7/7: the heroism and the humour

By Magnus Linklater (THE TIMES, 07/06/06):

NONE OF US knows how we will respond to extreme danger until it happens. Will we freeze in panic? Scream uncontrollably? Or set about methodically helping others?

All three reactions are described in the testimony of those who survived the London bombings. But what emerges powerfully, movingly, and at times inspirationally, are story after story of calmness and courage, modesty and self-deprecating humour.

They seem at times to belong to another era. People form orderly queues in conditions of stark horror as smoke swirls around them and Tube tunnels threaten to collapse; a man holds the hand of a dying passenger and looks into his eyes as he tells him that everything will be all right; a commuter stops his companion lapsing into unconsciousness by talking to him about England’s rugby team, then apologises for choosing such a depressing subject; a badly injured woman refuses an ambulance and tells a nurse that there are others who need it more than she does.

Where do they come from, these atavistic responses, this gritty, phlegmatic, diffident heroism? Sixty years ago, in a city used to bombing raids, V2 rockets and collapsing buildings, they were the order of the day; military notions of discipline and self-restraint were part of the national psyche, and wartime solidarity instilled the idea of teamwork and camaraderie.

None of that would have come naturally to the victims of July 7. Brought up in a society cocooned in a risk-free environment, where health and safety come as standard, and disasters are someone else’s business, the idea of confronting violent death, and dealing with it calmly and rationally, must have been, for them, a wholly alien concept. But time after time the report offers graphic first-hand accounts of passengers helping the wounded and the dying, calming the terrified, organising escape routes and then calmly catching a taxi home, or reporting into the office for work.

Even those who gave way, temporarily, to panic, were able to resort to a peculiarly British form of self-mockery. “At least I know I’m crap in a crisis now,” says one girl as she is being led away from the tangled wreckage of the carriage in which she has almost died. Joe, who was caught up in the King’s Cross explosion, comments: “The phrase I have come to hate most in the English language is: ‘I was only doing my job.’ It is never true when it is uttered; it is only uttered by people who do 1,000 times more than their job.” John, trapped underground at Edgware Road, is confronted by a woman screaming: “We are all going to die!” He then utters a line that could have come straight out of a grainy Second World War movie: “That might be the case,” he says, “but you still have your legs. Other people have lost their legs down the carriage, and are in a far worse state than you. Please could you stop screaming and calm down?” Which is, of course, what she does.

Unlike 9/11, these were not firemen or paramedics, they were ordinary members of the public — indeed the only shaming episodes to emerge from the report are those where trained teams held back from going to help because of warnings about secondary explosions. Michael, who was at Aldgate, believes they would have gone into the tunnels if they had been given the chance. “It is a great British tradition to ask for volunteers,” he said. “If I had not been so badly injured . . . and I had been asked to go back down, I am sure I would have.”

There is another contrast to the New York bombings, where survivors gave vent to their emotions in very public expressions of grief. The London victims hold back from tears, but are aware, even as they do so, that they are betraying signs of typically British behaviour. They mock themselves for their stiff upper lips; but they are proud of them too. “Some guy was looking for his glasses,” says Michael. “Typical British mentality — he put them on, and one was blown out. He said, ‘At least I can see out of one eye. Thank you.” Jane describes helping passengers along the track, in the dark and smoke, at King’s Cross: “We then slowly, and in a very British way, queued as we walked down the tunnel — ‘After you’ — and stumbling, and holding people up.” Kirsty, also at King’s Cross, describes a man jammed between the sliding doors, holding them apart so that those inside could get fresh air, despite being badly wounded. “Then,” she says, “someone in a very British way, said, ‘Could everyone who does not want to get off please step to one side, because there are people back here who would like to’.”

The aftermath has not been so straightforward. Many of the survivors are still struggling to come to terms with the shock and horror of what they saw. Some are critical of the emergency services, the slow response of ambulances and fire crews, the breakdown in communications. But all of them realise they have been through an event so momentous, so fundamentally challenging to all their preconceptions about life and themselves, that they will never be the same again.

“Whatever the bombers took from us that day is gone,” says Tim, who was at Edgware Road, “but what we have left is a determination to re- engage in life and try to overcome the pain and suffering beyond the ex- ternal healing so obvious to others.” And Joe, looking back at the events at King’s Cross concludes: “My sad conclusion, my pessimistic conclusion, about the emergency plan . . . is that it only worked because of the brave decisions and actions, and the extraordinary initiative, taken by individuals on that day.”