through one of the world's most frightening episodes.
Kasbe is one of the prime movers in the Retail Orphan Initiative (Retail ROI), a charitable foundation formed by a group of retailers, vendors and analysts for the purpose of helping the orphaned and vulnerable children of the world.
I know Kasbe and his family would appreciate anyone who may want to donate to the needy in this special time of the year to consider giving to Retail ROI. All donations are tax deductible and can be made by sending to:
c/o The Giving Back Fund
6033 West Century Blvd, Suite 240
Los Angeles, CA 90045
For more information about RetailROI and how to donate online click here.
I kept checking my Blackberry throughout the Thanksgiving holiday, not for business or personal messages, but to see if Kasbe was all right. He was and is. But after the events of last Wednesday, nothing will ever be quite the same.