CRIPPLED BY THE MUMBAI ATTACK.
but I battled back to run a marathon
Glancing at my watch, I blinked. It was almost 10pm. “Gosh, it’s late,” I thought, staring at my friends. The six of us were having dinner at The Oberoi hotel in Mumbai, India. We were on a threeweek once-in-a-lifetime trip from Canada and the US. We usually ate together at 8.30pm but tonight we’d been delayed.
We were part of a 25-strong meditation group and that day had been especially long – but exciting because of our visit to an ashram.
I was tired, but happy. Over the past few days I had visited some of Mumbai’s breathtaking landmarks including the Gateway of India and a shrine. Now, looking around the Tiffin restaurant, I couldn’t stop smiling. It had been a perfect day.
We – Michael Rudder, Sandy Jones*, Helen Connelly, Alan Scherr and his 13-year-old daughter Naomi – were chatting while waiting for our food.
I was hungry so as soon my quail arrived I took a bite, then paused. I heard what sounded like firecrackers going off. “Did you hear that?” I said, turning to Michael.
“Yes,” he replied, looking worried. “It sounds like gunfire.”
I’m from Nashville, Tennessee in the south of the US where everyone has a rifle and goes hunting, so I knew what gunfire sounded like. I was sure these were firecrackers but Michael wasn’t so sure. “I’m going to check it out,” he said.
A few minutes later he was back. “The staff said not to worry about it,” he said. “It’s just local hooligans acting up.”
But as he sat down a round of gunfire exploded all around us. There was no mistaking it this time – these were shots, not firecrackers and they were right next to us. Before I could even react, two men appeared, holding machine guns, and began shooting at the diners around us.
They were young, with baby faces, and looked like they were just out for a stroll. But they were mowing down people, some at point-blank range, as they walked. I didn’t have time to be frightened. My survival instinct
kicked in. “Everyone, under the table. Now!” I yelled. All of my friends got under it, except Michael.
He was so stunned that he couldn’t move. “I’ve been shot,” he said. And then, “I’ve been shot again.”
“Michael, get down,” I ordered, before Sandy pulled him to the floor, underneath the table.
For a moment, I thought it was a hit and the killers were coming after someone in particular because we were in a five-star hotel. I believed they weren’t targeting us and that all we had to do was get under the table, out of the way and after they had killed their target they would leave.
It was obvious from the continuous gunfire that there was more than one gunman. And then suddenly, I felt a pinch in my right arm and knew I had been hit.
Naomi was screaming and Alan was calling out her name to let her know that he was right there. Helen was facing me between Alan and Naomi, praying.
I got hit three times – once in the right leg, once through my right arm, and one bullet grazed the right side of my neck. Sandy was also shot in her lower back. Naomi was screaming the entire time out of fear. She was inconsolable but her dad continued to try to calm her.
I could hear the gunmen walking. Then they’d stop and fire before moving on. I couldn’t hear the moans and groans of those being hit because the gunmen were firing continuously and throwing hand grenades.
We were probably there for a total of 20 minutes, until finally – while we were still cowering under the table – I heard the gunmen leave.
I wanted to get out and run to safety but didn’t know where the gunmen were or if they’d return. Then I heard shots – they were back.
“Play dead,” I whispered to my friends. But Naomi was screaming and Alan was trying to calm her down by saying her name over and over. All the while we stayed under the table. Although I was in shock, I was clear-minded and knew not to scream, talk or move – just to pretend I was dead. But Naomi needed to stop screaming, for all our sakes.
“Alan,” I said firmly, reaching out and touching the back of his neck. “Play dead.” He exchanged a look with me that let me know that he understood.
Then I felt a burn on my neck and blood gushing. Alan had been shot, the bullets ripping through his head. I assumed Naomi was either dead or had passed out as she had stopped screaming.
I listened for the gunmen to leave, then looked around. A chef opened the kitchen door where he had been hiding. “If you want to live, you’d better come now,” he said.
Sandy and Helen ran to the door, but blood was gushing from my thigh and I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t even drag myself because of the gunshot wound to my right arm. “Drag me,” I pleaded and the chef came out and pulled me by my wrists into the kitchen. Michael had passed out and couldn’t move either so he didn’t make it to the kitchen at that point. Instead he later followed my blood trail to the door.
Meantime the rest of us hid in the kitchen for around 20 minutes. Three kitchen workers were in the room with Sandy, Helen and I. They tried to barricade us in, using a chair, but the noise drew the gunmen’s attention. At first they shot at the door so we all lay down. Then they returned and lobbed a single hand grenade through the service window. It landed about 30cm from my face and I was sure it would go off at any moment.
“Leave,’’ I shouted to the others, expecting it to explode, but fortunately it was a dud and nothing happened.
Two of the staff members then scooped me up while the rest of them ran downstairs to the service exit. It was locked and the kitchen manager who had the key was lying dead on the restaurant floor. The chef who’d dragged me to safety threw himself against the door again and again and eventually it opened.
We emerged on to the streets of Mumbai to see people running around scared, and smoke rising from the hotel. One of the hotel workers flagged down a cab. Sandy and I got into one and the driver took us to Bombay Hospital. Helen jumped into another cab.
It soon became very clear that terrorists were targeting Mumbai. I didn’t know why, I was just glad to be alive. Throughout the whole incident I didn’t cry, I was in shock, I suppose.
At the hospital, medics told me I’d been shot three times and needed surgery. As I lay, waiting to go to theatre, I could still hear all the chaos outside. The gun ownership laws are quite strict in Mumbai so the doctors and nurses were unprepared for the extent of the wounded they faced.
While they tried to cope with the scores of injured, news of the extent of what was going on filtered through to us. The attacks were still going on, and the Oberoi Hotel where we were staying wasn’t the only target. Several areas of Mumbai had been attacked including The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the train station and a hospital. There were two
gunmen in our hotel alone, both of who died on the third day.
I didn’t know this at the time but the incidents were all part of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks that lasted a total of four days. Militants from a Pakistan-based terror group planned and directed the assaults, which were carried out by 10 young men, reports said.
By the time the attacks ended on Saturday, November 29, 2008, 166 people were dead and more than 300 people were wounded. Nine of the gunmen were shot dead by security forces. One was captured and later sentenced to death.
But right then I was lying in the hospital wearing a white head shawl that was soaked in Alan’s blood and embedded with shrapnel. Someone allowed me to use his mobile phone so I could call my husband, Hugo, back home in Kentucky, US, where he was celebrating Thanksgiving with his family.
“Hugo, we’ve been attacked,’’ I said as soon as I heard his voice. “Alan and Naomi are dead. Sandy and I were shot and we’re in Bombay Hospital.’’
He sounded surprisingly calm but I later learnt that he collapsed after my phone call. He got on the last available flight to Mumbai before the American authorities stopped aeroplanes flying there, and arrived on the third night after the shooting. In the meantime I had surgery to remove the bullets from my leg and was in the intensive care unit, and unconscious. I had lost three units of blood. Sedated with pain medication, I would sleep for hours, thinking I had dreamed the whole thing. Then I would wake up in the hospital and understand it was real.
I couldn’t feel my whole leg. I could wiggle my toes and there was shooting pain in my calf, but from my knee upwards nothing.
I flew back to the US with my leg wrapped in two cloth bandages. the knee and that the kneecap was pulled from my leg.
I couldn’t have surgery right away due to the nature of the injury as my leg would have come completely apart, so I was put in a prosthesis that I wore from my hip to my toe and had months of traction and physical therapy.
The long journey to wellness had begun. Sadly over time – for a variety of reasons including the fact that I was too injured to travel to Virginia where they were from – I became estranged from Michael, Helen and Sandy so I didn’t keep up with their lives.
I focused on healing, on getting better and training for the Boston Marathon. I had always wanted to run it and I had been on the treadmill at the hotel the morning before the attacks preparing to do just that. I had run nine marathons before I was injured.
I did physiotherapy every other day. I used ultrasound and an external heater to try to stimulate the blood and nerves in my leg to encourage the feeling to return, while my body was prepared for surgery.
A custom-designed plastic attachment was also built and
‘I’d been on the treadmill the morning before the attacks preparing for the Boston Marathon’
The doctors didn’t know my leg was shattered. From their X-ray, they thought the femur bone was just chipped so that’s why my leg was only wrapped. Also, it was to help with the possible swelling from flying.
The part they thought was chipped bone was actually shrapnel from the bullet. Once I got home two days later, I had another X-ray and then it was discovered that my leg was completely shattered from the hip to
strapped to my limb to help me move around as much as possible. There was a hinge at my ankle, one at the knee and another at my hip. I had to wear a thick long sock to hold everything in place.
For many months I could only get around with the aid of a wheelchair or a walker. My husband had to help me with everything. There were certain milestones. Eventually I could
‘I’ve looked death in the face and I no longer live my life in fear. I love more. I feel more’
use my upper body to get into the wheelchair by myself. Then I could finally walk with my cane.
My main surgery was scheduled for September, 2009, to have the cartilage in my right knee scraped out before the kneecap – which had become loose when I’d been dragged across the restaurant floor – was reattached to my bone.
On the afternoon after the operation I was sitting on the couch at home with my leg propped up when my husband said, “I think I need to move out for a while to clear my head; maybe a trial separation.”
I was stunned. I thought we were closer than ever. For 10 months he’d done everything for me – washed, clothed and fed me, helped me lift my leg when I couldn’t do it myself.
Now – just a few days shy of our sixth wedding anniversary – he wanted to separate.
I guess Hugo felt he’d lost his active wife who got up at 5am every day to jog, cook breakfast and then spend the day running a holistic health centre. Now he was lumbered with a woman who had been told by her doctors she may never be able to walk unassisted again.
Plus, he said he wanted to have children, which we’d previously agreed we didn’t want. In my mid40s that was something I couldn’t give him.
The news hit me harder than the terrorist attack. When the men in Mumbai shot at me, it wasn’t personal. They’d been brainwashed by terrorists to strike fear and terror in India, I told myself. But Hugo leaving me was personal. I was devastated.
Our divorce became final a year later. He married his pregnant girlfriend a few days shy of what would have been our seventh wedding anniversary.
It broke my heart but I had to look forward not back. So I focused on getting better to run the Boston Marathon. My doctor had a ‘wait and see’ attitude about my progress. While he was confident that I would be able to walk again, he said, “You may never be able to run.’’
I looked at him and thought, “You have no idea who you’re dealing with.” A holistic medicine advocate, I believe that you can heal yourself and overcome anything. “I will do it,” I vowed.
When I began training I was almost 16kg overweight and could barely climb the stairs unassisted. But I focused and worked hard to build up my muscles and lose the excess fat I had put on as a result of the steroids and pain medication.
I ate a diet of organic food, and worked with a personal trainer.
By spring 2011 I was running an 11-minute mile – far worse than my personal best of eight minutes a few years earlier. I was too slow to qualify for the Boston Marathon. (Women in my age category have to finish in four hours.) But I was determined to run it and so I posted a video on YouTube, pleading my case. Someone from Adidas saw it and wrote to the Boston Athletic Association asking for them to give me a chance. They did.
It was emotional pulling on my bib. It had taken me so long to get to this point. As I ran, I thought of Alan and Naomi, saying with every step, “I’m doing this for you.”
It took me 5 hours and 20 minutes to finish. I was so proud of myself.
The other day I said to someone, “The terrorists kind of did me a favour.’’ It sounds weird but it’s true. I have learned so much about myself since it happened. I have emerged stronger. My friend and his daughter died in front of me. My husband left me and others thought that I would never walk again, let alone run. But I survived. I am proof that you can do anything you set your mind to.
I still have physical reminders of the attack – nerve damage in two of my fingers and two of my toes. But I’ve looked death in the face and I no longer live my life in fear. I love more. I feel more.
Last year – shortly after the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon – I released the second editions of the two books I wrote about my experience back in 2011. I dedicated one of those books – For
The Love Of Running – to those killed during that event. I found it hard to imagine that the Boston Marathon – the same race that was such an important part of my healing process following the Mumbai terror attacks – would itself be the target of terrorist attacks. So, as the April anniversary of the Boston bombing nears, it reminds me not to take a single breath for granted because your life can be over in a second. Rüdrani Devi, 49, from Tennessee, US, has written two books about her experience –
Soul Survivor and ForThe Love Of Running.
The upmarket Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (pictured) and The Oberoi were among terrorist targets
Rüdrani Devi was one of hundreds shot in the November 2008 terror attacks which killed two of her friends. She was told she would never run again but she refused to give up
I believe you can heal yourself and overcome anything
I proved my doctor wrong by running again
Sadly, my marriage did not survive the attack