Sunday, October 02, 2005

Unedited 1st draft of Sunday Times feature


This is the story of how the ordinary became extraordinary. Of how the 8.50am commute to work became a choking nightmare of oily, blood-filled smoke and an endless scream. Of how the voices of strangers reached out to each other in the terrifying darkness and tried to help each other. The small things that become the whole world, when the world explodes.

My name is Rachel, and I could be anyone you know. The woman whose face you recognise but don't know the name of in the office. You might see me hurrying to work, slightly late, pounding the pavement with my bag slung over my shoulder and my jaw tense. You might stand next to me on the Piccadilly line and wonder why I'm closing my eyes as we pass through Kings Cross. You might queue behind me in a coffee shop and wonder why I start so violently as a siren suddenly blares outside.

Like over a thousand other people, I was directly caught up in the events of 7th July. The bomb carried by a young man in his rucksack exploded about 7-10 feet behind me on my tube carriage, whilst I was reading the news about the successful Olympic bid. Because the train was so crowded, I didn't die. I fell sideways towards the front set of double doors on the first carriage of the Piccadilly line tube as dozens of other commuters on my carriage took the full force of the explosion, in one of the deepest, narrowest parts of the London Underground tube network. My first thought was that I was dead, then that I had been blinded. My ears were still ringing from the blast that was like being boxed violently in the ears as I fell on top of a young woman who had been standing crushed close next to me. In the utter darkness, our hands caught and held on to each other. Tiny shards of glass fell on us and acrid smoke that tasted indescribable caught in my throat as I tried to speak.

Feet away, another woman began to scream and scream.

I checked my body, to see if I was still all there. I was. People began to speak, to groan. The first words I heard, and I don't know if it was my voice speaking them or a stranger's, were 'Are you all right?'

Inside the bombed train, something extraordinary had begun to happen. Though sight was all but impossible, breathing difficult, we normally silent strangers on the train began to comfort and help each other where we could. We became a team.

'Stand up if you aren't injured, hold hands, stay calm. We're going to be all right. We're going to be all right. Hold on. Hold on.'

In comforting each other, we were saving ourselves. From the panic that would have been catastrophic.

Long, long moments passed, and there was the agonised screaming, and the voices calling to each other in the darkness. The panic and the strange calm, the living and the dying, all together in the dark.

We began to use the lights from our mobile phones and we strained to hear as the brave white-faced driver forced his way out of his carriage and beckoned us down the steps into the dim tunnel, warning us to not step on the tracks which could be live. Nobody panicked, nobody pushed, though the urge to escape was overwhelming. The learned, civilised behaviour of commuters who must live in too-close proximity took over, and we queued to leave the train. Once in the tunnel, those of us who could walk, did so, in careful single file for fear of electrocution. Behind me, a man half dragged, half-carried another badly injured man, across his shoulders. The passengers of the Kings Cross train had united and were doing their best to make sure as many of us as possible got out alive.

We talked to each other, we encouraged each other, we even tried to make jokes. We struggled to the ticket hall, and strangers' hands reached down to us and lifted us from the tracks. We reached the blessed cool air of Russell Square ticket hall and people passed us water. Our faces were blackened, our eyes staring with shock. If you touched us, you could feel the explosion still shuddering through the tensed adrenalised body. We still didn't know what had happened then. And how everything had changed, for us struggling into the station; for those badly injured still left behind in the train, for the families of those people we had to leave behind in the darkness as we walked into the light.

You've probably read this story, or ones like it, before. You've probably wondered what it would be like to live through that. It's exactly twelve weeks since the bombings and I would like to tell you a little bit about life now.

Once I had thrown myself into the arms of my partner, once safely home, the first thing I did, before I even washed the soot from my body, was to sit and write down what had happened. I needed to tell my story to other Londoners, and so I wrote an account on, a London website, where Londoners were posting news on an internet message board. The response was immediate: people's compassion and concern obvious. It is so painful to tell those you love what you have been through. You want to protect them from the horrifying pain of it all. Putting my story out there to strangers calmed me down. The next day I logged on again to answer the many messages I had been sent, and wrote a progress report. And then another, and another.

I didn't know it, but this writing my story down was saving me. The updates became a daily diary of the strange days of that week in July. I coughed up the smoke and the stitches healed and the daily account of the small steps towards normality was read by hundreds of other Londoners who could have been there. And by some who were.

On Monday, Mark, a man who had been on my carriage read the account got in touch. It was amazing and wonderful to hear from someone else who had been there. He and his wife met my partner and me and we talked and we talked. The sharing of the common experience was like taking a stone from my chest. And he told me the most hopeful thing - he had already got back on a train!

On the Tuesday after the Thursday bomb, I got on a tube train too. I was shaking with fear and nausea. My partner held me, but despite the deep comfort I drew from his presence, I still struggled to cope. Sitting opposite me was a man in a suit and dark tie, looking pale and set-faced. Seeing my distress, he leaned forward, breaking the unwritten Don't Talk rule of the London commuter. He told me his name. And that he, too, had been on my train. We exchanged numbers, shook hands, and from these two meetings, Kings Cross United - the small group of survivors from that train - came about.

Meanwhile, a journalist from the BBC had noticed my blog (online diary), and asked if it could move for a week to the BBC news website, and so reach a larger audience.

I work in an ordinary office, with people who have been wonderfully kind. I'm not a professional writer, but I agreed, as long as I could keep my anonymity. After all, the point of the diary wasn't me, Rachel, especially, but the fact that it could have been anybody. The diary though seemed to be taking on a life of its own; as I wrote it, I felt a burden lifting from me, as the story was shared it became everyone's story, and my voice just one of the voices from the darkness of the Underground train.

I badly wanted more people from my train to find each other; I felt an overwhelming connection to those strangers, those fellow-travellers, those people whose story was now tangled with my story. The voices, those hands held in the dark, when we tried to save each other's lives, and in doing so, saved our own.

And it happened as I hoped. People from the train began to get in touch - largely through the internet, leaving messages on the London website where I first posted the account, or commenting on my blog. A week after the bombs, I went to Trafalgar Square, to observe the silence and keep the Vigil and at my side were people from the train.

Now there are 20 of us who are Kings Cross United, the growing group that is for those who survived the bomb on the Piccadilly line train. We have been to the pub and we keep in email contact. We help each other and in doing so, help ourselves. It is from talking to other survivors that I have learned how so much of my own experience is mirrored in theirs. How ten weeks or so in, many of us seemed to have a collective 'wobble'. How sleeping peacefully became suddenly difficult, how anger and nausea and panic attacks began to strike without warning. We learned how once the shock of the violence fades, the exultation and guilt of survival ebb away, then the hard slow slog of dealing with the small things begins. The burst eardrums are healing, the stitches taken out. Now it is facing the fear, the vertigo of a world that looks the same but is not as it was. The everyday acts of daily life that suddenly cost much more in bravery and determination that we'd ever imagined. Getting back on a rush hour tube. Getting to work on time. Swallowing down the sickening fear and just doing it, because what choice do you have? How much do you want your life back? Isn't it worth these small acts of defiance to take back what we are owed - the ordinary, everyday life of work, family, friends, in this busy, crowded city? Yes, and again yes. We can do it. We are not, after all, alone.

We look the same to you, but inside we are different. Everything shook, exploded and then knitted together differently after the bomb. What looks like cracks and scars are where things have joined up again, stronger than they were before. I wear the unseen tattoo mark of July 7th with pride. Sometimes it aches, but it is part of me and who I am now.

My experiences in the aftermath of the bomb are the experiences of many, and there is a strange comfort in that. Now when I travel, I look at the people around me, the strangers on my tube train. I wonder whether the face opposite me would be the face that looks into my eyes and takes my hand if the unimaginable happened. Of whether the stranger on the train would be the guide in the panic and the voice in the dark. And so I breathe in and out, and I manage the fear. I know, because I experienced it, that I am safe as long as I am still breathing, because these are not strangers. These are my fellow passengers.

He meant to cause terror, that man who pushed onto my carriage and blew himself up. And you would think, wouldn't you, that a hundred feet down in the darkness, when the world exploded, I would have felt utterly alone. But no. The worst of all things happened and we became Kings Cross United. I salute you, my fellow passengers. You have made me forever proud.


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