Inside Train 204, Aldgate: Stories From 7/7

"You are going to die, that’s what you think – I am going to die. The train expands and the whole world is pulled from your eyes."
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"You are going to die, that’s what you think – I am going to die. The train expands and the whole world is pulled from your eyes."

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The following accounts are from the public inquiry into the terrorist attacks on July 7th 2005.

It feels like a game, a silly, stupid trick. You are on the way to work reading the newspaper, and then, inexplicably, you’re not. It is July and you’re in the sun with your eyes closed. There’s a hot wind on your face. You could be floating or falling or dreaming. Someone whispers Lord, please forgive me, and everything is very, very faint.

Why are you here? Why is this moment yours? These strange thoughts come in and out without answers. It is eleven minutes to nine on the eastbound rail of the Circle line, somewhere between Liverpool Street and Aldgate, and this feeling goes on forever, what seems like forever, until the light fails, the cloud lifts and the noise roars.

It starts as an intense WHOOSH and a crunching scream before the loudest BANG of your life. The air is choked with glass and you watch tiny grey diamonds dance and fall as rain, not knowing that people are already dead, people are already dying. Their souls are hovering as train 204 stops at a junction a few hundred yards from Liverpool Street. Back on the platform, the building shakes, and two TFL workers ask each other, what the fuck was that? You don’t understand yet either, you are still the same person that boarded this train, thinking you will return to the happy world up there unscathed, with your whole life waiting, where none of this is real.

But, wait, the truth is coming. Here it is, arriving with the darkness. A thick copper smoke fills your lungs and in the faint distance you hear something so desperate you pick yourself up and move towards it. If you knew what was waiting, would you have acted different? Would you have instead crawled towards the calm voices and the light? You had a choice to make and you made it, and when you emerge forty-five minutes later into the helicopters, police tape and sirens of a strange new world, the paramedics frantically search for the cut that covers you in blood, until, slowly, wordlessly, they realise - none of it is yours.

----

Yes, something terrible is moving this way, but before all that, before all the horrible grinding, before the metallic taste between your teeth, before the feeling of being surrounded by towering waves, there is Shehzad Tanweer and his hate.

Shehzad lives with his mother and father and three siblings in a white pebble-dashed house in Colwyn Road, Leeds. His father runs a fish and chip shop, where Shehzad sometimes helps work the fryers. A nice boy, people say. Kind and caring. From a well-respected family. But some cog, somewhere, begins to jam. Shehzad returns from three months studying the Qur’an in Pakistan and on the surface he’s the same brother, cousin and son, but there are changes, you don’t even have to look that closely. He visits the mosque five times-a-day, and stops socialising, spends his whole time praying or quietly discussing prayer. On the evening before London, Shehzad plays one final game of cricket. As a child, that’s what he wanted to do: play cricket every hour of every day. That dream dies, but it’s not easy to let go of the things you love. So he meets his old friends and they are happy to see him. They tease him about his hair, which is bleached fashionably blonde in places. Shehzad laughs it off, says it’s from the chlorine in the local swimming pool. Only later, does anyone realise what really caused it - the hydrogen peroxide that will ignite the next morning, tearing him and seven other pour souls limb from broken limb.

So July 7, 4AM.

Sylvia Waugh pulls aside her net curtains and sees three men - Shehzad, Mohammed Khan and Hasib Hussain - loading rucksacks into the boot of a blue Nissan Micra. Drug dealers, she thinks. Very suspicious. Sylvia is watching the beginning of a journey that will end five hours later in Britain’s first ever suicide attack, but she has no idea, no one does. After a while, one of the men turns and looks straight at her. “I knew he had seen me, and he frightened me”, she said later. When she goes back to bed, her husband says: “That’s what you get for being nosy”.

The men head to the M1 and they’re not coming back. 18 Alexandra Grove is a bomb factory and when police discover it five days later there’s evidence everywhere, they make no attempt to cover their tracks. Ice packs, trays, funnels, filter paper, fuses, batteries, nails, and several kilograms of HMTD, a high explosive compound, are found. Other than the tape fixed over the windows, the detectives think they wanted the whole world to know how they did it.

And it’s easy to look at these men and think they are evil, not one of them is human, but it’s more complicated than that. They stop for petrol at Woodhall Services, on the outskirts of Sheffield, and Shehzad, in tracksuit bottoms, a Puma T-shirt and black glasses, goes in and buys everyone breakfast. This will be their last meal, and what strikes you is the banality of it, how depressingly normal it seems. In the fluorescent light of a dreary garage forecourt, Shehzad buys £20.01 of unleaded petrol, three Ginsters cheese and onion slices, a bag of Sensations, and two Volvic lemon waters. He returns to the car and hands the bag to Hussain. The car re-joins the motorway.

Two hours later, that same Nissan Micra appears on CCTV at Luton railway station. It parks next to a Fiat Bravo containing Jermaine Lindsay, the fourth bomber, a nineteen year old who’s left a silent red-brick house in Aylesbury earlier this morning with his pregnant wife and son still sleeping. The men board the delayed 7.25am Thameslink to London King’s Cross and the day is already hot, it could be one of those beautiful summer days when London feels lighter, more liveable. Only, it won’t be, it will be the opposite. The city will never feel more claustrophobic. The air will be oppressive and filled with sirens, and the mood will be heavy like a funeral.

If you had been on that train, would you have noticed them? Four young men huddled around backpacks, silent, avoiding eye contact. All of them dressed like military cadets or a sports team. Karl Sylvester did. It should have been just another Thursday, the regular commute, but Karl couldn’t take his eyes off these four passengers, something was wrong about them. They were wearing coats on a hot summer’s day. They were clearly together, yet for the entire journey they never looked or spoke to each other. There were places to sit, but they stood. They looked solemn, but in a way that seemed deliberate, like their faces were masks and they were hiding something underneath. Karl got off at Blackfriars and arrived at work at King’s College Hospital. He couldn’t get the men out of his head. He drank a coffee and told a colleague what he had seen. Sometime later he heard the news, and only then did the blank expressions finally make sense.

There were witnesses everywhere that morning, but like Karl, their memories only became important when fifty-two were already dead and it was far, far too late. Joseph Martoccia was walking on autopilot through the main concourse of Kings Cross when he came upon a euphoric group of men. He thought they were cricketers, that their heavy bags were filled with bats, pads and whites. They were hugging and seemed to be saying goodbye. Joseph looks back and it’s obvious now what he shared. The beginning of the end. Just minutes left to live. And they didn’t care who saw them. They stood in the middle of a dense flow of rush-hour passengers, forcing men and women to bend and alter their bodies if they wanted to pass.

From here on out Shehzad Tanweer travels alone. He takes the Circle Line train east and waits. No one will ever know what he’s thinking, if he has doubts, if he stands in that rattling carriage and feels any lingering guilt about the fate of the oblivious people reading, daydreaming, yawning around him. There’s no way out now, anyway. The clocks have been set and at 8:49:01 time is up. Three bombs detonate and the world changes. On the Piccadilly Line, where twenty-six will die, passengers are pushing themselves forward into a packed carriage. A flustered man, not knowing what awaits, shouts, WILL YOU PLEASE MOVE UP. Christian Small, who stepped aside to let a woman board the previous train, asks the man if he wants him to sit on the roof. Laughter fills the carriage. A great, happy wave of it. The train doors close and then, seconds later, the bomb explodes.

Those were Christian Small’s last words. He was twenty-eight and loved by all those that knew him.

----

The calls start coming in at 8:50. The Metropolitan Line controller contacts the London Underground control centre to report that the lights at Aldgate have gone out. The station’s in darkness and a thick smoke is pouring onto platform two. At the same time, the London Ambulance Service receives a call to say that there’s been an explosion at Liverpool Street. Celia Harrison, station supervisor, makes her first call at 8:53, and sounds anxious as she describes a huge bang at Aldgate. The voices then get more and more frantic as the minutes tick on. Inspector Ian Baker, who is working on his computer at Aldgate police station when the bomb detonates, runs underground, and finds dazed and bewildered people emerging from the tunnel covered in dirt. He calls the British Transport Police controller and asks for every single emergency service. All of them. This is a major incident, he says. Twenty-five wounded already.

Later, when he arrives at stricken train 204 and sees the mangled second carriage with his own two eyes, he makes another call.

BX. Urgent request for an ambulance to Aldgate from paramedics and Fire Brigade on trains. There are people on these trains who will die if they do not get immediate care. We need ambulances to Aldgate urgently. Over.

But the first people to respond are not fireman or paramedics or people that have spent days and months training to deal with this kind of devastation. They are men like Stephen Eldridge, a Metropolitan Line driver, waiting for his next train to come in by platform three. He’s catching up with another driver when there’s movement in the air followed by a bang and a fine rain of dust and paint shaken from the ceiling. What the bloody hell was that. His mate Paul thinks a motor or compressor has gone, but Stephen says straight away, that’s a bomb. And before he even really knows what he’s doing, Stephen grabs his hi-vis and lamp, and jumps down to the track with just one question: is the juice off?

I don’t know what makes some people run towards mayhem when everyone else is moving away. I’m not sure Stephen would even be able to tell you. But that’s what he does, he runs into a wall of blindness and smoke so dense he can barely breathe. There are others with him. Mark Williams. Paul Harris. Leslie Drinkwater. Tony Counihan. They reach the third car and find it full of drawn-out faces half-hidden by smoke. Fists bang on the window in panic. Stephen helps direct them to the end of the train, where someone has prized the doors open. He’s directing passengers back to the platform when he steps over something, sub-consciously, without thought. He looks down at his feet and sees a body, what is left of a body. He doesn’t want anyone else to feel the way it makes him feel. So he tells every single person to keep looking at the lights – you can see the lights of Aldgate in the distance – thinking this mantra will be the cloak that keeps the body hidden.

The whole thing doesn’t hit Stephen until much later, when he has been evacuated and is at a debriefing outside Moorgate Station, a little further down the road. Tom O’Riordan, London Underground group station manager, is speaking, and Stephen can see the sounds forming in his mouth, but no matter how hard he concentrates he can’t hear the words.

There are so many stories like this, but I can’t tell you all of them.

There isn’t enough time.

I can only offer you fragments.

Tony Counihan is sitting in his step-back box at the end of platform one and two when he hears the bang. He’s one of the first on the track and helps the walking wounded escape the tunnel. He stands at the mouth and waves his torch and shouts come towards my voice until there’s nothing left of it. He’s there until everyone alive is off the train. That effort stays with him, the whole day does. Tony can’t sleep for weeks. He doesn’t go back to work for five months. He’s on and off medication. He never returns to Aldgate.

Olaniyi Falayi isn’t supposed to be there. He’s walking past Aldgate by chance when the first wounded passenger reaches the bright air of the street. In the madness he finds a heavy man lying on the track wearing only his underpants and shoes. He is black with dust. A black Buddha, someone says. That man is Phil Duckworth, and he is drifting in and out of consciousness, a vision of his son playing before his eyes. Olaniyi wants to hold Phil and comfort him but he can’t, his entire body is covered in glass. So Olaniyi fashions a makeshift stretcher from a ladder covered with coats and blankets, and he drops him once, then twice, but keeps picking him up as if he too can see the young boy keeping Phil alive.

Then here’s Tony Silvestro, breathless at platform one, watching silhouettes emerge out the darkness. The tunnel looks like a volcano erupting, the smoke just billowing out, and the people are magma slowly spreading across the track. They remind Tony of the zombies from Michael Jackson’s Thriller - black skin, black clothes, black hair, black lips, and only the whites of their eyes immune from the evil. Tony sprints past them, shouting, POLICE, POLICE, come towards the light. Something tells him to keep going until he arrives at the bombed carriage, where there is a young man, no older than twenty by the door. He keeps trying to stand up. He’s half way up, then down, up, then down again, and he’s not speaking, he doesn’t know where he is. Tony sees him and says, sit down mate… sit down. He can’t see any injuries, but the man is shaking, his whole body vibrating like an unanswered phone. Tony thinks of shell-shocked soldiers in WW1, trench warfare, poison gas, the brain broken down by the horrors of war. He tries to get through to him, but can’t. Soon, the screaming and cries of help draw Tony away, and when he returns even the shaking is gone.

Over and over and over, the same stories, in past, present and future, it’s happening, has happened, will happen again. Their courage is the world correcting itself. Tony and Tony and Olaniyi and Stephen mending the almighty power of Shehzad’s hate with kindness. And each man has just enough to keep the whole thing moving. The survivors emerge from the carriages and see a chain – a line of unbroken human hands – lifting the suffering, alive, adrift, back to their former lives. I don’t care if your God is Christ, Allah, Shiva, Jehovah or just the single voice singing inside your head, but the sight of that will make you believe in something.

----

In that first moment, the lucky ones were in carriage six, or carriage one, or carriage three or four. Anywhere but carriage two. There, in that rectangle box of safety glass and aluminium, a group of people are held together with just one thing in common: something terrible is coming.

Standing is a lawyer, serious in a trouser suit, but still young inside, looking forward to a weekend in the house she grew up in. Sitting is a woman born on Christmas day, a Girl Guide of 20 years - a candle light in a darkened room, her brother says. Also seated is a women who’s due to be married in three months – a beautiful, sweet Italian girl who will be buried in her wedding dress.

Like lovers who haven’t met yet or neighbours living in different countries, each of them moved towards the others without knowing it, in different cities and towns, grabbing their briefcases, coffee flasks and Oyster cars, and heading for the door. Some will miss the train, or head into another carriage, while others guided by some invisible hand will find themselves here by accident, feeling lucky to have found themselves a seat, feeling chosen.

All these people, it was as if they were marked with an invisible X on their foreheads, as of course we are too, only the place and time yet to be determined. Yes, we are burning down, time is disintegrating. There were seven people who owned cars and houses, slept in beds, had dreams and a future, and then they were gone.

Do you remember the last time you felt the wind? Or looked at the light and the world and thought, this is beautiful? Can you remember the words she said as she last went, the ones that left her lips before goodbye?

----

But what about the living?

Hilary says it’s like waking up on the sofa and a horror film’s on the television, only she can’t see anything else, just the screen, and there’s no way to change the channel.

Or else it’s a completely new day, the rest of the morning and all of yesterday gone. Kiera will never get those memories back. She opens her eyes expecting the same ceiling, the same four comfortable walls as always, only there’s a problem, there is a huge sheet of metal pinning her down, and sparks are falling from wires freed from their casing. This must be a nightmare, she thinks. Wake up. Wake up. She tries to pinch herself to escape, but her hands are so deep in debris that the black dream just goes on and on.

Andrew says it’s the feeling of being electrocuted, your body charged with current, followed by a slow ascent into consciousness. The desperate noise of other people’s pain reaches him before his own, so he tries to get up and help, but he can’t, he falls. This is the odd part for Andrew - he feels fine, but when he looks down for some kind of explanation, he gets it - his right leg is gone.

There’s other things too. There is a wide blank space with a single male voice saying, stay with me, she’s fading, stay with me… then static… then nothing. There’s the sound of a washing machine swishing clothes in an empty laundrette. There’s little shafts of light breaking through the smoke. There’s Thelma waking up with blood filling her shoes and a man lying behind her, not moving. She thought he was dead – he was dead – but she could have held his hand - she could have held his hand, but didn’t.

The questions linger. How did these people do it? How did they stay intact when others didn’t? Seven lives, whole and happy hours before, now disassembled. Much later, the survivors will do all they can to leave this behind, but at night, while everyone else sleeps, some will sob uncontrollably. They scare themselves – not so much because they are crying, but because they can’t stop.

-----

What about you? Where were you in all this? The darkness hangs and you are grasping through the black when the emergency lights flicker on. You are initially thankful for the light, but then, when you look up, you are not. There’s no respectful way of saying what you see. There’s no way of describing it without taking something away from the people that loved them. But I’ll tell you one thing. You’ll never forget it. That’s how the mind works. You remember the things you want to forget and forget the things you want to remember.

So you have a very clear memory, it feels very real - like yesterday. It makes you shiver when you think of it. There’s a young lady bent around a pole, slim, she’s not the one making the blood-curdling noise, but you know to go to the quiet ones first. You’re resourceful like that, and sensitive, which qualifies you for the thing hurtling toward you at a speed faster than you can run. You cradle this woman’s head in your arms, long black hair past her shoulders, her body spasming involuntarily, and you look into her eyes and tell her it’s going to be OK. You don’t know that, but you say it anyway.

It would be so easy for you to leave her, but you don’t, the thought never cross your mind. With each passing second, the opposite is true – you’re too scared to leave. As the lonely arms and legs and heads come into focus, and the screams fade into a low moan, you can’t think of anywhere left to vanish but deep inside these people, these bodies.

Later, someone will say they saw your face when they walked past, they saw you and knew straight away they didn’t have what you had. You were only there for a second or two, but it felt like an eternity. Ask them now and they’ll say the same thing: they have never, ever seen such a forlorn look, such a desperate look - you just staring out, not blinking, with this lady’s head in your hands.

Streams of people file past and nobody joins you for a long time. Then, a man asks if you need help, and you take it in turns to comfort the woman – Carrie her name was, Carrie you learn after. Then, there are green uniforms around you, paramedics with needles and kit and just a little hope. You are all huddled around the same young lady now. She’s on the floor - yes, you are all crouched down, and they are working on her – the paramedics - and after a while they stop. One of them looks at you, the words written across his face, and you decide then, he doesn’t even have to say it – you tell him, I want to go home.

So you leave the people back there in the dark, the people and the shapes that are no longer people, and even now you think about them, you leaving them but them never leaving you, and if you had another chance, some kind of divine power, you say to yourself maybe you would have stayed there with them, turned yourself into all that blackened, twisted metal, instead of it silent, unspoken, turning into you.

So, Lee Baisden, this is for you.

Benedetta Ciaccia and Richard Ellery, this is for you.

Richard Gray, this is for you.

Anne Moffat and Fiona Stevenson, this is for you.

Carrie Taylor, I’m sorry, this is for you.