The day of the London Bombings

Ten years on and the memory of this day has faded little. I imagine it never will.

On the 7th of July 2005 my alarm went off when it always did, at 7:45 am. And although I wished for nothing else than a few more million-dollar seconds of shuteye, I rose to the beat of another working day in London.

Aiming to catch the 8:17 am overland train from West Ealing to Paddington station, after a shower, shave, and a habitual cup of earl grey, I left the house by 8:15 am. Running later than usual I barreled up the footpath at a large pace.

Having checked my phone for the time, I proceeded to run, but making it to the station just in time to hear the platform voiceover – ‘this train is now ready to depart. Please mind the closing doors’ – I had narrowly missed it. ‘They’re just going to have to wait,’ I thought, surmising that I was most likely going to be late for work. Although I wasn’t too concerned at the time, little did I know that missing that train had put me on course to an ill turn of events to follow. Having loitered around the platform until the 8:30 am train arrived, I hopped on, secured a seat, and with the world streaking past in a flash of colours, was soon barreling towards Paddington.

We reached Paddington at 8:45 am, and beginning the second leg of my commuting journey, I disembarked the overland train and made my way down into the bustling innards of the neighbouring tube station. Waiting for the Circle Line train, I was just one soul standing among the crowd of thousands on the open-aired platform, and with the London sky looking as upset and close to the point of tears as usual, it was then that it started to rain.

While standing in the vicinity of where the train’s second carriage would moor, I couldn’t help but notice an exceptionally attractive girl standing to my left. She had dark curly hair, and was wearing a red dress and white scarf. As though acting via a certain magnetism to her, I caught myself drawing nearer to her position. I was, as a result, now standing at the furthest end of the platform, and when the 8:49 am eastbound Circle Line train pulled in, both myself and the girl with no name boarded its first carriage. ‘This train is ready to depart. Mind the doors.’

The doors closed and the train departed, and balancing myself by hanging onto the handrail above, I stood with my back leaning firm against the passenger side of the driver’s cabin door. I grew as bored and unconscious as on every other tube journey, and as the train barreled towards Edgware Road station – with the screeches and hypnotic rhythms of the tracks clattering beneath – I failed to even notice we were underground.

The train barreled and the tracks screeched, and while looking over some guy’s shoulder – reading in his newspaper about London winning the 2012 Olympic Games – still I stood there hanging onto the handrail. The train barreled and the tracks screeched. I looked over at the red-dress-girl from the platform, herself sitting nearby. The train barreled and the tracks screeched. I looked down and noticed there was a large manhole cover in the floor of the train. The train barreled and the tracks screeched. I looked at my phone to check the time – then – bang!

Causing the train to rock with impact – and submerging it in a great flash of yellow light – a loud cracking sound thundered through the carriage. My heart sank and rose simultaneously as the train screeched to a massive halt, and with the inside of the carriage having fallen dark, it was only when a dim blue emergency light switched on that I even realised we were inside the tunnel.

Filling with fumes, the carriage felt as though it were beginning to shrink, and having no idea if this airborne substance was flammable or poisonous, panic, like electricity, began to shoot through me. ‘Are we going to be gassed? Is another train going to hit us from behind?’

Only further encouraging the instinct to abort, an alarm began to siren throughout the carriage. ‘Get out! Kick a window! Run!’ I thought, but noticing that the dark walls of the tunnel were only a few inches wider than the actual train, I realised that even if we were to kick out a window there would be no way to fit around the train. At a complete loss for what to do, I clung to the handrail above, and with my hands shaking so uncontrollably that they were rattling it in its top socket, never before had I seen myself so physically overcome by fear.

With all the usual familiarities so abruptly replaced, this was the most dramatic shift in reality I’d ever experienced. One second we were commuters on our way to work, and then, with the typical sounds like the scrunching of newspapers suddenly replaced by those of people moaning and screaming – some distant, others close – and the usual look of bored faces replaced by those wide-eyed with terror – most coughing and blackened with ash – the next second – like a computer game stage where everything suddenly switches to a contrasting environment – we were in this.

I looked over at the red-dress-girl from the platform, herself now crouched down in a ball of tears, and feeling as though I knew her, and that this might be the last interaction of my life, I wanted to console her. ‘Why am I here? I thought, wondering if this was some sort of karmic retribution for having so narrowly missed the South East Asian Tsunami. ‘There’s a fair chance I’m going to die. What do I need to do? How do I die properly?’ I had an inkling to crouch down on the floor.

‘Mayday, Mayday!’ a voice said. It was that of the train driver on the other side of his cabin door, and several of us passengers, firmly demanding he open up, began frantically banging on his door. He responded at once, and when seeing, through the train’s front windscreen, the light at the end of the tunnel, relief like I’d never known flowed through me.

The blast had engulfed the entire front section of the train, and if not for the windscreen – shattered inwards from the blast – having remained intact in its plastic outer, the driver would surely be dead. He had white hair and a short white beard, and standing there looking visibly shaken, was so covered in soot that his lips were as dark as though he was wearing black lipstick. There was train wreckage strewn on the tracks in front, and with someone having spoken the words circuit failure, the last thing I thought at the time was that this had been a terrorist attack.

‘What happened?’ I asked the driver, the both of us standing in his cabin.

‘I don’t know!’ he said, wiping his brow with a trembling hand, ‘but there was a large yellow flash up ahead in the tunnel.’

‘How far up does it end?’

‘It curves around, but it’s only about 150 yards to Edgware Road station.’

Having suggested he get on his PA and tell the other passengers (there being an estimated one thousand souls onboard) that we were near to the next station, he picked up his phone and in a shaky voice announced for all to stay on the train until routinely evacuated. With his eyes wide with terror, he hung up the phone and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Stay here,’ he said, before pushing open the cabin’s heavy exterior door and running up the tunnel. Everything around us fell eerily quiet, creating an environment further conducive to the audibility of distant groans.

It was after a minute or so that I stuck my head outside the cabin, and only then realising this was a double-width tunnel, I noticed there was a second train stopped alongside us. Through its windows, also smeared with ash, could be seen that it was full of passengers of its own, many of which were recklessly banging on the windows; some crouched down in tears, and others, with their bare hands, trying desperately to pry open its doors. Drawn by perverse curiosity, I stepped down onto the tracks, and it was while standing there amongst the twisted wreck of metal and glass – inhaling the noxious smell of burning electrics – that I saw in the dark what I wish I hadn’t, as there, among the wheels of the other train – resembling something more akin to charred animal carcasses than human form – was a scatter of bodies.

‘Somebody?’ said a faint and nearby voice. ‘Somebody? Help me?’ It was coming from underneath the other train – on the other side of the bodies, near the tunnel wall. ‘My legs are broken! I’m in agony!’ It began to escalate in panic. ‘Heeelp mmmeee! My legs are gone! My fucking legs are gone!’

I knelt down to see, but in the dark couldn’t make out to whom the voice belonged. ‘What’s your name, mate?’ I yelled across, and having told me I began to explain that we were close to the next station and that help was on its way. I had no idea how long it would actually be, but felt that leading him to believe it would be sooner than later was a more consoling thing to offer.

(His name was Danny, who, from a documentary televising the one-year anniversary of the event, I later learnt had been standing only eighteen inches away from the suicide bomber on their train. At the split-second the two of them made eye contact – only a few seconds after their train had departed Edgware Road station in the oncoming direction to ours – the bomber (a highly regarded primary school teacher from Leeds) reached into his rucksack and pushed the button. In what Danny described was like the flash of a million cameras, he was blown out of the train, against the tunnel wall, and bounced down onto the tracks where his head landed only inches clear as his train rolled past. With the carriage doors blown completely off, their full force hit him in the legs – severing one on the spot – and paramedics, eventually reaching him in the crawl space where he lay, determined that his other leg would need to be amputated if he was to be successfully evacuated. He also lost an eye, his spleen, had three heart attacks on the day, and finding, in the course of their work, small change from his pocket having been blasted into his thighbone, when he was eventually taken to hospital was operated on for five hours by a team of four surgeons. Learning to walk on prosthetic limbs, he remained in hospital for the next eleven months. )

‘I’m in agony! My legs are gone! Heeelp mmmeee!’ he kept screaming on the day, a scream that has never left me since. My heart went out to him. Independent of race or religion, it could have been any one Londoner in his position that day. If the bomb had been activated as little as one second later the spray of debris that landed in front of our train would have been blown through our carriage, causing twice as many fatalities. We were just so close.

The sound of running feet approached from up the tunnel, and from the swelling glow of bouncing torches, a cockney voice barked hard. ‘Get back on the train, Sir!’

‘There’s a man stuck under the train!’ I said, the squadron then arriving. ‘He’s against the outer wall,’ I knelt down and informed him that people were here to help. He didn’t respond.

With the staff having set up a small stepladder from the cabin door to the track, the evacuation began, and in a row of bouncing flashlights we were led, in single file, through the dark tunnel. We soon came up to street level at Edgware Road station. I looked up at the sky with new eyes, and as I took a rebirthing breath I could have kissed every grey cloud in it.

Within minutes people were pouring up onto street in their hundreds – most blackened with ash, some with their clothing stripped and burnt, and others holding improvised bandages to their heads. One lady, who’d suffered serious burns to her face, rose to the street wearing a makeshift face mask – an image captured by a photographer that would later become the most famous from the tragedy. Most were on their phones, probably to boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, while others were slumped on the footpath in a heap of tears.

The street was soon a flurry of police cars and ambulances, emergency sirens pierced the air, and as I sat on the footpath, feeling vague and disjointed – and coughing up black liquefied soot that looked like car oil – I still had precisely zero idea that this circus was the result of a terrorist attack, thinking, at the time, it to have been nothing more than an electrical problem that caused an explosion.

Opposite the train station, a Marks & Spencer department store was allowing people to seek refuge in its foyer, and as though on auto I walked inside. ‘Please Sir, take a seat,’ said a voice. ‘Sir, please take a seat!’ Though offering no response, I walked upstairs to the bathrooms, closed the door and flicked on the light.

The mirror presented a version of myself I’d never before seen, as head to toe I was so caked in soot that I looked little dissimilar to a soldier on the battlefield. My lips were entirely black in colour, and my nostrils looked as though they’d been stuffed with Vegemite. Though despite my condition, I, in some form of self-preserving denial, resolved I was fine, and that as far as I was concerned it was my job to wash up, get to work, and get on with my life.

With my lips pursed with determination, I removed my caked jacket, hung it on the door hook, and in a flurry of soapy water began washing my hands, neck, face, inadvertently tasting the soot running across my mouth. With my chest tight with resistance, I gargled some water, spat it into the sink, drank some more, my mind all throughout racing with memories from the tunnel – the charred and broken bodies, the wide-eyed face of the train driver, the screams of the guy caught under the train. With my lips pursed and chest tight, my mind seemed particularly obsessed with the task of washing my hands, and I scrubbed them at a maddened speed, until then – when catching my eye in the mirror – I stopped abruptly.

I walked back out onto the street soon after, where the mayhem of sirens and police lines had only doubled, and acting not out of loyalty, but that I didn’t know what else to do with myself, I figured I may as well head into work. It was about 9:30 am when I hopped on a double-decker bus bound for Liverpool Street station.

The bus was packed to capacity, and it was only when I overheard some guy talking on his phone – ‘Whot? There have been three bombs on the tube?’ – that I realised the incident in the tunnel wasn’t some one-off electrical accident, but was a terrorist attack. ‘You fucking idiot!’ I thought, infuriated at myself for having survived a train bombing only to put myself on a bus. I rang the bell, frantically yelling for the driver to stop. He did, and as I disembarked I passionately advised the guy on his phone that he should do the same. He returned my remark with worried eyes only, staying onboard as the bus continued deeper into the city.

Along with the thousands of others moving at what felt like an even greater pace than usual, I walked headlong up Oxford Street. Gripped to my phone, I was trying to establish the whereabouts of several friends, but with three quarters of London all doing the same, all lines jammed.

I stopped at a street corner, where hundreds had gathered around a display of televisions in a shop window. Having pushed my way to the front, I got a clear view of the BBC headlines – London Under Attack. It was official.

‘I was on one of those trains,’ said a voice near to my left ear.

‘So was I, mate.’

His name was Larry, a born and bred Londoner.

‘So it was a terrorist attack, for real?’ I asked.

‘Yep.’

‘What? Like planted bombs?’

‘No mate, suicide bombers! Prize twats strapped up for the golden ticket.’

I took a second to think about the individuals that sacrificed themselves, wondering how they could count down their last seconds and bring themselves to push the button.

‘Come on mate,’ he said. ‘We best get outta the city.’

Having joined forces, we continued east up Oxford Street, coming, after a few minutes, to a major intersection where hundreds of people were running towards us. ‘What’s happened?’ I asked some lady.

‘A bus has just been blown up down the street! The police are pushing us back this way!’ she said, still running as she spoke, and halting where we were, Larry and I froze, until an armed policeman came running towards us. ‘Go back! I’ve got good reason! Run! Go back!’ To what felt like a contradiction to all logic, we were now running in the direction we’d just come – back into the guts of the city – and like sheep caught in a panicked flock, the two of us were being dragged along, until, pushing us back on ourselves a second time, we reached yet another police blockade ordering us to go back.

With thousands herded into one intersection – and being told by police to go back in three out of four directions – we must have looked, to the helicopters above, like a human simulation of a smashed ant nest. Black cabs were caught in the throng, police horses, wet with sweat, were backing up on themselves, and yelling ‘Get out of London! Get out of London!’ businessmen with briefcases were running this way and that. ‘Get out of London?’ I thought. ‘We’re 30 miles deep in the place!’ We couldn’t have been more in the centre of it if we’d tried, and with the sound of ambulance and police sirens growing by the second, my hands began to shake like when I was back in the tunnel.

‘Back away from the bus Sir!’ a policewoman barked, making me only then realise I was standing next to a packed double-decker pulled over on the street. Confused, I backed away, and causing them to near rip its doors off in accordance, she ordered all remaining passengers to swiftly evacuate. It truly felt as though nowhere was safe, and pulling our heads together – figuring we should keep away from all banks, major retailers, tube stations, street bins, bus stands and the like – Larry and I went into some sort of survival mode. We decided to head to Hyde Park.

Having jogged through the streets for several miles, by the time we made it to Hyde Park we were well out of breath, and in great contrast to the events of the day – and even greater contrast to the Live 8 concert held here only five days earlier – the grassy park was as serene as imaginable. I tried to call Dad in Australia, but with my phone still out of service, Larry slung me his. My fabrication was rehearsed, and although I was hoping to leave it on his answering machine, he answered the phone.

‘Dad. It’s David.’

‘Where are you?’ he gasped, in a tone revealing he was aware of the events.

‘I’m in London, but I’m nowhere near the trouble. I’m in my lounge room at home.’ Of all those things that happen to other people, on this day I was one of them, and after the ordeal I’d put my family through with the tsunami, there was no way I was going to tell them the truth.

It was now around 11 am, and like a Monopoly board shaken in its box, London was a messier version of its usual self. I decided to walk the long trek home, and firm in my resolve not to board any form of public transport, I didn’t care if it took me three weeks to get there. It was a hot July day, and having said farewell to Larry back in the park, I’d been walking through the suburbs for several hours when – bang! – I jumped from a new fright. Holding my hand to my chest, I had no idea what had happened, until – riding past on his bike – I realised some smart-arse kid was setting off firecrackers on the road. I turned purple, and although I wanted to chase him down the street, instead gave him a vivid demonstration of use of the c-word. Some five hours of walking later, I reached my house in South London, walked in and slumped on the staircase. After what had been a day that I would never forget, finally I was home.

Already feeling as though it was another lifetime ago, as I sat on the stairs my mind was quick to shoot back to the train incident. I struggle to describe the force of the blast. It was as though while being the size of an ant, a fist the size of a house had slammed itself down only metres away. Or, a more realistic description could be illustrated by the effect on the manhole cover in the floor of the train. At the split-second of occurrence, I happened to be gazing at it, and the force outside the carriage was such that it caused the manhole cover to pop about a foot into the air. People had been killed only metres away; I was truly lucky to be alive, let alone uninjured.

Of the range of emotions I experienced that day, anger was not one of them. I wasn’t angry I was caught up in it, nor was I angry with the perpetrators themselves. Not angry, that is, until I flicked on the telly to see the media’s routine salivating. At one point the broadcast crossed over to an onsite reporter ‘live at the scene’, and delivering his hot story with that archetypical smug voice and singular raised eyebrow – busy gaining from a situation founded entirely by loss – I was utterly sickened by his inability to contain his excitement. I’m aware of my sounding overly critical, and aware, too, that at the end of the day, someone has to report the facts, but it surely doesn’t take an understanding greater than average to know that smugness and self-elation have no business in the presence of sensitive issues.

What happened on July 7th 2005 was the big fish – the tug at the end of the line that the media are always waiting for, and to capitalise on the fear and maximise the drama is all part of the media’s job. Not – employing any form of discretion – to film an onsite reporter in front of a plain brick wall, but with the addition of dissonant music and dramatic sound effects, to do it in front of a Scotland Yard sign. Not – being clear in the delivery of facts – to explain at the beginning of a news story that there was a ‘false alarm at Heathrow Airport today’, but to say in big capital letters ‘TERRORISM SCARE!’ and giving the viewer a few minutes to let their imagination assume the worst, throw to an ad break before further clarifying. The terrorists plant the seeds no doubt, but the media – through the brilliance of their sensationalising work, and providing the personalised service of delivering the fear straight into the heart of the public – largely water them. Imagine, hypothetically, no one batting an eyelid in the face of a terrorist attack; the act would be rendered ineffective and would consequently dissipate. But it being the media’s foremost objective to pitch tents and transform every given opportunity into a circus, no such impassiveness can be exercised. And, in perhaps my overly swollen opinion, it’s my feeling that continuously filling, with their sensationalised bile, the very space within us that in order to reach higher levels of inner peace needs so desperately our emptying, the worlds of media and marketing are largely answerable for the escalating decay of humankind. And attributes of the like – of greed and self-serving manipulation – are, ironically enough, just a couple of those that the Islam world is well within its rights to abhor about the west.

If I could speak with the terrorists themselves I’d ask them straight – ‘What it is you really want? Do you even know? Or are you wholly blinded by the romance of your quest?’ Bearing in mind that most of the perpetrators are little more than impressionable kids, I guess going down for a glorified cause to then score a fat list of afterlife perks, is a fairly attractive package.

But instilling in me considerable doubt of his great selflessness, having since watched the prerecorded video of the gentleman that blew himself up at Edgware Road, claiming that through his martyrdom, he’ll be guaranteeing himself a place in the paradise he so ardently believes in, I can’t help but feel that his motives were less based on the greater position of Islam, than on his own personal validation at the end. Would have you still been as willing if the final station on your journey wasn’t such a golden carrot but was instead a one-way ticket to spend eternity flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s? Or perhaps even less attractive, an eternity of picking up the broken bodies of those killed in terrorist bombings, and while having to look their parents directly in the eye, inform them that because you had a point to prove the child they’ve loved and reared from his or her first breath is now dead? Probably not. I don’t think we’ll be seeing each other any time soon mate, and nothing personal and all, but having killed yourself, six others, injured hundreds, and denied yourself seeing your own baby daughter grow up, I can’t help but think you’re a just few steps leftward on Charles Darwin’s Origin Of The Species.

I’ve got nothing more against the fundamentalism of Islam than I do against that of Christianity, or any religion that spreads a virus into the mind and soul. For it’s not the warhead, or the bomb behind the jacket, that poses the true threat, but the righteousness that makes the finger push the button. And be it between individuals or entire nations, all destruction stems from one belief system trying to stamp out another. Although religions – the dangerously influential belief systems they are – might, in their own ways, generate a sense of community and other traces of good, to quote the lyrics of Sting – ‘without the voice of reason, every faith is its own curse.’

It’s easy to grow bitter, and when thinking about the personal suffering induced, to wish for bold retribution, but terrorism is by no means an act entirely devoid of motive. With the west’s scales tipped far more self-servingly, and seeming in its arrogance to consider a western life of infinitely greater value than that of an eastern, there is much basis for Easterners to resent the west. Attacking the likes of London and New York is just a means to strike the jugular vein of the enemy, and for people non-western, perhaps the only way to get the giant to listen is to swing an axe into its foot. But although terrorism may make a justified point, compared to the peaceful means employed by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama – means that inspire people to fight their battles within not without – it’s a fabulously ineffective way of actually changing anything. Killing 50 people in London isn’t going to make the other 6,999,950 stop living. It’s not going to make them quit their electronic jobs, stop drinking and sniffing coke, stop indulging in premarital sex, or put an end to capitalism, etc. In fact, the notion of trying to cut away a sector of life with intention for it to be lastingly neutralised – never again to reinstate itself in that particular area – is about as ineffectual as trying with a giant knife to cut away a piece of the ocean without view that its surrounding water won’t simply pour into its place.

9/11 shook the shores of America and the world overall, but in steep contrast to what the terrorists wished for, the repercussive effect didn’t equal the city of New York lying down and dying. In fact, having only achieved the unification of their enemy, it, if anything, made America even more stubborn in its self-righteousness. Terrorism, as a means to change anything, is about as constructive as quarrelling children knocking over each other’s sand castles at the beach. And the higher reality is this – the fear it imposes is subject to the law of impermanence, where no matter how horrific the act, its reverberations will only ever last a few days or hours. I would also enlighten the perpetrators with this one simple truth: life overall will never be stopped by the threat of death – life will always go on. Human biology is an infinitesimally small part of an infinitely vast universal intelligence, and in the reality of this picture our religious, social, and political differences are even less significant. We can knock each other down like dominoes, but even if in a fury of human conflict the planet is nuked to a cinder, a new blade of grass will eventually sprout – life will always go on. And as a myriad of new life again evolves, subsequent belief systems – some uniting, others dividing – will evolve with them. You can kick, punch, and senselessly maim, but never can you put a dent in this one truth.

These days I hold my hopes to the sky, for what better time than now for aliens to attack. Comparable to when a bully from another school threatens a kid from your own school, and all the internal gangs unify to whip the arse of the external threat; if the ominous belly of a UFO came through the clouds, all the world’s leaders – east and west, north and south, reformed and still happily addicted – would sit down with a stiff drink and ponder: ‘How best, can we together, as ten-fingered, two-legged, tax-dodging citizens of the planet, whip these avocados?’

By David Kerrigan

 

Advertisements