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Cabin Crew Talk Of Mumbai Hotel Terror

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Seven South African Airways cabin crew members who were trapped in their hotel in Mumbai, India, for 36 hours this week were tearfully reunited with their families in Johannesburg on Saturday.

For Jaco Grobler, it was especially joyful – it was his second escape from terror. He had been stranded in New York for several days after the 9/11 bombings.

He and fellow crew members Bridgitte Ntanjana – the sister of Dr Khulu Mbatha, President Kgalema Motlanthe’s special adviser – Lungile Mhlongo, Mothapelo Moahi, Phindinhlanhla Xaba, Sinikiwe Mlagisi and Abram Hatlile, were the remaining SAA crew members to return home from Mumbai following terror attacks by armed gangs of Islamic militants on the city’s landmark hotels the Taj Mahal Palace and the Trident-Oberoi, and a number of public places. The attacks have claimed nearly 200 lives and left scores wounded.

Grobler, who has been an SAA flight attendant for 21 years, was philosophical on Saturday. “I was in New York during 9/11 and now this, also in November. It is Bombay’s 9/11. My mother, who lives in Somerset West, has been very, very worried. But flying is not dangerous, and I believe your time is your time. This is not going to stop me flying.”

Hatlile said he was sitting in his room when he heard the first explosion on Wednesday night. “I thought it was an earthquake, but then I heard the second blast. People were running out of the hotel rooms. I went back into my room and switched on the TV to see if there was something about what was happening, but then the hotel management said we must stay in our rooms.”

Grobler said he initially thought fireworks were being set off, until it sank in that these were real terrorists firing real guns and setting off real bombs. “I was terrified because some of the information that we received was wrong, so we believed that the terrorists were searching the rooms on the upper floors where we were, when they were not.”

Xaba said it was just good to be home. “I now know what an AK-47 and a hand grenade sound like.”

Ntanjana said that, among her first reactions was to SMS Danny Twala, SAA’s cabin crew manager. In one of the SMSs she said: “Hi. We are so, so scared. We don’t know what to do. They are bombing non-stop. They are killing people, 20 have been taken hostage at the lobby. Just pray for us, guys…”

Twala said the initial concern was the fact that the crew were on different floors of the hotel, and some had run out of airtime on their cellphones. It was only after 24 hours of uncertainty and a number of attempts to leave the hotel that the seven managed to join up and hide out in one room.

Eva Ntanjana, Bridgitte’s elderly mother, said when she received a call from her son-in-law saying that her daughter was in danger in India she felt “horrible”.

Later, Eva and Bridgitte started SMSing each other. Eva said when she saw Bridgitte walk out of the hotel on television on Friday morning, “I just screamed”.

“I had not slept for three days. This was a very, very stressful experience, but SAA’s regular calls and words of encouragement also gave us strength.”

Moahi’s family had come to Johannesburg from Soweto and the Free State to welcome her home from the nightmare that had been her very first flight to Mumbai. Touching her constantly, her mother, Anna, said this was one of the happiest days in her life.

“I will go back there. It was not the whole nation that did this, but a few people. I cannot live in fear,” said a stressed and tired Moahi.

But it was Twala who appeared the most relieved after three sleepless days. “There was a tight moment when we received false information about the terrorists moving from room to room on the upper floors of the hotel,” he said.

Busi Kuzwayo, South Africa’s consul general in Mumbai, said all South Africans were accounted for by Friday afternoon. “There was some shooting this morning, but things appear to have quietened down,” she said.

Friday had seen the quiet arrival back home of three pilots and two cabin crew members. The pilots were in a local restaurant when it was attacked, while the two cabin crew members were outside. They had no serious injuries.

After being holed up in the Oberoi hotel since the attacks started on Wednesday night, the remaining seven were brought to safety on Friday morning. They were reunited with their families in Johannesburg soon after 9am on Saturday.

“They were in good spirits. They were brought to the offices where they were briefly reunited with their families. We then took them for counselling and medical tests,” said Chris Smyth, general manager: operations SAA.

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