x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Bomb was 'like an earthquake'

Super-strength blast destroyed the Islamabad Marriott and shook houses beyond the city's limits.

Pakistani security officials collect evidence from the estimated 10-metre deep crater caused by a bomb explosion at Marriott hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sept 20 2008.
Pakistani security officials collect evidence from the estimated 10-metre deep crater caused by a bomb explosion at Marriott hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sept 20 2008.

ISLAMABAD // Dense plumes of brown smoke almost swallowed the red letters of the landmark Marriott sign on the hotel roof, as Islamabad's best-known landmark became an inferno. From every room on every floor of the 400-metre wide complex, angry flames poured into the night sky, casting the only light on the war-zone scene. Silhouetted rescue workers clambered on lower ledges, shouting almost unheard above the din for ladders each time they heard the voices of guests trapped inside. On the façade, four hoses sprayed water in near-futile dousing efforts. A charred chair in one of the top-floor executive rooms was outlined against the flames.

A colossal bomb crater 10 metres deep and 15 metres wide, cordoned off by yellow police tape, has replaced the elaborate security-barrier at the hotel's main entrance. Not a scrap remains of it. The barrier and a booth were manned night and day by up to 10 guards and two sniffer dogs at a time. Every car entering the hotel complex would stop on a ramp for up to half a minute as the bonnet and boot were opened and inspected while dogs checked. Next to them always stood three or four valet attendants.

In the flame-licked darkness, police shuttled back and forth carrying pieces of twisted metal from the floor of the crater. Plain-clothed forensics and intelligence officers walked around the crater's lip. "First a small vehicle came and blew up, knocking out the guards. Then a big truck came and rammed right through the destroyed security gate into the hotel compound," one bystander said. Opposite, parked cars were shredded with broken tree limbs and trunks, their metal ashen. The thick line of trees was completely denuded. Even the diligently tended flower beds on the traffic island in the middle of the road were shredded, scattered with broken street lamps and power poles.

"Surely we can get someone in there now to look," said an Arab employee of the shattered Cafe Arabica restaurant at the west end of the hotel complex, who was concerned about the fate of a fellow cafe employee. "I've already been to every hospital and checked, he's not there." Ahmed, a junior police officer, was on patrol duty next to the hotel when he heard two blasts. "Then fire erupted immediately. This is a terrible thing. Inside are many innocent people, and many poor people who work there, like the security guards who earn 6,000 rupees (Dh280) a month."

In the back, around the swimming pool, a bloodied napkin, scattered cutlery and upended chaises-lounges told of a desperate flight by diners. The members-only pool is at the back of the hotel, but the blast at the front gate was so powerful it tore through the hotel complex to the other side. The swankily renovated glass-fronted health club was a charred gallery of twisted gym equipment. Raging thick red flames poured from upper floor rooms above the blue-lit pool as glass shattered; blue flames roared from gas lines.

"There are lots of people on the top floor. For sure they are unconscious by now. It's too dangerous for our people to reach them," said Ehsanullah, a rescuer from the Punjab Emergency Services. "We've got two officers and 15 rescuers searching the basement now. Earlier we brought many women out and shifted them to the PIMS hospital." The sickening thud of walls collapsing and glass shattering pierced the din of the fire engines surrounding the hotel.

"Right now the flames are tearing up the carpets, the furniture, the bedclothes. The structure hasn't collapsed yet. But it could well collapse during the night," said Ehsanullah. Paramilitary troops in camouflage gear, riot police wearing black "No Fear" T-shirts, uniformed officers and frantic rescue workers crisscrossed each other around the gutted hotel's perimeter in between banks of ambulances and fire engines.

Suited ministers stepped through the carpets of glass and metal debris to declare their shock before TV cameras, pronouncing the Marriott attack the worst tragedy in the Pakistani capital's history. The hotel, which is frequently at full occupancy, was full with hundreds of weekend guests and its restaurants packed with iftar diners when the bomb blast tore through it. The super-strength blast shook houses at the other end of the once-sleepy city, and beyond.

"My father lives in a village 60km away and he felt the bomb, he thought it was an earthquake," said Ahmed. Hordes of spectators drawn from their homes crammed the park to the hotel's west, craning their necks in disbelief at the sight of the city's most tightly guarded hotel - the accommodation choice of international organisations and embassies - going up in flames. Said Saadia, a resident who had come out from her iftar dinner to watch, said only: "The Marriott is no more."

bcurran@thenational.ae