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During a recent USBJD meeting at AAOS headquarters, Dr. Puzas (left) and Mr. King discuss their experiences in India and their efforts to recover the possessions left behind in Mumbai.


Published 1/1/2009
Jennie McKee

A narrow escape from Mumbai

USBJD president, executive director caught in terror attacks

What began as a casual dinner in an outdoor courtyard at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai, India turned into a horrific experience that J. Edward Puzas, PhD, president of the U.S. Bone and Joint Decade (USBJD), and Toby King, USBJD executive director, will never forget.

Dr. Puzas, Mr. King, and their wives were in India for the Bone and Joint Decade World Network Conference. At about 10 p.m. on Nov. 26, 2008, as they were dining in the hotel’s courtyard, they heard strange explosions.

“Our waiter told us not to worry—it was probably firecrackers from a wedding celebration,” remembers Dr. Puzas.

A few moments later, however, they heard the unmistakable sound of automatic weapon fire. As people started running towards them from the lobby, Dr. Puzas and the others jumped up and headed down steps leading to the hotel’s exercise room. As they ran, a grenade exploded in a nearby restaurant.

“I didn’t see the flash, but I heard the bang,” says Dr. Puzas.

According to Mr. King, hotel employees shepherded guests through a series of corridors to the basement, where they waited for a couple of hours, feeling very unsafe and worrying that an attacker would burst into the corridor.

“It was all so quick,” says Mr. King. “We didn’t really know what had happened until someone with a cell phone found out that the hotel really was under attack.”

Later, Mr. King saw a photo of the courtyard where they had been sitting. People dining at the next table had been shot and killed.

Escaping under fire
When police arrived, about 200 people were moved to another, more secure location within the hotel. For the next 4 hours, they hid and tried to contact loved ones as the gunfire and explosions continued. Then, it got quiet.

“There were no gunshots, no grenades—nothing,” says Dr. Puzas. “By now, the militia was on the scene and was arranging for groups of people to leave the hotel, which had caught on fire.”

In groups of 10 to 12, people were allowed to go. Dr. Puzas, Mr. King, and their wives were in the fourth group. As they moved toward the exits, a gunman behind them opened fire.

“We had assumed it was safe,” says Mr. King. “But as we turned the corner, we heard a tremendous ‘crack, crack, bang!’ It was quite a shock.”

The group scrambled toward the exit and ran into the street. Hotel staff guided them to a bus that took them to a nearby hotel, where mattresses were laid out on the ballroom floor.

“We didn’t get a lot of sleep,” says Mr. King. “Every 15 minutes or so more people would arrive or someone would come with more news. We tried to contact family and people at the conference.”

Getting home
On Friday morning, they went to the U.S. Consulate. Because all their possessions—including passports and visas—were still in their hotel rooms, they had to replace these documents before re-entering the United States, and obtain an exit visa in order to leave India. As a British and Canadian citizen, Mr. King got a passport from the British Consulate. Then, they all went to the airport for their exit visas.

“Soldiers wouldn’t let anyone without a boarding pass and valid papers into the airport,” says Mr. King. “I didn’t have that.

So, I was escorted in by armed guard.”

Since arriving home, Dr. Puzas and Mr. King have been trying to replace lost laptops, Blackberries, cell phones, and other items.

“When we got home late Saturday night,” adds Dr. Puzas, “we had to break into our house because we had no keys.”

Reflecting on the attacks
Dr. Puzas says that he made it through the experience by living moment by moment.

“We did what we had to do,” he says. “It still seems surreal that we were in the middle of it.”

The experience opened his eyes to the deep-rooted tensions between India and Pakistan.

“I didn’t realize how much friction exists between those two countries,” says Dr. Puzas. “If any evidence that the government of Pakistan was supporting this is found, I think relations will really deteriorate.”

Mr. King felt a sense of déja-vû as he lived through the events that occurred in Mumbai.

“I was in the Mexico City earthquake in 1985,” he says. “This experience made me say, ‘Here we go again.’ It was another amazing event that I didn’t want to be a part of, but I was. The experience also made me think about the people who are constantly in harm’s way every day—in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.”

He was also touched by the bravery of the hotel staff.

“Many of their colleagues were victims,” says Mr. King. “The hotel manager was helping guests when his wife and two daughters were caught in the fire and died. He carried on afterwards, continuing to do his job.”

Jennie McKee is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at mckee@aaos.org