ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Mansoor Abbasi was serving guests when a suicide bomber struck the entrance of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel, bringing down the ceiling of the banquet hall.
There were up to 300 guests in the hall at the rear of the hotel enjoying iftar, the meal taken at dusk to break the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“Everybody started screaming,” said Abbasi, in between calling out for any survivors left lying under the rubble of the lobby, as fire spread through the floors.
“I pulled out 16 wounded people but didn’t see any dead,” said the young waiter, his white jacket stained with blood.
Walking past reception, Rehan Ahmed, an executive in his 30s, saw a woman employee killed by flying glass as she stood by the scanners used to check people coming in.
“It was like hell,” said Ahmed, his suit jacket torn. “It was like scenes from a movie.”
In the most devastating attack yet by Islamist militants in the Pakistani capital, the bomber who detonated a truckload of explosives killed at least 40 people and wounded more than 200.
Most of the fatalities occurred outside the hotel, though there were concerns for anyone trapped inside as an inferno spread. Many of the 250 wounded were in a critical condition.
“I don’t know how I got out of there. It was panic all around,” said journalist Imtiaz Gul, his eyebrows covered with dust after fleeing the iftar reception.
Marriott owner Sadruddin Hashwani spoke to journalists as he watched his hotel burn.
“The Marriott is the house of Islamabad,” said Hashwani, whose hotel catered for the Pakistani elite, foreign diplomats, business people and journalists who pass through the capital.
“Whosoever has done this meant to damage Pakistan. He did not know that many innocent people earn bread and butter for their children,” said the hotelier, adding his concern was for the loss of life not property.
Hashwani prayed that the guests had been evacuated before the blaze turned into an inferno, and said thankfully occupancy was low, as it usually is during Ramadan.
Among the dead were the entire security detail manning the barricade at the entrance. Hashwani said one guard exchanged fire with the driver before the truck bomb was detonated.
Usually there are close to 10 blue uniformed armed guards and a sniffer dog on duty at the barrier.
Every vehicle has to stop at before being allowed into the hotel forecourt. The guards check under the bonnet and in the trunk, and run a mirror round the undersides of the vehicles before they are let in.
The hotel, just a couple of minutes drive from the presidency building and parliament, has been targeted twice before.
In January 2007, a suicide bomber killed himself and a guard who challenged him at a side-entrance hours before the Indian High Commission was due to host a reception there.
Before that, there had been a small blast close to the front door, but no one was killed on that occasion.
Until 2007, such incidents had been few and far between in Islamabad, a sedate, leafy city nestling against the forested Margalla Hills.
The security situation deteriorated markedly after the siege of Red Mosque in July last year.
Then president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, ordered commandos to storm the mosque to crush an armed movement that had taken root there. More than 100 people were killed, many of them from the northwestern region bordering Afghanistan.
A Western security official said then that Musharraf had crossed the Rubicon, by taking on the militants in his own backyard.
Musharraf, who came to power in a coup nine years ago, quit as president last month rather than face impeachment by a civilian government that voted in after an election in February.
The new president, Asif Ali Zardari, lost his wife, the two-time prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in a suicide bomb and gun attack in the neighboring city of Rawalpindi last December.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; editing by Elizabeth Piper