Getting to grips with the London bombings

Well, I’ve been holding off posting anything here about the London bombing in the hope that it will all gradually become clear and I’ll be able to make some coherent sentences about it. I’m now beginning to think that’s not going to happen. It’s all too odd and there are too many things to think about and too many angles to approach it from.

The facts are that I get the tube to work every morning, and work just up the road from Kings Cross. On Thursday, I arrive at London Bridge and the ticket hall is packed with people unable to get on the tube, as the Northern Line had just been closed. Odd as it may sound to people who don’t experience the tube daily, this isn’t actually that unusual. It’s very unusual for a whole line to go down, but London Bridge ticket hall full of people is normal, and bits of the tube being down is also normal. So, I go to get a bus. People don’t want to queue and there is almost an argument as people get on the bus. I sit upstairs on the bus, at the front. A woman a couple of seats back from me talks on her mobile and says something like “explosion at Liverpool Street”. Everyone on the bus tenses slightly and when she got off the phone someone asks what that was about. That was all she knew. I text Sarah at home and ask her to find out what is happening. By this time we are heading into the city on the bus, toward Liverpool Street, and it is obvious something has happened because of the emergency vehicles driving around.

Sarah calls me back with the news about power surges, so I say out loud, in reply to her, “power surges”, and the tension on the bus relaxes. No one asks me about it. As we travel up through London toward the Angel we see more people than usual on the streets, and more emergency services vehicles than usual. Cyclists and motorcyclists continue to weave in and out of traffic, and I am struck by their lack of awareness – risks like that are OK when tension is low, but when tension is high, no-one can handle a cyclist suddenly cutting you up where you don’t expect them. I see no accidents.

When I reach the Angel at just before 10, and walk up Pentonville Road to work, I am struck by how many people are walking. It is a little like when there’s a tube strike, but the timing is wrong – it feels just plain odd. Everyone is slightly on edge, looking for information, and people’s mobile phones are beginning to fail.

When I reach the office I receive a text message from my mother asking if I am OK. I tell her I am. Reports are still of power surges, and people in the office are trying to justify the reports they’d heard of people hurt and with blackened faces. Perhaps the escalators stopped suddenly and people fell down them. For some of us, Kings Cross is a place where that sort of thing happens – we remember the huge fire there in the 80s. My email is full of messages saying people are trying to get in but are delayed on buses or trying to walk. By 11 we have accounted for almost everyone, and we’re getting a good idea that this was no power surge issue. Access to internet sites is very erratic, so information isn’t coming through. I tune in the TV – first I get ITV, with the associated hysteria, and quickly re-tune to the BBC.

Sirens of police, fire and ambulance scream past our office every minute or so. As the day goes on, the sirens gradually become less frequent, but never more than 5 minutes seems to go by without one. The Monday after the bombs we still have sirens every half hour.

I get emails and text messages from people asking if I’m OK. I reply and find out later that the text messages didn’t get through.

At midday everyone in the office meets to watch the Prime Minister’s address to the nation. He confirms what we know and says terrorists won’t win. He’s good. It’s good to be together in a room. We agree that we’ll stay put, and wait until later to work out how to get everyone home safely. We know we won’t work, but we all try to. Everyone is distracted. One of my colleagues has a son who was at work at Edgware Road. He is OK and walks to our office. The phone is ringing with people concerned for us – either for individuals who work here, or all of us collectively. No one’s mobile phone works, so everyone comes through switchboard. I answer the phone more than usual, aware that worried people want a phone answered fast and calmly. The tone in the voices change dramatically from asking for someone to the relief of being told they are here and will be put through.

By 2.45, people are starting to think about leaving. Our earlier resolve about sticking together is close to being lost. Jessica goes around the office and finds out everyone’s route and plans to get home. She pairs people up where possible so we can travel with each other. People gradually start to leave over the next couple of hours.

At 4.00 we hear that the buses and some train services are coming back. Those who waited to leave may get home sooner than those who left early.

At 4.07 we finally get news that someone on work experience with us is home safely. She had never made it in, and we’d had limited news about her whereabouts.

At 4.45 I leave with a colleague and we walk for an hour to London Bridge. It’s a walk I do fairly frequently, so it’s not odd to me to do it. It is odd to see so many other people doing it too, and the lack of cars on the road. Police cars rush back and forth. My colleague was near the bus explosion in the morning and I ask her about it. She’s remarkably calm and I can’t believe how frighteningly close it all is. She said she had been planning to be in New York around the time of 9/11, but had travelled in Europe instead.

That night, Sarah and I go to our local pub and have Thai food and try to talk about and plan our holiday. We want normality. Sky news is on with no volume and our eyes and conversation keep being drawn to it. Small realisations come to mind… I think the lack of panic amongst Londoners is because we’re so used to the tube being disrupted. If we had a slick transport system we’d be really freaked out when it went wrong… Many of us grew up or lived in London when the IRA was bombing and still think of terrorism and that level of attack as just another risk of city living. A little like the risk of being hit by a bus… Sarah is struck by how many people from out of London have been in touch, while most people in London are more casual about it. There’s less panic in the city than from those who love us outside the city.

Sirens are a constant near our flat, close as we are to a mainline station. Sarah says the trains into London all day have had no more than two people on them. The trains out have been pretty full.

The following day I head in to work as usual, as do most of the people I work with. I get on the tube and there are seats to spare. No surprise, but certainly not normal. Most people are reading the Metro, reading about tube trains with bombs on them. I try to read about emerging web technologies. A London Transport worker comes down the train checking for loose seats which could conceal bombs. He can’t get through a door between the carriages and continues his checks, missing out a set that’s inconvenient. Yes, London is quickly getting back to normal.