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BOOKS Douglas O'Keeffe on surviving India's 9/11
by Ben Sanders

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Douglas O'Keeffe, a gay leatherman in Chicago, has been working as a flight attendant for the past 20 years. On Nov. 26, 2008, he and his crew were on a layover at the Trident-Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai, India, when a terrorist attack by Pakistani extremists threatened to take their lives.

His book—Gunfire and Silence, Surviving India's 9/11, on sale since early August—tells the true story of how he and his crew managed to survive.

Windy City Times spoke with O'Keeffe over the phone about the book, as well as his experience both during and after the attack.

Windy City Times: While you state that the book is based on actual events, you also chose to create certain characters for dramatic purposes. What was your reasoning behind that?

Douglas O'Keeffe: A number of my crew members were very traumatized by the events and didn't want to be identified in any book format. They wanted their privacy respected and I chose to do that.

I used fictionalized names, but the events depicted and the things that the characters did were real.

WCT: Many people, including yourself, call the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai "India's 9/11." What makes this comparison appropriate?

DO: I would say the press very quickly latched on to that because it was a terrorist attack upon a major metropolitan city, involving the attacks upon large, iconic locations similar to the World Trade Center in New York City. The extent of the attack was also profound and affected thousands of people. The city of Mumbai was completely taken by surprise and was actually shut down, largely, for parts of Thursday and Friday following the attack because they were simply overwhelmed by what had happened.

WCT: You wrote how you "projected a calm sense of normalcy" in the moments following the first explosion in the [Trident-Oberai Hotel]. How were you able to do that, considering the circumstances?

DO: I simply made a choice somewhere in my brain to be calm and not to become excited and/or rattled by what was happening around me, because I could see so many of the other people were morbidly afraid, and I felt that the character Nina [Hoffman] needed someone that was calm enough around her that would show her that we were OK.

WCT: How long do you think that you were in the conference room hiding from the terrorists?

DO: About two hours. I believe we would have been in there indefinitely had we not been found by the hotel employee and the fact that [German International Airlines purser] Regina [Schumann] was able to get word out [to her husband, Lutz, who alerted the GIA operations center about their situation]. But other than that, I really believe we would have been in there for a great deal of time.

WCT: When you heard footsteps outside of the conference room, not knowing that soldiers had come to your rescue, what thoughts were running through your mind?

DO: My thought was, "Well I'm glad Colleen [Ballard] is behind me because when they shoot, my body might save her. But I'm dead. This is it." I simply accepted the fact that I was dead and I wasn't going to go out of there. The time had come and it was over, and I simply accepted that. I wasn't afraid.

I also kept thinking in my head again and again, "This is an airline layover, how can this be happening! This simply can't be going on!" But at the very last moment it was, "Well, this is it. I'm dead."

WCT: Everyone in your crew somehow managed to survive the attack. What do you make of that?

DO: I think it was astronomical, given the severity of the attack and the circumstances that surrounded each person. As I said in [the book], I didn't even know that anyone else had survived except us six who were together [in the conference room]. Not until we were outside did we know that others had survived.

WCT: Once you were safe and sound, what was it like to speak to your family and friends over the phone and in person for the first time?

DO: Initially, I was in shock, and the first couple of days the people with whom I was sharing the information were a small group. Over time it became exhausting, quite frankly, because everyone wanted to hear what happened, everyone wanted to contribute something, even people that you only know a little bit. Everyone was phoning, everyone was contacting, everyone wanted to air the story, and it just became exhausting after a while.

WCT: You took a month off after returning from the attack. What did you do during that time?

DO: The first week to 10 days or so were all logistics: the debriefings with the airlines, the debriefings with the FBI, replacing some of the items that I needed to replace, and also just getting your wits back and sleeping as much as you want. If you were exhausted, [they'd say], "Just go to sleep."

I channeled all the energy I had into surviving, so I had nothing in reserve.

WCT: In 2012, you returned back to the conference room at the Trident-Oberoi Hotel. Why did you go back, especially considering that many of the crew members who survived the attack have never returned?

DO: [Laughs] It wasn't actually my choice. When we bid [for flights], we use a computer program, and of all things the computer assigned me the Mumbai sequence, and I have to admit that I was a little unhappy about it, and a little unsure.

I discussed it with the counselor with whom I spoke to after the attack, and the woman I know who runs the Facebook page for us survivors, and they both encouraged me to go back. I intentionally chose to go back to the Trident [Oberoi] Hotel … and I'm glad I did. Being able to go back to see the [conference] room in a non-threatening situation, and to actually thank it for saving our lives because that room enabled us time [was therapeutic].

WCT: How often do you think about what happened to you?

DO: Recently, of course, it's been a lot more with the release of the book and people's reactions to it, but outside of that I really only think about it around the anniversary time.

WCT: Do you have plans to write another book in the future?

DO: I hope so, yes.

WCT: Any specific ideas in mind?

DO: I have a lot of ideas, and we'll see what terminates when I finally sit down and do it. [Laughs]

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