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The unsung heroes of 26/11 victory yet to receive their due

By Komal Panchamatia
November 18, 2009 11:26 IST
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Bravehearts from Mumbai's fire brigade, who battled not only fire but gunfire too during the 26/11 attacks to save hundreds of lives, are yet to receive their due.

With just a few days left for the first anniversaryof the terror assault, one of the most audacious in recent memory, these firemen are still to receive the gallantry award announced by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

If the images of Hotel Taj with its iconic dome enveloped in fire and smoke are permanently etched in the nation's collective memory, so are those of the fire fighters toiling for three long days putting out the blaze at multiple terror locations and rescuing the hostages.

Rubbing shoulders with the elite National Security Guard commandos were over 1,200 firemen, all unarmed, risking their lives while fighting the raging flames triggered by the terrorists holed up at Hotel Taj, the Trident and the Nariman House during the terror siege.

"I am proud of my men who showed exemplary courage during the attacks. They not only put out the blaze but saved over 400 people from the jaws of death risking their lives," Chief Fire Officer Uday Tatkare said.

"For a rescue operation of such gigantic proportions, Mumbai Fire Brigade then had only six Ariel Ladder Platforms and just two bullet-proof jackets, but loads of courage," Tatkare added.

On November 26 last year just when the nation was preparing to go to sleep, the might of one of the country's best of security apparatus was put to test.

Spraying water at the blazing landmark hotels and Nariman House, sometimes ducking a barrage of gunfire and grenades, these unarmed men put their best foot forward.

A year later, their department too seems to be following in their footsteps.

"Last year's terror attack has taught us a lot. We have taken several steps to improve our battle readiness," said Tatkare.

"Besides procuring latest equipment and undertaking capacity building, we are conducting seminars and training programmes for the firemen on a regular basis," he said.

"Co-ordination among various agencies like the police, the railways, BEST, MCGM and others too has gone up," he added.

In May this year, Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation Standing Committee cleared a Rs 30 crore proposal for procuring new fire resistant uniforms and equipment for the 2,300 firemen.

"We have asked for latest equipment like remote-controlled monitors, ground monitors and 100 bullet-proof jackets among other things. If we had the latest equipment during 26/11 our job would have been a little easier," Tatkare said.

All the praise for their remarkable efforts notwithstanding, the promise of honouring them remains unfulfilled.

"We acknowledge the efforts put in by the firemen and hence the MCGM decided to felicitate them by presenting them gallantry awards. The process of preparing the final list of awardees is in the pipeline," Additional Municipal Commissioner Manisha Mhaiskar told PTI.

The initial list prepared by MCGM was withheld after the Fire Brigade Union and Mahapalika Karmachari Union complained of favouritism and alleged names of several firemen involved in the action were missing. Now, the process to prepare a second list is on.

Almost a year since the attacks, it remains to be seen when these brave-hearts would be honoured or will the fire of discontent burn inside them long after they extinguished the blaze triggered by the terrorists that threatened to reduce to ashes Mumbai's landmarks.

Image: A foreign tourist sits inside a fire brigade ambulance after being rescued from the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai on 27 Nov, 2008

Photograph: Punit Paranjpe / Reuters

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Komal Panchamatia in Mumbai
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