Monday, October 24, 2005

Piece for the paper

'NOW WE ARE KINGS CROSS UNITED'
As they prepare for the Remembrance Service for the London Bombings victims, survivors tell of the bonds they have formed


On November 1st, in St Paul's Cathedral there is a Service of Remembrance following the London bombings of 7th July 2005. I will attend with some of my fellow passengers from the bombed Piccadilly line train,standing shoulder to shoulder as we remember the dead and injured, all those who never finished their journey. Three months ago, a suicide bomb blast tore through our train, killing 26 people, wounding dozens of us as we stood crowded together in six packed tube carriages. We found ourselves choking on thick smoke, trapped in darkness, 100 feet below street level. We believed that we would die together, from smoke inhalation, gas or fire. As we prepared for the worst, we tried to give each other hope and comfort.

My name is Rachel North and I was standing eight feet away from the bomb when it exploded behind me in carriage one. I was hurled to the floor, temporarily blinded, deafened as shards of glass and metal rained down. It was no longer air that I breathed, but black, gritty, blood-filled smoke. There was silence for a few seconds. Then a terrible screaming.

I heard my voice and other voices saying ‘Don’t panic, keep calm’. I took a woman’s hand and we struggled to stand in the darkness, as disorientated as if we’d been plunged deep underwater. Somehow, amidst the horror, people were trying to help each other. Using the light from mobile handsets to see, those of us who could still walk moved forward in single file as the driver forced open his cab door and helped us off the train. Black with soot and dazed with shock, we staggered down the smoky tunnel to Russell Square, telling each other to keep going, that help would come soon.

After being treated for cuts and shock, after the long hot shower at home, I couldn’t sleep until I’d written down what had happened to me. Perhaps some of my fellow passengers would read it. I wondered how they were now, the people who saved each other from panic when our world exploded. I posted an account of the day on a busy London website.

Amazingly, a man who had been on my carriage, a foot away from me, read it. He got in contact, we met on the Monday after the Thursday bombs, and through talking, realised how much it meant to find other survivors. The shock, the screams, the taste of the smoke that haunted us – there are some things only those who were there understand.

The BBC news website team read my account, and asked if I would write a daily survivor diary for them. Suddenly my account of the week of the bombs was reaching millions. More survivors got in contact via email and we set a date to meet in a pub at the end of July.

That first meeting was very emotional. We had a plan of the train, and we marked where we had stood. We couldn’t stop talking. It felt like a family reunion, not strangers from a train. Jane, one of the group offered to set up a website so we could keep in touch. This became our lifeline. And that is how Kings Cross United came about, run by Piccadilly line survivors, for survivors. The group now provides support for nearly forty people, men and women, of all ages and backgrounds, from every carriage of the Kings Cross tube.

But over 700 people were on that train with us. I wonder how many of our fellow passengers still struggle to deal with what happened that day? How many people lie awake, remembering the bang, the smell of the smoke, the screams? Here are some of our stories – some of the voices from the darkness of the bombed Underground train. If you were there, if you recognise your story, our contact details are on page xx

Jamie 30, CSP Students Officer, Finchley, Carriage 2
' I'd tried to get on the first carriage, but it was too crowded so I squeezed into the carriage two instead. I later found out that I was initially queuing behind the suicide bomber. I was lucky I couldn't fit on- it probably saved my life. When the bomb went off, I thought of my girlfriend and I was glad I was on my own, because I didn't want anyone else I loved to die with me. I was so sure that I said nothing, did nothing after the bomb exploded, but from talking to other people in Kings Cross United who were on my carriage, I have since discovered that I was calm and I talked to people and tried to force open the doors to get some air in - I must have been in shock because I remember nothing of this!

After more than 20 minutes an LU worker suddenly appeared and said 'There's no fire!' And for the first time I realised that maybe I wasn't going to die. Once at Kings Cross I was struggling for breath, and a passer-by, a black man in his twenties gave me his water. I was so shocked I then tried to wander through the police cordon to get to work, but the police ushered me back to the ticket hall where I was given oxygen, which I shared with a gasping woman who seemed in a worse state than me. We were taken to hospital on buses, and a nurse gave me sweet tea as I sat wrapped in a blanket, icy with shock. I was so sooty that a policeman saw my dreads and my blackened face and mistook my ethnic origin when he took my personal details!

A week after the bombs, I found myself in the Kings Cross Memorial garden and for the first time I broke down. A Salvation Army man held me, saying nothing as I wept, and then a young blonde girl who was a Samaritan hugged me. Though I was nervous before I went to the first survivor pub meeting, when I finally met everyone, huge relief began to wash over me. By the end of the evening we all felt like old friends.'

Eamon, 46, Oriental Rug Buyer, from Bounds Green. Carriage 2
'Two construction workers at Kings Cross station smashed in the locked glass doors of Kings Cross McDonalds so some of us could use the washrooms there. The police gave their permission for the break in, and I think the guys quite enjoyed doing it. I was with two girls from the train - one from Walthamstow and one from a city law firm. I didn't want to go on a bus to hospital, as I wasn't injured. Instead I stayed with the girls and the 2 construction workers in a pub, watching the news. We found out about the other bombs - and wondered how we'd ever get home. Eventually the brother of one of the girls came and gave us all a lift.

I was back at work on the Saturday, but I was like a zombie. I knew I had to get over my fear of using the Underground. On the Tuesday after 7/7, I met Rachel and her boyfriend on the Victoria line. She was white and looked sick. I saw the stitches on her wrist, and we somehow knew we had been on the same train. We talked; swapped email addresses and she sent me the link to her survivor diary. I was just amazed to read the story; it was exactly what I was feeling. I decided to go to the pub and meet other passengers at the end of July. After that meeting, I had my first proper night's sleep. There was a bond between us all, even though we had never met before. The next morning everything felt different. It was uplifting. If Rachel and I hadn't met, perhaps the group would not have formed. But I'm so glad it did - I'm not one for counselling, but this is my counselling.'

Fiona, 22, Journalism Student from Highbury. Carriage 5
'When the bomb went off, I thought the bang was someone falling under the train. I hid under my newspaper, afraid to see splattered blood. Then the smoke poured in. A black lady opposite me in a red suit began to pray, saying 'we are going to die'. I burst into tears, and said to the smartly dressed girl next to me, can I hold your hand? She was called Gem, early twenties, with long blonde hair, a smart skirt and jacket, slim and about 5 '6. We both cried as we told each other everything would be all right. I wondered if anyone could rescue us before we died of smoke inhalation. I wished I could contact my mum and my boyfriend and tell them I loved them. Gem told me to put my jacket over my mouth and nose and someone handed me a tissue. I was unaware of time passing as other passengers struggled to open the doors. Eventually we were rescued and lifted onto the tracks. Later Gem and I checked our sooty faces with a hand mirror - my makeup wasn't just waterproof, but bombproof! At Kings Cross I was checked over and allowed to go, so I walked to Angel where I met my boyfriend.

I found out about Kings Cross United weeks later through londonrecovers.com, a survivor website. At the pub I found people from my carriage. At first I'd thought I shouldn't be so upset, as I wasn’t near the bomb, but here were people who felt just as shocked as me. Meeting up was the best thing I could have done. It has made me really determined to get a first in my degree. Now if I am down, I say to myself, if you can get through that bomb, you can get through anything.'

Angela, 36, from Enfield. Finance Administrator. Carriage 3
'There were so many people who really helped that day. I will never forget two guys - passengers - who seemed very calm. They smashed and kicked in the glass of the double doors of my carriage. They then climbed out, risking electrocution - we didn't know if the tracks were live. They stayed and helped us get off the carriage until help arrived - they were heroes. When I met others from King's Cross United last week, I finally realised I was not alone in feeling as I do. All I'd read was how 'We are not afraid' - but I was bloody terrified! It was such a relief to find other survivors. I live alone, and though my friends and family say 'call any time', it's not the same - I don't want to tell my family how I thought I was going to die, never see them again.

Normally I'm laid back, but I'm not as strong as I used to be. I'm emotionally up and down - there are bad days when I 'wobble'. I hate sirens, bangs, being hemmed in. I used to sleep six to eight hours every night. Now I wake at 3.00am. I remember the smell of the smoke, the screams. Sometimes I don't sleep at all. It's changed me. I've learned something about myself and other people. That we will get through this. We're stronger than we think, and people are a lot more caring than you'd ever think - even strangers on a train'

Bob, 47, from Southgate. Treasury Dealer. Carriage 5
' I knew when I heard the bang that something very, very serious had happened. Smoke oozed into the carriage, and I heard the piercing screams from further up the train. I thought the people were screaming as they saw a fireball coming down the train. I thought of my wife and three kids, who would look after them when they had no dad. Then I tried to ring 999, but it was no use, we were 100 feet below ground. I covered my face with my jacket. A well-spoken, well-dressed Indian woman, who I think might be a lawyer sat next to me, she was very calm and passed her water bottle around.

People were quiet as they prepared for death. We knelt to conserve the oxygen, as the temperature rose. I waited in silence for the fireball, believing I would soon be consumed. I was almost sick with fear - it felt hopeless. Time passed slowly. Then a man called that he was in touch with carriage 6, and that help was on its way, then someone else called out 'The smoke is clearing!' Suddenly people rose, and we began to exit the carriage. A police officer and a LU official helped us out of the train and we walked down the tunnel to Kings Cross station. Commuters looked at us oddly as we came up the escalator, covered in black soot. I sat on the floor of the ticket hall, as people came in covered in blood. We went to hospital on a bus. I met a young girl in the hospital who'd been on a hairdressing course and was desperate to get to college; I think she had her graduation. She was trendily dressed, with short dark hair. I hope she got the opportunity to graduate! After giving a statement to police, I was eventually taken home in an ambulance with three girls. Two young uniformed nurses, one blonde, one brunette tried to keep us cheerful; they stopped to buy petrol and had to scrape together their change to buy some to get us home.

I had two weeks off after the bombs. I wanted to enjoy my family, sit in my garden. There's such pleasure now in everyday things. Live for today, that's what I say. Don't put things off. I'm not angry. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't feel like a victim. I just feel lucky.'

If you were on the Piccadilly line train, you can email us at kingscrossunited@yahoo.co.uk. Help is available for anyone affected by the London bombings at http://www.7julyassistance.org.uk, or, call 0845 054 7444 ( 24 hours) Rachel's survivor diary continues at www.rachelnorthlondon.blogspot.com

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