Monday, October 31, 2005

Piece in Grazia magazine


They were ordinary commuters who had nothing in common apart from their daily journey on the London Underground. Then 7/7 happened. Now Rachel North, who was on the train, tells how the passengers of the Piccadilly line train have formed lasting bonds.

I’m laughing and raising my glass to the people at my table. Looking at us, you would think we were old, old friends. We haven’t stopped talking since we sat down in this pub. There’s an intensity about our conversation that might make you think we have a lot to catch up on, a lot to share. And you’d certainly be right about that.

Three months ago, the people I’m now sharing a bottle of wine with all caught the same morning train as me. I didn’t know any of them then, but we were all crushed together on the 8.50am south-bound London Underground train from Kings Cross. Now we are all part of a special group called Kings Cross United.

Today I’m having a pub lunch with some of the women from the group. There’s nearly forty of us now in Kings Cross United, and the group is still growing. We keep in very regular contact. Often we are send each other several emails a day. We talk about normal things. We make arrangements to go to the pub. We ask about each other’s work and holiday plans. But we also ask each other things that you might think are odd. We ask each other how we sleep, especially how we dream. We swap hints about managing panic attacks. We enquire about each other’s hearing. We share stories – some of us can’t bear the smell of plastic bags, or burning rubber, or peroxide. Others flinch when they hear a siren. Some of us won’t travel on Thursdays.

All of us are afraid when we travel on a train.

One sunny Thursday morning in July, our lives were changed forever. Since then, we’ve all had to face things worse than we’d ever imagined. We’ve all faced the prospect of our own imminent death, from suffocation, or burning, a hundred feet below ground. We have listened to the screams of the injured, and we have been unable to help the dead and dying. We’ve stood together in the darkness, wondering if we would ever be rescued. We’ve held hands, calmed and comforted each other, shared our water and tissues as the temperature rose and the oxygen looked like it was about to run out. We’ve smashed windows, escaped from the darkness of a bombed train, and walked down narrow tracks misty with smoke, telling each other that we would be okay, that we would be safe when we reached the end of the tunnel. We have told each other, time and time again, not to give up, not to panic, because we would be all right in the end. And now we are more than fellow passengers. We are more than survivors of London’s worst-ever terrorist atrocity. Now we are Kings Cross United, and these people are my friends.

Here are some of us eating lunch together. Jane, who works in an advertising agency, who set up the website that is our lifeline, who welcomes new joiners with warmth and compassion. Smiling Kirsty, who came back to work, then realised she was exhausted by the stress of pretending that she was fine. Barbara, Angela and Amy, so relieved to be here, who found us only last week, and who had been frantic to find others like them. Emily, a legal secretary whose irrepressible cheerfulness masks her fear. And me, a 34 year old Media Director, who became an anonymous writer after 7th July and who told the story of the week of the bombings first to the readers of urban 75, a London-based message board, and then to hundreds of thousands s through the BBC news website. That was how the first survivor found me. That was how Kings Cross United started. But I’m jumping ahead.

I didn’t know that things would turn out this way as I squeezed myself into the first carriage of the packed Piccadilly line train. There were severe delays that day, I’d never seen the tubes so crowded. Three trains passed that were impossible to board and I swore as I looked at my watch. If I didn’t get a move on I’d be horribly late. So I boarded the train - THAT train.

I’m sure you have heard the story of what happened to my journey as the train pulled out of Kings Cross and a young man, ten feet away from me, detonated his rucksack bomb, killing himself and twenty five others, maiming and wounding dozens more on my carriage. . The reports flashed round the world. The almighty bang, the choking smoke that filled the carriage, plunging us all into terrifying darkness. There were somewhere between 700- 900 passengers trapped in that stricken tube, in the dark, breathing in blood-filled toxic smoke and grit that hurt our throats. We stood crowded together for over half an hour. It felt like many, many years.

What we share is the knowledge of what happened in that darkness. And this is the miracle of the bombed Piccadilly line train. You would think that there would have been utter terror and despair after the bomb and I believe that was the terrorists’ aim. But something else happened, something that will always make me proud to have been there, with those people, on that train, on that day.

After the bomb exploded, none of us knew what had happened and almost all of us thought that we were going to die. Almost nobody said that though, they just thought it to themselves. I know this, because I have talked to the survivors and heard their stories, and they are stories of quiet heroism. People tried very hard not to panic. When people did panic, other people calmed them down. They shared water, and helped each other cover their mouths and noses to protect themselves from the smoke, and they even told jokes. Above all, in the darkness, people talked to each other. Bonds were formed on that train that we who were there will never forget. I will never forget a man’s calm voice in the darkness telling me that the driver was alive, that we were going to escape out of the front of the driver’s cab and walk to Russell Square. I passed that message back into the carriage, and thirty or so of us were able to walk to safety.

When I got home after having my cuts stitched at hospital, I threw myself into the arms of my partner, euphoric to be alive. I washed off the soot – the bath was black – and I tried to sleep. But I couldn’t sleep. Instead I went to the computer and typed an account of what had happened that day and posted it on an internet message board. As I typed, I wondered what had happened to my fellow-passengers, how they were feeling. I was still pounding with adrenalin and feeling falling over-tired. I wished that I could talk to them. Already the experience felt like a horrifying dream.

On Monday, I received an email from a man named Mark who had read my story. He had been on my train – he had been on the same carriage as me! We arranged to meet, and he and his wife came round and sat in my garden with my partner and I. We talked and talked. Mark’s was the calm voice who had told me about the driver getting us out of the front of the train. It was unbelievable, but he had helped to guide us to safety. And even more extraordinary, he had already got back on a train!

On Tuesday, quivering with fear, I decided to try to go back to work on the train too. I was almost crying because I was so afraid, even though I hung onto my partner’s arm tightly and drew deep comfort from his reassuring presence. Noticing my distress, a man leaned forward and introduced himself. His name was Eamon, and he had also been on my train! We were both suffering on that journey, but meeting each other made the journey bearable. I felt astonishingly fortunate to have met two such brave and inspirational fellow passengers, and to have shared our stories. They had the same terrifying memories, they were facing the same fears. I drew strength from that.

I decided to keep writing my story, anonymously because it was OUR story – the story of all of the people from the train. I wondered if it would somehow help people find each other, so they could share their experiences. And then the BBC contacted me and asked me to write my survivor diary on the BBC website. Suddenly, my testimony had a much bigger audience, and it was being read by people who had been on the train.

A week after the bombs, several more survivors had got in contact and we stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the Memorial Vigil. We decided to go to the pub at the end of the month. As the first fortnight after the bombs passed, more survivors emerged. Each had the same need to talk, to try and understand the incomprehensible.

Jane and I met each other for the first time that night. We were the first to arrive at the pub. We bought a bottle of rose and talked. I saw in her a lively, courageous woman, with sparkling eyes who was facing her own shock and fear with humour and compassion. Around the pub table, people from the train sat down and talked and talked, eyes ablaze as they relived the terror and drank to the simple joy of being alive.

That night, Jane met Becky, another young woman from her carriage. Recognising each other from what they had said – it had been too dark to identify each other’s faces – they fell into each others arms, delighted to have survived and found each other.

‘It was a hugely emotional moment,’ Jane told me. ‘We had both been there and we had been through it together. Later, after the pub, I remembered running and skipping round my flat, saying to myself – I’m not alone! I’m not a freak! I was really there! It was real – not a strange nightmare. I’d felt that I was almost going mad before – the sleepless nights, the shock, the crying. Nothing before had prepared me for the aftermath of the experience – but now I knew I was not alone. What I was feeling was happening to everybody’

It was clear that there was a need for survivors to continue to meet and talk. Jane and I realised that our communication training from our advertising jobs meant we had skills that we could use to help other survivors. Jane offered to help set up a website so we could all keep in contact. This proved invaluable as more people heard about the group and joined. Every person who joined said the same thing. ‘It is such a relief to know that I am not alone in feeling as I do’. Kings Cross United, the group for people from the bombed Piccadilly line train was up and running.

Almost three months later, Jane and I went to a wine bar and reviewed the weeks since we had met, we talked of the friends we had made. Jane said something I will always remember ‘Now I have met others, I have seen our strength, I know how to recover’.

Loved ones and friends, colleagues and neighbours have been wonderfully supportive, and I will always be grateful for the love and compassion I have been shown. But there are some things that I can only talk about with other survivors. And this is the only survivor group in existence that has their own lively website, regular meetings, a strong community of support. When I am afraid, I know that I can still find comfort and support from the people who held each other’s hands in the dark, and who told each other not to be afraid, that help was coming. Help did come – from each other. We rescued each other from terror on that day and we rescue each other still.

July 7th has changed my life. I’ve started to write, and millions of people have read the story of the bombs – my anonymous story, which could be anyone’s story from the train. I’ve seen how commuters become heroes, how strangers become friends. Now, when I travel on a train I know that if the unimaginable happens, then the grace of my fellow passengers means I need not despair. I have been given so many reasons to feel hope for the future.

There are thirty eight people now in Kings Cross United, and more are joining each week. On November 1st we are going to the Memorial Service in St. Paul’s Cathedral for the bomb victims. We are going to sit together, the strangers from the train who have shared so much. And afterwards, we are going to the pub. As Jane said, we know how to recover now. We have time, we have determination, and most of all, we have each other.

If you were on the Piccadilly line train and would like to meet Kings Cross United, email
Rachel’s diary continues at


Blogger Clare said...

Thanks for posting that Rachel. I did actually see your article in the magazine. Have you gotten many responses from your articles from others that were on the train.

I hope your service is ok tomorrow. I read the Order of Service in the Evening Standard today and the article about the 11 year old boy who won't attend the service because he blames Tony Blair.


October 31, 2005 7:47 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

We have gone from being 24 people to 52 registered and 19 waiting to be processed, which is fantastic. We are flyering at the service
( St Paul's have okayed it) and at the survivor meeting after the service).

Quite a lot of us are angry with Blair, but this is bigger than politics. He is not saying anything at the service, only Ken Livingstone is reading a lesson. So Blair can be safely ignored. I have nothing polite to say to him.

November 01, 2005 9:08 am  

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