Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NYC man recalls phone ordeal with Mumbai attacker

NEW YORK (AP) — The gunman on the phone in Mumbai said his name was Imran, he wouldn't put the hostages on the phone and besides, they were fine — they hadn't even been slapped around.

No one at Chabad House wanted food, he claimed, his calm demeanor finally breaking into some irritation. "We haven't come here to eat and drink," he said.

On the other end of the phone, a New York City professor forced himself to keep his focus as he spent hours on the phone as a translator for Orthodox Jewish officials trying to talk to one of the attackers who had taken over their religious headquarters in India's financial capital.

"At the beginning, I didn't know what to be thinking, I didn't know what would happen," Pace University finance professor P. V. Viswanath told The Associated Press on Monday. "I had a lot of trepidation when I got on the call."

Viswanath, who grew up in Mumbai and is an Orthodox Jew, was in his office preparing his class lessons when he got word last month that gunmen had attacked a number of sites in Mumbai. He heard Chabad-Lubavitch officials were looking for help because one of the attackers at Chabad House was answering Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg's cell phone but would only speak in Urdu.

Viswanath, who counts Urdu among the numerous languages he speaks, offered his assistance. He had visited Chabad Houses around the world and had even been to the one in Mumbai and shared a meal with Holtzberg. He was connected to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch. Shemtov set up conference calls between Washington and New York and Holtzberg's cell phone in Mumbai.

Shemtov described the man on the phone as "hauntingly calm." Viswanath said he didn't hear any of the vitriol that he might have expected.

"They had clearly attacked a Jewish center so presumably they were anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, I would not have been surprised if the voice sounded angry, sad, filled with hate, making statements about what Jews might or might not have done to Muslims," he said. "He didn't say anything about Israel or make any anti-Semitic comments."

In fact, Viswanath said, the man didn't say much of anything, refusing to say how many people were in the building. In successive conversations, they repeatedly asked about Holtzberg and the others in Chabad House and were told they were fine. When they asked Imran what he wanted, he said he wanted to speak to someone from the Indian government.

Viswanath said Chabad-Lubavitch officials finally got someone but couldn't get through to the attacker because of technical problems. At another point, Imran asked for someone who had been taken into custody in Mumbai to be brought to him, but that didn't go anywhere either.

Then, finally, just after 5 a.m., the man said the phone battery was weak and hung up, according to Shemtov. "The next time we tried to reach him, we couldn't reach him anymore," the rabbi said.

Viswanath remained waiting on the phone for several hours. It was only later that he found out Holtzberg and his wife were among the 171 killed in the attacks.

Looking back, he doesn't know that any amount of conversation would have changed the outcome, given that the calm and collected voice on the other end didn't change.

"He was going to do whatever he was going to do, or had already done," Viswanath said. "So if the plan was to kill everybody, that was what he was going to do. Our talking to him I don't think would have changed events in any way."

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