3 Chicago area families at center of attacks

November 29, 2008 12:37:55 PM PST
At least three families from the Chicago area have found themselves at the center of the terrorist attacks in India. Their loved ones are all safe but have harrowing stories to tell.

Among those involved are former Cook County Judge Ben Mackoff, his wife, Carol, and her sister. They barricaded themselves inside their rooms as terrorists took control of their hotel in Mumbai.

For nearly 40 hours, the Mackoff family's only connection to the outside world was their cell phone. As terrorists walked the halls pounding on doors, they sat silently in their room sending text messages back home and to authorities who were working to rescue them.

The situation in Mumbai, India has become an indelible image of madness. Terrorists had control of the five-star Taj Mahal hotel for nearly 40 hours. They held hostage or killed workers and guests, all the while Chicagoans were holed up in their third-floor room.

"We didn't know what was happening, but we saw men running down our hallways, and we could see through the peephole in the door. We could see guns in their hands," Carol Mackoff said over the phone.

The Mackoffs locked their room door and used a large suitcase to keep it shut while they were sending text messages back to their son Jonathan in Chicago.

"They heard gunfire, but they didn't know what was going on. So, I filled them in a little bit and told them not to say 'hello' if someone came to the door because they're looking for Britons and Americans," Jonathan Mackoff said.

Television reception, and eventually landline telephone service, to the hotel was cut. So, the text messages became a two-way lifeline of information.

Jonathan linked in the U.S. state department, which used the information to give Indian authorities real-time intelligence on what was happening inside the hotel.

Friday morning, Chicago time, the following message came through: "Assault started. Loud explosions plus gunfire. Think 1 or 2 terrorists plus same amount hostages in our hotel. Really hunkered down now."

Two hours later, this message: "So far, so good. The explosions and gunfire seem to be father away than yesterday."

"They were actually told when the final assault was going to get started," Jonathan Mackoff said.

Finally, just before 4 a.m. Friday, Carol sent this text to her son: "Safe in lobby. Great rescue but harrowing."

Jonathan and Myron Mackoff finally talked to their parents Friday morning, thankful for their safety and glad they encouraged their mom to learn how to send text messages from overseas.

"We had constant information about how they were doing, and they were getting information from us, too," said Myron Mackoff.

Ben Mackoff is the former presiding judge of Cook County domestic relations court. He and his wife are said to be extremely grateful to the Indian authorities who rescued them but also heartsick for the families of those who died. Among them is a person from Australia who was part of the Mackoff's tour group.

ABC7 Chicago also learned about a Deerfield couple trapped in the Taj Mahal hotel that took matters into their own hands after the violence began.

Joe and Marilyn Ernsteen were in their room Wednesday when they heard the shooting begin. The hotel called and advised them to stay in their room.

The Ernsteen's son says, by the next morning, his parents were tired of waiting, and they stepped into the hallway.

"They couldn't go down the fire escape stairs. They went up the stairs instead to the roof where I read there had been terrorists throwing bombs off the roof. They just saw firemen and policemen there who were just amazed to see them, and they just walked down the fire escape and got out. It's unbelievably lucky as far as I can tell," Scott Ernsteen told ABC7 Chicago.

Mrs. Ernsteen apparently left the hotel carrying a book titled The Lucky One.

The couple is due home Saturday.

Also, a family from north suburban Lake Forest was having dinner at another Mumbai hotel when the attacks began.

Dr. Deepak Dalia, his wife Himani, their daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law were at a restaurant inside the Oberoi hotel when they heard gunfire.

The restaurant staff locked the doors, then guided the guests into a banquet hall. They waited there nearly two hours.

During that time, guests used their cell phones to figure out what was happening.

Dalia and his family were eventually escorted out of the restaurant through a fire exit.


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