When Mumbai woke on 12 July 2006, the skies had cleared a little and the rains had eased. But neither was there respite for the city’s crack terror investigators nor for the railway authorities who had just pulled an all-nighter, planning and executing the near-impossible task of clearing away the mangled reminders of the previous day’s destruction. The trains, incredibly, had begun to run from the wee hours of the morning, but that Wednesday, the Western Railway line operated only 864 services, down from the daily 1039.

When, in 1993, the city’s nerve centres, the commercial establishments, were targeted by terrorists through a set of well-positioned bombs in cars and scooters, the city bounced back quickly. This time, it appeared as if the attackers had hit dangerously close to home. The local trains, a part of the daily life of Mumbai’s millions, seemingly symbolised the city’s spirit – temporarily broken and struggling to get back on its feet.

The newspapers that morning reflected the city’s despondence. “Mumbai Attacked” cried the headline of The Times of India. Popular tabloid Mumbai Mirror published a cover photograph of a severely injured victim, simply titled “Stunned”. The newspapers and the strident television news coverage of the strikes deterred many from stepping out of home that day. The roads and railways were deserted that morning.

Those who stepped out were suspicious and jumpy, calling police controls to report every unclaimed object in a train – from forgotten lunch boxes to discarded plastic bags. Schools and colleges, sensing the anxiety among students and parents, stayed shut for the day. The municipality headquarters near the iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station saw only 60 per cent of its staff in attendance. Mantralaya, the administrative headquarters of the state government of Maharashtra, witnessed a turnout of 50 per cent. Dog squads were kept busy all day at all major railway stations, while the railways made announcements urging commuters to stay alert and report any suspicious objects or movements.

When the 5.57 pm Virar fast left that evening from Churchgate station, there was a deathly hush.

Meanwhile, frantic calls were exchanged as rumours circulated about supposed blasts elsewhere. In a bus in the eastern suburb of Ghatkopar, another one in the western suburb of Borivali, one in Kharghar in the satellite township of Navi Mumbai – they were all hoaxes. Television news channels began to chase police authorities and intelligence agencies, hoping to coax out some information regarding the motive and the perpetrators.

The first morsel of news was suitably alarming. Four members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), an extremist organisation banned in 2001, had gone missing from Solapur. Suspicious investigators formed a team and an alert was sent out to track the four.

Other police teams began to record statements, several hundreds of them. Victims in hospitals, witnesses at railway stations, anyone in a position to speak about the previous evening’s insanity was welcome, but barring a few odd theories and suspicions, investigators had no specific leads to work with on the morning after. It seemed as though the attackers who walked into the crowded railway station and boarded packed trains had simply vanished into thin air.

The probe was transferred to the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS). Seven teams were formed, each consisting of six policemen. By late evening, relying solely on a network of informers, the investigators had one lead – fourteen men had executed the blasts. But they could not trace a link between what happened on 11 July 2006 to any of the recent blasts.

The 1993 blasts were the handiwork of the Mumbai underworld; a SIMI faction executed the Ghatkopar, Vile Parle, Mulund and Mumbai Central explosions of 2002–03; the Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force was responsible for the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar blasts during the same time. Who were these fourteen men? Whom did they owe their allegiance to? Who funded this mindless violence targeted at innocents? The ATS was left grappling with these questions in the dark.

One thought nudged ATS chief KP Raghuvanshi forward. He recalled arresting thirty-seven-year-old Mushiruddin Siddiqui and twenty-eight-year-old Manzoor Ansari on 30 January that year. They’d arrived from Nepal and were nabbed at the Kurla terminus. The duo was carrying 950 grams of a powder explosive, along with maps of Mumbai and Maharashtra. In fact, on the basis of the information provided by Siddiqui, two huge consignments of weapons and explosives had been seized in the past few months. This time, however, Siddiqui did not have the answers.

The King Edward Memorial Hospital, Sion, Bhabha and Bhagwati hospitals remained a hub of activity through the day; families milled around the morgues, wards and ICUs, hoping to find a loved one who had gone missing after the blasts. At Sion Hospital, doctors decided to take photographs of all the dead so that relatives could be shown these pictures on a computer screen instead of the stomach-churning reality of the morgue. Each body was cleaned, then photographed. Dr Meena Kumar who was responsible then for managing the trauma care facility would remember later how this little procedure saved families from having to search among rows of mutilated bodies for a familiar face.

Amidst the thousands of such distraught visitors was the family of Sub-inspector Suresh Pawar.

Posted at the passport office in Worli, Pawar had resumed work only a week ago, having taken time off to mourn his mother’s death. On 11 July, Pawar was travelling with a friend who alighted at Dadar station, having been summoned back to work. Pawar had continued his journey on one of the ill-fated trains.

His family searched at three hospitals, before finally finding his body at Bhabha Hospital in Bandra. It was Pawar’s twenty-one-year-old son who recognised his father’s corpse – he was still wearing his police-issued khaki socks and belt. While Pawar’s body was identified without much difficulty, many others awaited the results of DNA tests, for there were several bodies mutilated beyond recognition.

At the sites of the carnage, railway employees continued the mammoth task of clearing the remains of the trains. At midday in Khar, forty workers were removing pieces of metal lodged in the tracks, repeating the laborious task they’d completed at the other sites. Supervisors pushed them to work longer, harder, faster. Everybody agreed by then that if Mumbai had to return to normalcy, the train services had to be fully restored.

Wednesday also saw Advocate Jamshed Mistry, the counsel for Dr Sarosh Mehta, moving the Bombay High Court for a hearing on the safety lapses and the gaps in tackling the emergency situation at the railway stations. Dr Mehta, an orthopaedist, had taken up the cause of government accountability in providing immediate medical attention on the railways after he witnessed a brutal railway accident in 2001. The 7/11 explosions had shone the spotlight on these lacunae.

Minutes after the blasts, confusion had reigned at the railway stations. The helpline numbers failed to provide any useful information to frantic callers. Not only were citizens frustrated, but several injured also had to suffer delays in availing treatment, owing to the lack of professional expertise and organised, systemic support. The court had earlier instructed the railways to arrange for the victims’ travel and hospitalisation in the event of such a crisis, but on 7/11 it was again the bystanders and Good Samaritans who stepped up to this task.

Meanwhile, as the day ended, the investigating agencies named the first suspect organisation: the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Some intelligence officers also believed that Pakistani actors may have plotted the carnage in retaliation to the troubles in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Pakistan had been accusing the premier Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), of stoking the fires in the region. If Pakistan wanted to teach India a lesson, the attacks on the Mumbai trains seemed like the perfect method. But without specific leads, these were just theories.

Then, late that night, there was a significant breakthrough in New Delhi. Aijaz Hussain, arrested from the Jangpura locality earlier that year, informed the Delhi Police that an LeT operative who had been working in Mumbai for the past few months was responsible for the blasts.

Originally from Kashmir, the operative had used several aliases during the course of his stay in the city, one of which was Mohammed. Hussain said he did not know the operative’s real name, but he had a phone number that was allegedly his. He claimed to have acted only as a link between the undercover operative and his senior in the LeT in Pakistan, Mukhtar Ahmed. He also confessed to supplying explosives and money to various LeT operatives in the Valley on several occasions, on Ahmed’s instructions.

Despite these admissions, Hussain denied having played a role in the Mumbai blasts. Instead, he blamed the missing Kashmiri for the diabolical plot hatched ostensibly over the several months that he’d been living in Mumbai. Over the last four months, Hussain had passed on over Rs 3 crore to the operative, the money sent from Ahmed in Pakistan.

Those in the ATS privy to this valuable piece of information could hardly sleep that night. Their target had just been set: they had to find the missing Kashmiri. The route to finding him was complicated; Hussain had led them into a tangled web to help track the operative, and they could well spend months unravelling the threads before they could locate their man.

Excerpted with permission from Six Minutes of Terror: The Untold Story of 7/11 Mumbai Train Blasts, Nazia Sayed and Sharmeen Hakim, Blue Salt, Penguin Books.