Pakistani journalist recalls night of horror at Marriott (Lead)

September 21st, 2008 - 6:27 pm ICT by IANS  

Islamabad, Sep 21 (IANS) Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Alam was in a lift in Hotel Marriott here when he heard an ear-splitting boom. The lift came to a sudden halt and its lights went off.A friend of many Indian journalists, Alam did not know then that a suicide bomber had just blown up a truck packed with one tonne of explosives outside the gates of the luxury hotel.

Numbed by fear, Alam used all his strength to force open the doors of the lift and step out on the fourth floor of the five-storey hotel that was now ablaze.

“As I stepped out of the lift, it went down with a bang,” the Lahore-based Alam told IANS, explaining how he escaped death by a whisker.

By then, screams had filled the hotel’s rooms and corridors. Darkness had set in after a power outage. The false ceiling of the hotel collapsed.

Guests and employees of the hotel were running, desperately trying to escape what turned out to be a night of horror that claimed at least 46 lives, barely 40 minutes after the end of the day’s Ramadan fast.

Alam also joined the mad scramble to safety. He managed to find the emergency exit and was soon out of the hotel from the rear side, safe and sound. He was panting though.

A leading light of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), Alam was in Islamabad to hear President Asif Ali Zardari address the joint session of parliament.

He was one of 200 people staying in the hotel when the terror attack took place.

Initially, when he was in his fifth floor room, there was a milder bang. Alam could not make out what it was all about.

“I moved the curtains to see outside. But everything was calm,” he said.

The blast was followed by a siren. It was then that he came out of the room and looked into the lobby. Strangely, it was deserted.

Suspecting that something serious had occurred, Alam pressed the elevator button to go down.

That is how he entered the lift to go to the ground floor. And that is where he had his momentous escape.

“This is the first time in my life that I saw death from such close quarters,” said the journalist, who has been working to bring journalists and politicians of Pakistan and India together.

Imtiaz Gul, another senior Pakistani journalist, was having dinner at the Marquee Restaurant in the hotel when the suicide bomber struck.

“We heard a blast of low intensity that was followed by a huge explosion - as deafening as anything could be. The power went off… it was darkness and people were crying and screaming,” Gul told IANS.

He said several people were injured, some seriously, when the false ceiling of the restaurant came crashing down.

He too made his way from the backside of the hotel. Almost all survivors took the same route.

According to Gul, around 300 people were in the restaurants when the attack occurred.

Nadeem Ahmed, a driver, had taken his employer’s family to the hotel for Iftar dinner. He had come to the main entrance of the hotel to spend time after parking the car.

“I was looking at the sniffer dogs who take rounds of vehicles entering the hotel. That is when a person from inside a truck shouted to us to run if we wanted to save our lives. I ran towards the parking,” said Ahmed.

He said the guards at the hotel challenged the driver. Simultaneously, they switched on the emergency siren to alert everybody about an impending danger.

“Soon after, there was a massive explosion. I saw objects fly in the air,” said Nadeem, whose employer and his family - a wife and two kids - managed to come out of the hotel safely.

Many others were not so lucky that Saturday evening.

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