February issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Amid scaffolding and plastic screens, walking up the red carpet path into the main lobby of the hotel, a waft of the pungent smell of fresh paint and polish came as a grim reminder of the day the Islamabad Marriott was bombed.

It was our 25th wedding anniversary and my husband and I had gone there for a romantic dinner. This was the place we were married.
Till recently the only five-star hotel in the capital, the Marriott was not just a hotel. It was the icon of Islamabad. And for me, (I call myself a first-generation Islooite), it was like a second home.
On September 20, 2008, the hotel was attacked by a suicide bomber. The explosion was so powerful, it was heard across the length and breadth of Islamabad. The death toll was 47, of which 31 were hotel staff members. The fire after the blast, which spread to the top floors of the hotel building, could not be contained or extinguished till the wee hours of the morning and left the hotel in ashes.

With his hotel up in flames and smoke in the backdrop, and while the whole nation was in a state of shock, the hotel owner Sadruddin Hashwani promised the world: “I will re-open this hotel on December 31, 2008.”

True to his word, he did re-open the Marriott on December 28, 2008, three days earlier than the promised date.

Hashwani continued, “I can build more hotels anywhere in Pakistan or abroad, but the revival of the Islamabad Marriott was directly linked to the image of our beloved country.”

Zulfiqar Ahmed, general manager of the Islamabad Marriott says, “We could have packed our bags. But our leadership didn’t give up. In the 90-day target, it took us just 20 days to clear the debris. Every employee of the hotel dedicated their days and nights working 18 to 19 hours, to help us through this difficult time. It was like one big family coming to put the house together again.”

For Ahmed, the responsibility was enormous. Apart from the destruction of property, all 750 members of their staff were demoralised. “My job was to turn their grief into strength. To make them believe that the hotel will re-open and that their jobs were secure,” he adds.

“There is no trauma centre in the city,” says Sufia Shahid, a senior communications executive for the group that owns the hotel. “Hum hi dukh uthaney waley aur hum hi tasalli deney waley. While the hotel was burning, people were crying and hugging each other, cleaning the blood stains and clearing the debris in between sobs. It was very difficult to work at that time. Rebuilding was such a tall order.”

Almost 100 rooms have been opened and every week another 30 will be opened, until all 289 rooms are restored. “Every day we are making progress. Except for the work at the entrance, which is now a walkway, everything is complete,” says Shahid.

Two new restaurants, Lobby Lounge and Dum Pukht, have been added to the hotel. Fortunately, all the restaurants on the ground floor had remained safe from the attack.

Wedding receptions, which were previously not allowed at the hotel, have now been revived. All offices are back to work.

“This was a Herculean task — but keeping up the promise, we started work on this impossible mission on September 21, 2008,” says Dr Salim Mehmud, senior executive adviser and chairman, Special Task Action Group. “So we took on this challenge and used it to improve ourselves in whatever way we could. Winning against all odds, in the promised period of 90 days, the team accomplished what most considered to be an unachievable task.” According to Mehmud, Hashwani showed “immaculate leadership” and remained “absolutely committed and unnerved” through it all.

It took hundreds of workers and dozens of contractors engaged around the clock to clear the rubble. The team met every single morning. Hundreds of items had to be ordered, funds had to be arranged and this was difficult as well. As Mehmud explains, “We had not only lost our lead hotel, but Mr Hashwani had promised not to terminate the services of any employee. So all employees were paid their salaries, even though they did not have any work.”

An extensive security system has been incorporated into the new building; no cars will now be allowed inside the building other than the VVIPs. The guests will be ushered to the security room — all equipped with scanners, X-ray machines and CCTV. In an effort to eliminate all sources of hazard, all windows are double glass, glazed with anti-shatter film.

The installation of Hesco — an ultra modern blast-proof wall, 10 feet at base and 13 feet in height — is now in place. Equipped with all kinds of firefighting equipment, water sprinklers and smoke detectors, the security system is even more comprehensive than it ever was. The entry and the exit will have anti-blast gates, each weighing over five tonnes.
The Sahara Fund was set up to address the food, education and health expenses of the nearly 600 dependents from the 71 families whose members died in the blast. Hashwani set off the fund by donating an initial amount of one crore rupees to the newly established endowment fund to supplement these efforts. The philanthropists of the country followed.

Amir Malik, director of Food & Beverage, believes God has given him a second chance. “I have started appreciating life. I stop to breathe in the air or feel the leaves.” Malik was buried under the rubble for an hour. After having many surgeries and draftings, shrapnel removed and cuts stitched, Malik was released from the hospital after four weeks. He feels fortunate to be the only survivor among the people standing outside at the time of the blast. His physical, as well as emotional, healing took time. Taking his doctor’s advice, he started going back to the Marriott every day and gradually increased his time at work.

Life in the Nadia Coffee Shop, which used to be the liveliest place in the hotel, is creeping back to normalcy. A group of women sit chatting over cold coffee and brownies, listening to Alvin singing Jagjit Singh. “Yes, there was that strange feeling while entering, but it’s good to be back,” says Afshan Ansari, a hairstylist based in Islamabad. “People are coming in to see the fulfilment of the promise.”