Ten years ago, on July 7th, 9:15 am Greenwich Mean time, I was on the tube in London, heading to Liverpool Street Station with my children, when our train was halted at Ealing South. We had just got off a nine-hour flight with an eight-hour time difference, so it was the middle of our night, and the children succumbed to the overly warm, overly full carriage and nodded off in their seats, legs draped over their luggage as pseudo-protection for their gear. We waited, and waited, and waited, the sound system periodically buzzing to life as a nasal voice, heavy on the static, told us again and again that this train could not progress forward due to a “major security alert.” Sitting there, I remember thinking that it was probably a bomb scare. Growing up in England in the 1970s, bomb scares were just something we lived with. After twenty minutes of silent patience within the carriage, the loud speaker buzzed again and everyone on the train was instructed to get off now and leave the station immediately.
I stared blearily at the sign on the platform again: Ealing South. Did I know where that was in relation to Liverpool Street Station? I didn’t think so. I’d lived in the London area as a student but I didn’t remember ever taking the tube to Ealing South. I nudged the kids. We lifted our bags and with weary sighs followed everyone out of the station. Once outside, on a street I was not familiar with, I turned to see iron gates being closed and locked at the entrance to the station. They really meant this.
We spent the next few hours climbing on and off buses, explaining to the drivers that we wanted to go to Liverpool Street Station only to be asked, “Why don’t you take underground?” None of them knew that the underground had been closed or why their buses were suddenly so full or how to get to Liverpool Street Station from Ealing South. But if we took the number 9 bus to the number 24 and then changed for the number 6 bus, we could get to Hammersmith Bus Terminal where we would undoubtedly find a bus to Liverpool Street Station. While we were on one of these many buses, surrounded by people who had also been thrown off the tube, somebody finally received a call on their mobile phone and we could hear, from her end of the conversation, that it was, indeed, a bomb. A series of bombs, in different locations, across the London Underground. We arrived at Hammersmith Bus Terminal, glad to be seeing the end to the mayhem we had landed in, only to be told by one of the many emergency workers in orange and white striped jackets that not only was I not going to Liverpool Street Station that day, but that if I were him, I’d get my children out of the bus terminal too because another bomb had just gone off on a bus.
Now what was I going to do? I sat my children – 14 and 10 – on a bench and told them not to move. Then I went in search of a pay phone. I found one and tried to call my brother who worked in the City of London but the phone lines were down. I tried to call my brother-in-law who worked in South London but those lines were down too. I finally got a line out to my father, in Southend, where I had been headed with my children, and he was baffled that I couldn’t reach my brother. “I just spoke with him,” he said.
“I’m in London, dad. The phones are down inside the city.”
There was a long pause and he finally said, a catch in his voice, “I just want you to get where you’ll be safe.”
It never really occurred to me that we weren’t safe. Trapped, yes. Hungry, very. Tired, beyond words. But the panic the media seems so able to convey in these situations hadn’t reached me. Or anybody else around me that I could tell. We were all just dealing with it. I finally resorted to a London taxi-cab to get us out of the jam and had the driver drop us at a pub in Putney, south of the River Thames, on the understanding that my brother-in-law would come and pick us up from there. The publican showed us to a back room, where I could sit with the children, and since there was no food to be had because the cooks were trapped inside London, the kids laid down on the wooden benches and fell asleep. And then I did the smartest thing I’d done all day. I walked down the street to another payphone and woke up my husband. “You need to hear this from me,” I told him, “before you hear it on the news.”
The thing is, as messy as that whole situation was, what I remember most from being in the midst of it were the stories my sister told when she came home from work the next day. We ended up at her house in Kent, after my brother-in-law rescued us from the pub, and the children and I promptly slept for almost 24 hours. We woke up to my sister sharing the talk from the teachers’ lounge. One of the stories she told was about the husband of one of her coworkers, who was on his usual bus in north London, heading to work the day of the bombings, when a man sat down next to him and started fidgeting so agitatedly with a package inside his backpack, the husband got off the bus. And as it pulled away, the bus exploded. He must have been sitting next to the bomber and didn’t know it.
What I took away from that was the following: there’s a great chance it won’t be us. Or if it is us, there’s a great chance that we won’t know it. I think often about the men on Flight 93, the fourth plane to go down on 9/11. I picture them saying to each other, maybe wordlessly, we’re going down, so we may as well go down fighting. Isn’t that what we should all be saying? If we’re going down, may as well go down doing the things we want to do with our lives. So my vote is, if you want to go to Paris, go. Chances are great you’ll just have a wonderful time.