Mumbai Down: Where effective communication was essential.

Updated: Mar 24

Many people believe that the significance of communication is like the importance of breathing. Indeed, communication facilitates the spread of knowledge and forms relationships between people. Without effective communication, people fail, teams fail, missions fail, relationships fail, and, to a certain degree, businesses can fail.

Moreover, communication is the foundation of all human relationship. At first, strangers start talking and getting to know each other, and then relationships are formed when they have more interaction and communication. Communicating helps people to express their ideas and feelings; at the same time, it also helps us to understand the emotions and thoughts of others. As a result, we develop affection or hatred toward other people, and positive or negative relationships are created. This applies to both our personal and business lives, and time gone and present proves that great communication is paramount in our everyday lives.

For Development Group Five founder, Glen Burton, c ommunication has played a big part of his personal, military and business life for the past thirty years, but none more so in the security side of things than on November 26, 2008. It was a day that would prove to be heavily reliant on effective communication, and if it had failed, the results could then have been catastrophic for one traveling family. Glen had been working in Long Island, New York, since April that year, adopting the role of Director of Protective Programs for a separate wealthy family. In June, he had bought a new home in Texas and had gone there for a few days towards the end of November to get things arranged before Christmas. He was excited about his new place.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 26, as he walked out of the house and to his car to drive to the gym for a workout, he received a call from a driver who he knew in Los Angeles. Alfred worked with a well-known female celebrity in LA and, given that Glen did security for her on and off for a number of years, he and Al knew each other fairly well. Still, the call was unexpected—they’d generally only speak when Glen was in his car. He answered the call immediately.

‘Hey, Al! What’s going on?’ he asked him.

‘Glen turn on the news. I need to talk to you about something,’ he replied.

Glen figured it must be serious. He got back out of his car, walked to the front door, and unlocked it before stepping inside. He turned the television on straight away and watched as breaking news came out of Mumbai, India. Al went on to tell him that another of his clients, a wealthy LA-based businessman, was currently in Mumbai on holiday with his family, and he needed some help. He had desperately called Al to see if he knew of anyone who could assist him and his family, and that’s when he made the call to Glen.

That afternoon in Mumbai, ten members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic terrorist organization based in Pakistan, carried out a series of coordinated shooting and bombing attacks across the Indian city. One of the sites was the luxury Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where the family were stuck inside their room. Glen had previously stayed at the hotel during a visit with a celebrity client, and so had some basic familiarity with the layout. Now, six explosions were being reported at the hotel, with one in the lobby, two in the elevators, and three in the restaurant. Glen could envisage the inside of the hotel from memory.

Al asked if he could speak with the gentleman as soon as possible, which he agreed to do. Glen quickly ran to his office and jotted down the mobile number Al provided him with before making the call. He tried five or six times before he was eventually connected and heard the man’s voice on the other end. Glen introduced myself and asked how he and his family where. He then asked him to describe their current situation. What Glen was hearing was far from comfortable; he could hear gun shots going off and people shouting outside their room in the corridor. Remaining calm was imperative, but it really is easier said than done when you aren’t in that situation yourself.

The family comprised the gentleman and his wife, who were in the room with their two young children. They’d placed furniture up against the door and were hiding under the bed and in the closet. They were scared and Glen could sense it—he could feel it. He put himself in that room as best as he could to try and be an asset to them, albeit from thousands of miles away. The call dropped suddenly, and so he called back another few times before being connected again.

‘Are you okay?’ He asked.

Nobody would be okay in that situation, especially when you have your family with you, but he needed to ask the question all the same. There was no point in formulating any kind of extraction plan just yet: the priority was to make sure the family remained quiet and safe in their hotel room. The attack was ongoing, and so it was imperative that they stayed where they were. Venturing outside of their room to try and escape when there were terrorists roaming the corridors of the hotel could prove fatal, and so Glen tried to instil some calm as best he could.

Given that the electricity was out at the hotel, so the gentleman informed Glen, they decided to speak again in thirty minutes’ time, at which point Glen would call him back. That way, he could conserve some battery life on his mobile phone. The last thing they both needed was for him to be unreachable, time was critical right now. When they hung up the call, Glen immediately phoned a colleague of his to loop him in on the situation. He’d known Mike for a number of years and both liked and trusted him. He needed to pull him in on this with him.

During the first call he’d had with the gentleman in India, they had briefly discussed some options of getting help to him, but it wouldn’t be easy or cheap. He didn’t seem to care either way: the personal safety of himself and his family was in danger.Glen managed to reach Mike straight away and briefed him on the situation.

They went through their contact lists of who they might know within somewhat of a response distance from Mumbai but, as they were going down each of their lists, they found that they weren’t getting anywhere. Most were just unavailable or on other projects and deployed elsewhere in the world. They tried reaching out to both the American and British Embassies, but weren’t getting any joy from them either. They even made a call to the police in Mumbai but, with the number of incidents taking place, they were unhelpful. It was understandable: whilst all Glen and Mike cared about was this particular family of four, they were responding to a major terrorist attack involving multiple sites throughout the city.

Mike knew he could get a team in from another country, but that would be a logistical nightmare with visas and equipment, not to mention travel time, but it was what they were leaning towards, and so Glen presented the idea to the gentleman whilst Mike reached out to those of his contacts who were prepared to deploy. Glen made one more call to a team he knew in Dubai who were within a couple of hours’ flight time from Mumbai, but they were tied up on another operation, so that fell flat.

They had to propose a team to come in from Johannesburg, but they wouldn’t be able to arrive until the following morning. Unbeknownst to anyone at that time, was that the attack would, in fact, last for three days. As such, having presented the option, as well as the cost, to the gentleman in Mumbai, Glen was surprised when he approved it. He and Mike immediately began the process of engaging the team to get to get out to Mumbai, but they knew it wouldn’t be easy.

The company they were using thankfully had a few guys who already had their Indian visas, which was a huge help: if they hadn’t have had them, it would prove to be far more difficult with getting anyone in. Communication throughout was absolutely key. Glen was speaking with the family, as well as their lawyer in the States, while Mike was dealing with and briefing the team who’d be going in to help them. There was, of course, a curve ball that they would need to deal with, and that was the gentleman’s mother-in-law was also in Mumbai, but the day before the attack she’d fallen and broken her hip, meaning she was in one of the local hospitals.

Throughout the remainder of that day, there were many calls being made, but Glen wished he’d have been able to be on the ground in person. He looked at flight options to get out of Houston, but it would have meant a long connection through London. Mike did the same, but he was currently in South America, which would make it a little trickier. They decided to both stay where they were and manage the team going in remotely. The cost hadn’t been a factor but neither of them could have done it with being unreachable at such a critical time. They were fully focused on the family and the operation to rescue them.

The international news stations were reporting many casualties throughout the city, with attacks taking place in South Mumbai at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, The Oberoi Trident, The Taj Palace Hotel, Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital and The Nariman House Jewish Community Centre. By the next morning, there was no change on the ground, and it only seemed to be worsening. Police and military were all over the place; engaging with the terrorists but not getting anywhere—at least that’s what they were seeing in the media.

The four-man team would be landing in the afternoon, and the plan was for three of them to make their way to the area of the Taj Mahal Hotel where the family were, whilst one team member would head to the Breach Candy Hospital to locate the mother-in-law and secure her. For that reason, Glen was on the phone with the hospital coordinating everything, but it wasn’t easy. As far as they were concerned, he wasn’t family, and so they weren’t giving him any information of where she was; eventually, however, Glen succeeded through speaking with one of the doctors. He’d had to explain the whole situation to him but was thankful that he worked with him on making sure they could get the guy in when he landed.

Nothing ever goes smoothly, despite your best intentions. They should have known it wouldn’t be simple and, when the team landed in Mumbai, that was proven to be the case. When they got off their flight, they’d decided to individually process through passport control and customs in case they ran into any issues. Four ex-Special Forces lads walking through together with tactical back packs was going to be a lot more suspicious than going through as individuals, but one of them was still stopped. He was asked to empty his backpack, but the problem was he was carrying two radios with spare batteries. It was a big red flag, especially when the city was experiencing a terrorist attack, and so he was detained until later on that evening. The others were able to leave the airport, thankfully, but now two of them would head to the hotel and the third straight to the hospital. Again, communication was key in making sure everyone was on the same page.

Glen was now unable to communicate with the family in the hotel as their phones had no battery, and so they’d need to remember the details he gave them in order to identify the team when they arrived— that is, if they could even get inside the hotel as the attack was still ongoing. The plan was for them to introduce themselves as high up the chain as they could with the local police commanders but knowing how sensitive the situation on the ground would be, both Mike and Glen weren’t holding out too much hope. The team couldn’t just wander up and walk into the hotel—they knew that much, so they had to sit tight and play the waiting game.

Early the next morning, on November 28, all sites that had been attacked, with the exception of the Taj Hotel, had been secured by the Mumbai Police Department and security forces. The next day, India’s National Security Guards (NSG) conducted ‘Operation Black Tornado’ in order to flush out the remaining attackers; it culminated in the death of the last remaining terrorists at the Taj Hotel and put an end to the attacks. With the mother-in-law secured at the hospital, where the security operator had found a room close to hers to hold out in, the next stage was the team getting to the family at the hotel. They were cleared to go in, along with members of the police, who were going floor-to-floor to take out casualties and those who had been stranded.

Glen was relieved a short time later to be informed by the team that they’d got the family out; they were in shock, but they were safe. They had no intention of sticking around and were taken out of the hotel and straight to the hospital to meet up with the mother-in-law. Their relief had been evident, according to the team with them on the ground. In speaking with the doctor who was responsible for the mother-in-law, they wanted to have her discharged, but it wasn’t possible. The family didn’t want to leave her behind, but they didn’t want to stay in the city either, and so Glen posed the option of getting them over to Dubai whilst maintaining a presence at the hospital until she was clear to fly. They would then all meet up in Dubai and fly home. The gentleman agreed to the plan.

It was arranged for a private plane to fly them out and to keep one of the team at the hospital until the patient could fly. He would then fly with her to Dubai and then the family would head back to the United States, but that wouldn’t be for another week—until the point at which she could be discharged from hospital. Still, they were safe and that was the most important part.

It had been an intense and critical few days, but the communication between everyone had been key to ensuring a successful operation, despite the detainment of one of the team and then having to wait at the hotel until it had been cleared. You can’t imagine how it must have been for the family, but Glen had a good idea. Given that he’d been on the phone a number of times with them, he heard exactly what was going on, and also their fear. It wasn’t pleasant for him being so far away.

The attacks, which drew widespread global condemnation, began on Wednesday November 26, and lasted until Saturday November 29, 2008. At least 174 people died, including 9 attackers, with more than 300 wounded. At the hotel where the family were, 31 people were killed and many more were injured. The casualties were mostly Indian citizens, although Westerners carrying were singled out.

The family may very well have been able to escape the attack unscathed without our help, but in a situation like that, it’s important to have a person or team who can keep you calm and guide you through the incident. Could the family have done things differently? Absolutely. They could have taken one or more trained security personnel on the trip with them. As a wealthy family, they had the money to do so, but they weren’t well-known, and that unfortunately plays a deciding factor for many. They had the luxury of having the choice, however, whereas many don’t and who could be caught up in a major terror incident, as we’ve all seen.

Always remember, no matter your fame, fortune or position: having the ability to communicate effectively can often be more important than many of us might think.