Cover

‘I HAVE JUST SEEN HELL’

There was shock, but mostly stoicism and resilience after last week’s London bombings. ROBERT MASON LEE reports on four days in a city under siege.

July 18 2005
Cover

‘I HAVE JUST SEEN HELL’

There was shock, but mostly stoicism and resilience after last week’s London bombings. ROBERT MASON LEE reports on four days in a city under siege.

July 18 2005

‘I HAVE JUST SEEN HELL’

Cover

There was shock, but mostly stoicism and resilience after last week’s London bombings. ROBERT MASON LEE reports on four days in a city under siege.

THE TERRORISTS WHO struck London with a series of bomb blasts last week may have thought they would spread panic and despair with their nefarious deeds, but they made three critical mistakes: wrong city, wrong people, wrong day. Despite the growing sense of sadness and anger at the outrages, and the immediate confusion and paralysis London-wide, it would not be fair to say that Londoners were panicked by the attacks. On the contrary, they were measured and calm. After the initial shock of the bloodshed and chaos, a great number settled themselves and planned to sit out the day in the nearest coffee shop or pub. “Stay where you are,” said Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, and most were happy to take the advice.

At one typically crowded establishment, the Old Parr’s Head in West Kensington, patrons nursed a beverage while remaining glued to the television news coverage. I approached an elderly Scots gentleman named Gordon, who confirmed that he had survived the London Blitz of the Second World War. We commiserated over the casualties

of Thursday’s bombings and the troubles facing the three million commuters who rely daily on the London Underground network, now stuck with no way to get home. “I suppose they will have to spend the night,” he said with a slight chuckle. “Londoners have seen harder times than this.”

Between September 1940 and May 1941,

the Luftwaffe killed more than 20,000 civilians and destroyed 1.4 million homes during the Nazi campaign of terror bombings against London. The city’s plucky residents didn’t panic then, and they weren’t about to panic now. “The experience of living through the Blitz lingers on in the urban psyche,” wrote columnist Simon Jenkins in the Evening Standard, “despite few Londoners any longer having memory of it.”

The timing of the atrocity could not have been more emotionally wrenching, as Lon-

Three subway trains were hit, as was one double-decker bus. The timing of the atrocity could not have been more emotionally wrenching, as Londoners were still enjoying the euphoria of having been selected, just the previous day, as host city for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

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I BEGAN TO DETECT ANOTHER SENTIMENT: ‘IS THIS THE WORST THEY CAN DOTO US?’

doners were still enjoying the euphoria of, just the previous day, having been selected over Paris as host city for the 2012 Summer Olympics. But there was a graceful message of condolence from Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who said, “Right now, we are all Londoners.” And if anything, the recent boost to civic pride seemed to strengthen Londoners’ refusal to be cowed in the face of terror. “I wish to pay tribute to the stoicism and resilience of the people of London, who have responded in a way typical of them,” said a shaken Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair was the chairman of the G8 conference at Gleneagles, Scotland, which opened the day before the terrorist attacks, but he refused to cancel the conference. Although he flew to London for briefings with officials, the world’s leaders continued to gather in his absence. “They are trying to use the slaughter of innocent people to cow us, to frighten us, out of doing the things we want

to do, trying to stop us going about our business as we are entitled to do, and they should not and they will not succeed,” the Prime Minister said. He promised an intense police action to find those responsible.

THE EVENTS OF Thursday morning were the deadliest acts of terrorism ever seen in London. At least 49 people were killed, and among the 350 who went to hospital were 22 critically or seriously injured, with another 350 people treated as walking wounded. More than 25 people are still missing. There were four separate blasts spread across the northern half of central London during the morning rush hour—a pattern eerily similar to the al-Qaeda attacks on Madrid in March 2004, which left 191 dead. London police believe each bomb contained 4.5 kg of high explosives. The three bombs in the subway system detonated within 50 seconds of each other at 8:50 a.m. One ripped

apart a subway train as it approached the Liverpool Street station from Aldgate, killing seven people, while another exploded in a train leaving Edgware Road station for Paddington, blasting a hole through a compartment and into two other trains. Seven people were killed there.

The deadliest Tube bombing occurred when an Underground train was travelling between King’s Cross and Russell Square station. At least 21 died there, with some bodies still trapped in the wreckage. The fourth and final blast occurred at 9:47 a.m., when an explosive device ripped through the top level of a double-decker No. 30 London bus, on Upper Woburn Place at Tavistock Square.

The packed bus was close by the British Museum and directly opposite the headquarters of the British Medical Association. The facade of that building was spattered with blood from the top-level passengers (around 50 people can fit atop a double-decker). The

THE UNENDING HORROR

On Sept. 11,2001,2,973 people died as a result of al-Qaeda attacks in the U.S. The death toll has continued to rise, with the U.S. government recording 3,297 subsequent deaths worldwide in 1,071 terrorist acts, up to the end of 2004. Some of the most significant incidents:

OCT. 1,2001: A car bombing at the Kash-

miri state legislature in India killed 15 and wounded 40.

MARCH 27,2002: A suicide bomber entered an Israeli restaurant in Netanya and killed 22 while wounding 140.

APRIL 11,2002: A suicide bomber crashed into the fence of a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, killing 16 and injuring 26.

MAY 9,2002: A bombing at the May Day parade in the Dagestan republic of Russia killed 42 and wounded 150.

OCT. 12,2002: In Bali, Indonesia, a bombing outside a nightclub killed at least 187 people, largely international tourists, and injured 300 others.

OCT. 26,2002: On the third day after 50 Chechen rebels took over a Moscow theatre, Russian forces stormed the building and 124 hostages died.

NOV. 28,2002: Suicide bombers in Mombasa, Kenya, drove into the front of a tourist hotel

popular with Israelis, killing 15 people and wounding 40 others.

DEC. 27,2002: Suicide bombers in two trucks demolished Chechnya’s pro-Russian government’s building in Grozny. At least 72 were killed and 210 wounded.

JAN. 5,2003: Two simultaneous suicide bombings in Tel Aviv killed 23 and wounded 107.

MAY 12,2003: Suicide bombers entered two housing complexes in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and killed 26 while wounding 216.

MAY 16,2003: Five bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, including ones at a Jewish cemetery and the Belgian consulate, killed 33 and wounded 101.

AUG. 5,2003: During rush hour, a car bomb detonated in front of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. Twelve were killed, 149 wounded.

AUG. 19,2003: A suicide bomber on a

roof of the vehicle was torn away by the blast, and it was a sign of the gruesome devastation of the attack that officials initially had difficulty in determining the exact number ofvictims. Dr. Lawrence Buckman rushed with other doctors from the BMA building. “There were bits of body on the road, blood everywhere,” he recalled. “My training took

over. When you are in an emergency situation you don’t think about anything else.” Across London, the difficulty of moving through gridlocked traffic left some doctors and paramedics with no option but to treat the wounded, including the performance of some amputations, on the spot. A triage centre was established in the reception area of the Hilton Metropole hotel on Edgware Road, where more than 50 wounded were treated. There were many reports of Lon-

doners bringing tea, water and blankets to casualties and emergency workers.

The attacks came without warning, and police won’t say how the bombs were triggered. (In Madrid, explosives were detonated by mobile phone messages, though that would be difficult in London given the depth of many Tube tunnels.) The bombings bore all the signatures of a coordinated al-Qaeda attack, and a previously unknown group called the Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe posted a 200-word communiqué on an Arabic-language website claiming responsibility for the carnage, and boasting that its “blessed raid” had Britain “burning with fear, terror and panic.”

Wrong on both counts. The attacks were the opposite of blessed, and the British do not easily give in to fear and panic.

I WAS WORKING in my study at about 10 a.m. on Thursday when the telephones started ringing. Like most London households, mine has a brace of mobile phones and a land line, and all of them began to ring at once. I ignored them, as I always do when writing, but as the calls persisted I finally gave in and picked up a handset. “Turn on the television!” shouted a young friend of mine. “They’re bombing all over London!” She wanted to know what to do, and I took the same line as the authorities—I advised her to stay put. The sensation for any Londoner was a feeling of déjà vu from the World Trade Center atrocity, even though the casualties are not

Jerusalem bus killed 20 and wounded 140. AUG. 19,2003: A truck exploded at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing 23 and wounding 100.

NOV. 15,2003: Car bombs at two synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey, killed 20 and wounded 300.

NOV. 20,2003: Two more car bombs blew up in Istanbul. One in front of the British consulate killed 30, while the other at a western bank killed 11. At least 550 were wounded. FEB. 6,2004: A suicide bomber in the Moscow subway killed 41 and injured 230.

MARCH 11, 2004:

Ten bombs exploded on four commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people

and wounding 1,900 others.

MAY 30,2004: Militants attacked oil industry compounds in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, killing 22 foreigners and wounding 25 Saudis.

AUG. 24,2004: An explosive device brought down a Russian commercial plane, killing 44. SEPT. 3,2004: Explosions rocked the school gymnasium in Beslan, Russia, where 1,300 people were being held hostage by terrorists. In the ensuing gun battle with authorities, more than 330 people died, including

at least 170 children, while another 600 were injured.

SEPT. 9,2004: A car bomb detonated outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta, killing 10 and injuring 182. OCT. 7,2004: A se-

ries of attacks in Egypt aimed at Israelis, including a car bomb at a tourist hotel in Taba, killed 36 people and wounded 171. FEB. 14,2005: Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri and 14 others died when his car was bombed in Beirut. Another 100 people were wounded.

COMPILED BY PATRICIA TREBLE

SOURCES: U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT, U.S. NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER. THEIR STATISTICS DO NOT INCLUDE WAR CASUALTIES OR THE VAST MAJORITY OF INSURGENCY-RELATED IRAQI AND AFGHAN DEATHS.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: ALEXANDER CHADWICK/AP; IVAN SEKRETAREV/AP; PAUL WHITE/AP

area known as “Londonistan” for its fiery anti-Western clerics, and experts worry he left sleeper cells to await his instructions.

IN THE WAKE of the bombings, hundreds of thousands of London commuters—those lucky enough not to have been casualties— were left with the option of finding a scarce hotel room or riding Shank’s pony, slang for making it home on foot. But at week’s end residents were resolved to bring life in the capital back to normal, as much as possible. Traffic returned to the streets, and overground train and bus service and most Underground services were resumed.

While anxious relatives searched for the missing, floral tributes appeared at the locations of the explosions. But below ground, investigators began the grisly routine of forensic tests. The worst of these scenes, between King’s Cross and Russell Square, was described as a “tunnel of blood.” Bodies were still being recovered from the wreckage; one young policeman staggered from the scene of devastation and said: “I don't know what heaven looks like but I have just seen hell.”

And the heart-wrenching tales of survivors began to emerge from hospitals across cen-

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at all comparable. Nonetheless,

I took note of the date and reckoned that 7/7 will be remembered by the British as their 9/11.

Attempts to reach the areas of carnage were fruitless. Bus service and all Underground trains in London were cancelled, automobile traffic was brought to a standstill, the overland train stations were sporadically closed by bomb threats, and when I finally managed to flag down a London taxi and requested,

“King’s Cross, please,” the driver replied: “You must be joking, mate.” A tradesman neighbour of mine was driving his work van near Edgware Road at the time of the explosion—it took him 41/2 hours to drive home, about four hours longer than normal.

But his report of the behaviour of casualties and passersby was the same as that reported in the news—all was calm. An assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Andy Hayman, said the demeanour of casualties was all the more remarkable, “given all that they had just seen.”

People on board the Edgware Road train described the chaos. “The carriages filled with smoke,” passenger Ben McCarthy told the ITV News channel. “At that stage, somebody, a man I think, was blown out of the door of the train—he was under the carriages.” A half-hour later, officials arrived to escort the survivors down the dimly lit underground passage to the station. “It was terrifying,” McCarthy said. “People were incredibly calm but very, very shocked. The screams from the guy who was under the train made the whole incident so much worse.” When informed of the attacks at Gleneagles, Tony Blair hung his head in sorrow and tugged at his shirt cuffs. It seemed to be the inevitable and long-awaited attack by alQaeda operatives he had anticipated—and sworn would never happen “on my watch.” But former Met commissioner Lord Stevens has warned of up to 200 active al-Qaeda operatives in Britain. And earlier this year, there were reports that the alleged mastermind of the Madrid train bombings, Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, was still at large and could be planning an attack in Britain. In the 1990s, he lived in a north London

tral London. One father, George Kolias, wept as he maintained a bedside vigil by his daughter Danielle, 19, being treated in intensive care. “I can’t believe what they did to my little girl,” he said. “It is hard to recognize her. She came round and struggled to talk with me. She started to cry and I felt my heart would break. How could anyone do something like this?” Along with the heartbreak there was anger. The banner headline in Saturday’s Daily Express had a blunt message from the British people to the terrorists: “Go to hell.”

LIKE OTHERS, including Her Majesty the Queen in her message of condolence, I have used the Blitz analogy to explain how Londoners responded to the bombs with such calm determination. They are a hard, gritty, resolute bunch, adapted for life in a hard, gritty, resolute city. They also possess deep wells of sardonic humour and a sense of basic decency to draw upon in the face of crises. It is said, and often it is true, that a Londoner will never know his neighbour until disaster strikes—and then the whole neighbourhood will draw round in support.

So there was genuinely something of the Blitz spirit at work after the attacks, but there was something else, also, that nobody wished to mention for fear of appearing callous. And it was this: horrible as the bombings were, we had been expecting much worse. This is not to diminish the human tragedy, or the depths of the evil of those who perpetrated it. But, speaking as a Londoner, I detected on the heels of the shock an almost audible sigh of relief and the sense of a thought being hatched, if not widely voiced: “Is this the worst they can do to us? If this is the worst they can do to us, then they can bring it on, those bastards.”

Ever since Britain joined the U.S. in its war against terrorism, we’ve been told that terrorist reprisals were a matter of when, not if. A few kilos of high explosives were the least of our worries; we had been conditioned to expect anthrax, nerve gas, nuclear devices, the smallpox virus. Londoners have taken their morning tea and toast over newspaper accounts of emergency plans to evac-

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uate the city, on foot if need be (imagine a quarter of the Canadian population being expected to walk in an orderly fashion from Toronto to Hamilton and you get the general, and fanciful, idea). As a form of popular entertainment—entertainment!—British television recently featured a series that imagined various terrorist calamities, such as an airplane filled with noxious agents being flown into Parliament, or the Underground lines being flooded due to explosives placed under the Thames. (At least the terrorists could never complain of running dry of ideas.) Contestants, drawn from the worlds of celebrity and politics, had to respond to these crises in a kind of war-games scenario. The result? In almost every episode, millions of Londoners died. Millions of deaths are what we feared, dozens are what we got. Was our thinking callous? Yes. Were our fears misdirected? Yes. Thinking the unthinkable gave us, I think, a false sense of security. The greater the anticipated outrage, the more implausible it became. Surely, no one could be evil enough to release nuclear fallout or a deadly virus into a large civilian population, or so the thinking went—and perhaps we can still cling to that hope. But we should have known there are hundreds of people in the world, perhaps in London alone, evil enough to blow up their immediate surroundings, even if those surroundings are filled with children—and fellow Muslims. (There was a line of thinking that London’s ethnically diverse population would spare it from attack. How naive—one of the bombs exploded in the “Londonistan” area.) We are told that the old-style al-Qaeda no longer exists, that loosely affiliated groups are now responsible for the terrorist campaign. These are incapable of the sophistication required to let loose nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks. They may be perverse enough to want to inflict greater damage, but they haven’t the knowledge or the means. So, to answer the unvoiced question: yes, this may well be the worst they can do to us. And yes, we can take it. A few bombs, or even a few thousand, are never going to stop a great city like London. If there is any consolation to be taken from Thursday’s attacks, it is that the doomsday scenarios remain a less likely event than everyday death by explosives. If there is any dread to be taken, it is that everyday death by explosives is still bloody and awful. II