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In 26/11 horror, some brilliant humanity also stood out

Last updated on: November 20, 2009 09:56 IST

Image: Helen Connolly with Naomi Scherr in a photograph taken on the India trip before Naomi's death on 26/11.
Photographs: Courtesy Helen Connolly Archana Masih

Helen Connolly crouched under the dinner table when terrorists opened fire inside the Trident hotel on 26/11. Her friends Naomi Scherr, 13, and Alan Scherr who were dining with her, died that night. Helen was fortunate to survive.

A year later, the yoga instructor from Canada, remembers her friends, describes her own healing and chronicles the brilliant humanity that shone through that horror.

That hot and humid evening, Naomi Scherr, 13, her father Alan and Helen Connolly did not take the usual taxi and walked back to the Trident hotel from the Y B Chavan Centre, a short distance away.

The walk was Alan's suggestion and they set off, chatting as they walked, enjoying the sites and sounds of the Mumbai evening. Naomi was wearing new sandals that kept bothering her toes, she tried to fix them and eventually took them off. So busy were they talking that the trio got lost and had to re-orient themselves to get to the hotel.

By the time they made it back, they were thirsty and Naomi was hungry. The teenager loved sushi, and Helen, a yoga instructor from Toronto, Canada, asked her if she would like some. 'Yes,' said the sprightly kid and they ordered Ginger Lime drinks at the Tiffin restaurant at the Trident.

The ladies were joined by other group members Linda Ragsdale, Rudrani Devi and actor Michael Rudder. The group was on a trip to India as part of the Synchrocity Foundation, a meditation and holistic organisation from Virginia, USA.

Naomi ordered asparagus sushi and Helen a bowl of soup. While they ate all the rolls waiting for their food, conversation kept flowing along the table. As Naomi enjoyed her sushi, her father Alan, had some errands to run for Master Charles, the Synchrocity guru.

Alan joined them later and had a loving exchange with his daughter. He told Helen that he didn't know how he would survive without Naomi after she went away to school next year. He just ordered ice cream, while Helen had celery soup with one ravioli in the bottom of the bowl.

This was Naomi and Alan's last supper. A few minutes later, the shooting started and Alan called out to the others to get under the table. He and Naomi reached out to each other under the table. Huddled under that table, holding each other's hands, they died from a flurry of bullets fired by the terrorists on November 26, 2008.

Naomi was the youngest person to die at the Oberoi that night.

"The grief for the people who died under the table with me, not only Naomi and Alan, but also an Indian couple who had dived under our table for shelter, would hit me at unexpected moments and I would find myself in tears," says Helen Connolly who had lain in a child's pose under the table, silently chanting Om Shanti.

A very good friend of Naomi and Alan, she had shared a room with the teenager who reminded her of her own children and Helen reminded Naomi of her mother Kia back home in America.

A year later, Helen gave Archana Masih the above detailed, near verbatim account of what they did that evening before that night of horror in Mumbai, in a long e-mail from Toronto.

"I have returned to Synchronicity for retreats several times in the past year and feel grateful for the opportunity to evolve my state of awareness. It remains to be seen whether any flashbacks will surface on the anniversary. The renewed interest by the media is dredging up old memories, but I feel balanced, a little sad sometimes, and my love of India returns with very happy memories of that trip," Helen said in an e-mailed interview this week.

'Death was just a moment away'

Image: Naomi plays with a calf during her trip to India.
Photographs: Courtesy Helen Connolly
How long were you trapped inside the Tiffin restaurant?

I don't know exactly how long we were trapped. Time stopped. But I don't think it was very long possibly half an hour at most?? I do know that thanks to the wonderful help of the hotel staff we managed to first scurry or crawl into the kitchen facilities during a ceasefire.

Once there, the shooting recommenced and seemed to move closer to the kitchen where we were repeating the Om Shanti mantra, while assuming the probability that certain death was just a moment away, when the terrorists would blast their way through the kitchen door. But that never happened.

The staff found an escape route through an emergency exit and brought us (Linda, Rudrani and myself) to the safety of awaiting taxis.

Michael regained consciousness and got out just after us. I will be forever grateful to those wonderful, selfless taxi drivers and Oberoi staff. God Bless them.

'I was washing the blood of my deceased friends from my hair'

Image: A photograph of Synchrocity members. Helen and Naomi (extreme left)
When did you come out of the Trident hotel?

As I mentioned, we came out through the Tiffin restaurant kitchen. A line of taxis waited outside. The Oberoi staff carried Linda and Rudrani into one taxi. I, being the least injured, followed in another taxi with two of the hotel staff. We were taken to the Bombay Hospital and taken to different rooms for treatment.

The Oberoi staff stayed in the corridor outside and popped in to check on me regularly. They were absolutely wonderful in their care. I found out through the course of the evening that all of Mumbai was under siege, and not just our hotel.

When I was moved to another room, Parumel from the Oberoi pushed me there in a wheelchair. During the night several more hotel staff came by. I remember Bijesh, being a very compassionate presence.

Hours later, I noticed that my hair was as hard as cardboard. I went to the bathroom to rinse it and found it so surreal to be washing the blood of my deceased friends from my hair. That still strikes me as an experience that is beyond the capability of words to express.


It had been a wonderful day for Helen and the group, she says. They had visited Swami Vishveshwaranda's ashram where they rested, were given lunch and had an audience with the Swami. "Some of his monks chanted for us and the Swamiji presented us with a rudraksha bead on a red string which we wore around their necks."

On getting back to the hotel, they rested and changed before Alan, Naomi and Helen got into a taxi to attend Master Charles's evening programme. Afterwards they walked back to the Trident.

The group had been in India for about 10 days before 26/11 and had visited the Elephanta caves and several temples in the Mumbai area. They had bought gifts and taken ayurvedic treatments. "I had arisen up at dawn each morning to walk on the water's edge," remembers Helen. A night before the attack, they had attended a birthday party.

'The Muslim call of prayer was beautiful and comforting'

Image: The Mumbai skyline
Photographs: Rediff Archives
How long did you stay in Mumbai and where?

The next morning about a dozen or more Oberoi staff came to the hospital to see about reuniting me with family contact through their cellphones.

While we were trying to figure out international calling codes the Sachdeva family came in. Santosh, Gautam, Shibani and Nikki were the event planners for our pilgrimage. They called my husband and then, along with their friend, Xavier, took me to their home near the Marine Plaza Hotel.

I had lost one of my sandals in the attack so they bought me a new pair on the way there from a stall on the street. They also gave me a change of clothes so that my own could be washed.

I stayed with them until the rest of our group was released from the Oberoi. Shibani kept lines of communication open with Master Charles and other members of the group and Synchronicity.

My brother, Vincent Leahy, who coincidently was on his first trip to Mumbai, to visit with his wife's family in the outskirts of the city, came by with his wife and provided me with some clothing and money and also contacted the Canadian consulate on my behalf.

He also kept in contact with my family in Toronto, which was a huge relief to me when everything was so chaotic, while Master Charles and the rest of the group were still under siege.

Once the group were released later (I can't remember how many hours, but I think I slept at the Sachdevas's home for 2 nights) we were all moved to the Four Seasons Hotel. The Canadian consulate worked tirelessly to reunite us with our things, lost in the restaurant and hotel rooms. The American consulate sent over a psychiatrist to explain about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Those who weren't in hospital reunited with Master Charles in his hotel room and the healing began. Swami Vishveshwaranda came to visit with us from his ashram in Mumbai. Santosh Sachdeva and relatives also came to see us. The hotel staff took great care of us, as did the Canadian consulate staff, as I already mentioned.

In the depths of such horror, so many examples of brilliant humanity stood out.

How were those remaining days in the city?

I spent my last few days in communication with the consulate going through the process of retrieving my belongings, including my purse, which was left behind in the restaurant and was subsequently taken to the morgue with Naomi's remains. The hotel was full of media people. Master Charles's presence was a calming influence as were my calls home to my husband and children.

On the last day I took advantage of the hotel's hair salon and spa, to rest and recharge as everyone else had already returned home to the US, Australia, New Zealand or Canada.

I will never forget the Muslim call to prayer from the community just outside the hotel grounds. It was so hauntingly beautiful and comforting.

Don't miss the second part of this feature next week.

'The consulate really went above and beyond their job description'

Image: A portion of the Taj Mahal hotel on fire during the 26/11 attack
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh

When did you fly back to Canada? Who all came back with you? What was the first thing you did or wanted to do when you returned?

I flew back to Toronto, Canada, as originally scheduled on December 2nd. I returned alone, although the Canadian Consulate very thoughtfully brought me to the airport and upgraded my seating. They also arranged for me to be escorted through Newark airport and had a representative of the airport meet me in Toronto and bring me directly to my family who were waiting there.

I wanted to spend time with my family and also contact my brothers and sisters in Ireland, who were very worried about me. Unbeknownst to me, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with a brain tumour while I was in India, so as soon as I got back, we had to leave for Ireland to visit with her. We ended up having a very hectic time visiting relatives in Ireland and then returning again in January when my mother-in-law passed away.

I also injured my spine tripping out of a doorway at night while there and began a very slow period of recovery, where I was unable to work for about six months. This actually provided the seclusion I needed to heal from the whole ordeal.

Did the Indian government give you any compensation? How was the medical care provided to you and your group?

Yes. They gave me a small compensation. I only stayed overnight because of my injury. But I received attentive care. I have heard others say very nice things about the beautiful staff which took care of them, but I really cannot answer for them.

Could you retrieve your belongings from the Trident?

I did have to leave things behind in two different stores there. I had already paid but didn't have the opportunity to pick up before the attacks. I told the Canadian Consulate and they very kindly retrieved the garments and mailed them to me. I received a lovely note from Marina at a store called Turquoise at the New Oberoi shopping centre, accompanying the garments they made for me, which fit beautifully, by the way. It was just another indication of how wonderful the Indian people were to us, and how the Consulate really went above and beyond their job description in exceptional circumstances. Gary Luton, Rick McElrea, Sharon Landry and Zubin from the Consulate will always have a place in my heart.

Part II: '26/11 was like a shade on a sunny day'