Survivor Roger recounts horrors of Mumbai attack

AS the terrifying sound of gunfire seared through the 15-floor hotel in India’s capital of Mumbai, Roger Hunt remained silent in his room and thought of his family back home in the quiet town of Macduff as he contemplated death.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 9th November 2010, 9:50 am

Roger is a survivor of Black Wednesday - India’s 9/11, and the attacks which nearly cost him his life as terrorists tore through India’s railway station, a student hub, businesses and two popular hotels in the heart of the finance district of the city.

The attacks, which occurred on November 26, 2008, drew widespread global condemnation and lasted until November 29, killing at least 173 people and wounding at least 308.

The attackers were members of the Islamic terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba who co-ordinated raids across the city. Roger was staying in the Oberoi Hotel, where 40 people were killed.

He hid in his room on the 14th floor for nearly three days as bomb blasts and perpetual gun fire made its way through his hotel, floor by floor.

Talking to the Buchanie nearly two years after the catastrophic events unfolded, Roger has changed his career direction and has written a book detailing the events, and the parallels that exist between his fight for survival, and that of his former employer, the Royal Bank of Scotland.

“It is strange because the book, in a way, charters the rise and fall of the RBS as well as my experience, it was as if there was a connection. When I was doing well at work they were doing brilliantly, and at the time I was fighting for survival they were struggling also.

“Since writing the book, I have made a few changes in my life. I was with RBS for 26 years and was given some challenging jobs. I eventually was rolling out the company’s HR services across the globe, and went to places such as Holland, Asia, and Ireland, but felt it was time for a change,” he said.

Originally from the close-knit fishing community of Whitehills in Banff, Roger has lived in Macduff for 11 years with his wife Irene, 22-year-old daughter Lisa, 20-year-old son Christopher, and 15-year-old daughter Stephanie.

“I went back to work after two weeks of returning home from Mumbai. I felt I needed to restore my focus and establish a routine. I could have been given much longer off if I wanted but I felt it was better to get back sooner. The whole experience was life-changing and made me re-assess what I wanted out of life. It is very strange what you can only know thinking back and there were so many choices I could have made that would have meant I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

In many ways, it is easy to see why Roger believes fate had a lot to do with his misfortune, and his fortune in a lot of others.

In hindsight, missed opportunities, time changes and general day-to-day life choices had a major part to play in his survival.

He recalls the last minute change of venue for dinner on the night the terrorists struck.

“Our hotel was a short drive away from the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, and I had planned to go to the restaurant there for dinner with a colleague on the Wednesday night, the night the terrorists struck, but it was brought forward to Tuesday night. Had we been there on the Wednesday night I would not be alive today. The hotel was the worst hit,” he said.

In retrospect, Roger might have missed the Mumbai attacks completely, as in another strange twist of fate, it was the week after the terrorist attacks that he was due to make the trip to the Indian city, but again the date had been brought forward.

“It’s strange now thinking about what could have been different, and it makes you think about unimportant details in life that change, and that could have meant life or death for me, and you can only see it in hindsight,”he added.

During the 66-hour long siege, Roger spent a lot of his time contemplating the death of his brother, who he lost to a fishing accident when he was a teenager.

As Roger lay silent in his room on the 14th floor, he worked out a number of survival tactics. He covered his blackberry with a towel, did not use the minibar for fear it would trigger something in reception that would alert the terrorists, and did not answer the hotel phone.

He placed the couch along a wall and hid behind it so as to make the room appear empty.

“The phone rang a few times while I was in the room, at one point I thought I would answer it as it could have been the Black Cat commandos who I was told were coming to my aid. But it turns out it was life-saving that I didn’t because an Australian guest who did this was then shot dead.”

Roger initially thought that the attacks were part of a local feud and that the gunmen would soon disperse.

“It had a gone on for some time and that’s when I realised this was a major terrorist attack. At one point I thought about just taking my own life rather than giving the terrorists the satisfaction. It was almost like choosing what way you were going to die - I could either jump out the window, walk out my room and be shot, or wait until they found me and killed me.

“At the worst point the bank were telling my family to prepare for the worst and they were thinking about funeral preparations. It’s so difficult to believe now. But I suddenly felt determined to survive after I got through the first night,” he said.

Roger was in his room for 66 hours before the Indian Black Cat commandos arrived to take him to safety - he did not sleep at all for fear he would alert the terrorists that the room was occupied.

Guilt is something that Roger has struggled with since the Black Wednesday events.

“I think about it all the time, why was I spared and so many others weren’t? I struggled with sleeping and I still often wake up in the middle of the night, even now. I didn’t take counselling though I thought it was best to work through it myself,” he said.

As well as recounting the world-shaking events that Roger was a part of that November 2008, much of the book is regarding what has shaped him as an individual.

“It is not something you can ever prepare for. When the MI5 debriefed me afterwards they asked if I’d ever had any military training, but it must have been natural instinct that kicked in. You just never think that something like that will happen to you.”

Roger now works for the Scottish Prison Service, as HR manager for Peterhead Prison.

Having previously spent seven years working in the town, with a two-year stint in Fraserburgh, he knows the Buchan area well.

It was in January 2009, just over a month after his life-altering ordeal in the city of Mumbai, that Roger decided he wanted to write a book about his recollection of the devastating events.

“I needed to put it in writing and felt I should do it for all those people who were there at the time, those who lived and those who perished. I did it for my children as I wanted them to know the detail of what happened and how much they meant to me, giving me the will to hang on when times were at their darkest.

“When I first mentioned the idea of writing a book to my wife, she thought I was joking. I don’t think she ever expected me to come up with something like that.

“But then you never know what is in front of you, I believe for the most part that that is a good thing.”

“Before it happened I’d been working in Edinburgh and travelled back home every weekend, but I realised that I needed to spend more time with my family in Macduff,” he added.

Be Silent or Be Killed is available to buy from Amazon at www.amazon.co.uk.