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The angel who, ignoring her terrible injuries, saved lives in King's Cross

Evening Standard, The (London, England) - November 1, 2005

  • Author/Byline: DAVID COHEN


NEARLY four months on and it still takes just the merest hint to set off the horror: a banging door, a light bulb momentarily flickering, the smell of burning, a crush of people. Then her eyes roll back and in that minute rotation of her brown pupils, Alison Macarthy is suddenly a world away, tumbling helplessly from her parents' dining room in East Sussex to relive a vivid slow-motion world of unimaginable carnage the moment the King's Cross bomb went off.


"I have a sensation of falling in the darkness," says Alison, the 30-year-old daughter of a retired British Airways pilot. "A huge force is pushing me down, crumpling me up, again and again and again. I am slammed against the pole and as I fall I am crushed by the ceiling coming down and" - she swallows hard to voice something she still finds impossible to digest - "by people and bits of people landing on me."


"And then I pass out for about 15 minutes because when I come round, the carriage, which has been jampacked, is empty. I can hear screaming from further back in the train, the emergency lights are on, there is thick, black, acrid smoke and a smell of burning from the metal, rubber and burning flesh all around me.


"I am aware that someone is moving, struggling, on the floor beside me. I half-turn and say, 'My name's Alison', and he says, 'Mine is Garri', and we even shake hands, an extraordinarily British thing to do, and that is when he says, matter-of-factly: 'Oh, I've lost my leg'."


What happened next among the gruesome, hellish confines of carriage 346A - told here for the first time - will go down as one of the great heroic stories of 7/7.


In the next desperate hour, until help arrived, Alison, working entirely alone, courageously put aside the acute pain of her own severe injuries and coolheadedly saved two - possibly three - lives. Garri Holness, whose left leg was amputated below the knee, calls her "my guardian angel...


she was full of shrapnel and yet she helped all of us. I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for her."


Alison, a University of London media studies graduate who was living with her boyfriend Bruce Paterson in a one-bedroom flat in Finsbury Park, had been on her way to a job in Russell Square.


Today, she will attend the service at St Paul's to remember the 52 dead and 700 injured and will, in a significant way, take another poignant step in the painful process of healing herself.


Alison's is a terrible burden to bear. She was the only fully conscious person in a carriage full of dead, dying, and three catastrophically injured people. She saw and heard everything. Her blow-by-blow account, delivered with steely determination to tackle her demons head-on, is the fullest account so far of what happened.


But it's not just what she saw that haunts her, it's what she has since learned. "The police told me that I was standing two to three feet from the bomber, Jermaine Lindsay, and that it is a miracle I survived."


Around her lay body parts of the 26 dead, including a woman, the police said, who stood directly between her and the bomber and whose obliterated body smashed into Alison's back, saving her from the full savagery of the explosion.


Of course, Alison knew none of this as she came round, spitting glass and lying in the rubble on the floor alongside a stranger telling her he'd lost his leg.


"I leaned up to look," she says, grimacing, "and I could immediately see his foot was gone. At first I lied, saying, 'No, no, no, it's just that you can't feel it'. What do you say to someone who's lost their leg?


But he kept repeating it and I knew he knew, so I said, 'Right Garri, I'm gonna get you a tourniquet'."


Alison had no idea the back of her own right knee had been blown away to the tendon and that she was bleeding heavily from a hole the size of a tennis ball.


It was her spine, throbbing unbearably, that she fretted about as she painstakingly levered herself upright using the pole she had been holding when the bomb went off, to find herself on the edge of a crater where, unknown to her, the bomber had been.


Moments earlier, to her left, an injured man had stirred to life, picked himself out of the rubble and walked away, but remarkably it never occurred to Alison to follow him and head for the faded emergency lights she could see blinking through the smoke down the track.


INSTEAD, with no prior knowledge of first aid, the adrenaline kicked in, and she took off her jacket and tied the arm tight just below Garri's left knee, stemming the flow of blood. That single action, doctors believe, probably saved Garri's life - but there would be more instinctive heroics to come.


"I looked across and saw a woman and a man on the other side of the carriage who needed help."


The woman had been shouting: "I've lost both my legs." Alison tried to pick her way through the rubble towards them.


"My shoes had been blown off so my feet were bare. It felt damp, slimy and horrible. I guess with people's blood. I kept saying 'Oh f***, oh f***' under my breath."


The woman told Alison her name was Gill. Alison talked to her and, using Gill's scarf, helped tie a tourniquet around her legs, almost certainly saving her life as well.


Later the woman, 37-year-old Gill Hicks, would learn she had lost 75 per cent of her blood, her heart stopping twice on the way to the hospital.


But Alison says she can't remember the third person's name - and for reasons that later become apparent - won't say more about the horrific nature of his injuries.


Meanwhile, she says, in the five minutes she was gone, Garri had levered himself up on to a chair.


"When I got back, he rested his head on my knee which was starting to hurt and I held his hand. He said, 'Slap me if I'm going under.' Every few minutes, he'd say, 'I'm so tired, I'm going, I'm going.' So I'd hit him and say, 'Garri, you've got to stay with me'."


Suddenly Alison became aware of someone shining his torch from the driver's cab.


"I think he was the station manager from Russell Square and he was trying to talk to the station manager from King's Cross.


"His path was blocked by rubble.


They couldn't hear each other, so I began to relay what one said to the other. They realised there were still people alive in the carriage and they shouted back, 'Help is coming!' "I remember sitting for what seemed an interminably long time, head in my hands, trying to ease my agony. I almost drifted off, and then, confused, shouted, 'Paul! Paul! Are you OK?' He said, 'My name's not Paul, its Garri,' and I said 'Sorreee'.


We both laughed. But my back was in such pain that I couldn't sit any longer, so I said, 'I'm going to lie on the floor over there but keep talking."


For the next 20 minutes, Alison lay still, shouting to Garri and Gill and the third injured person, trying to keep them conscious. "Garri", she'd shout. "Yup, I'm still here," he'd reply. And Gill, too, but the third person seemed to fade away.


"I lost my sense of what was going on with them," she says.


If there were still people screaming down the train, Alison no longer heard it, and it seemed deathly silent as she focused on the small group of people she was attempting to save.


"My main feeling was one of intense frustration that I couldn't do more. I felt, if only I could get a couple of aspirin my pain would ease and I could be of more help to the people around me." Next, four paramedics burst in and one found a pair of men's shoes for her to walk in.


"As I came out of the driver's carriage I saw a sea of faces looking up at me, British Transport Police, and I felt an overwhelming and immense relief that I had been saved."


That was the first time Alison learned what had happened. Until then she had thought she was in a train crash but even as they told her about the four bombs, she couldn't register it, for her ordeal was not over. "That excruciating walk down the tunnel to Russell Square with glass embedded inside my feet and a hole in the back of my knee was the longest and most painful walk of my life," she says. But it was only when they laid her among the injured in the ticket hall that Alison began to realise the severity of her injuries.


She phoned her mother, Susan, who had been desperately trying to reach her. Just saying "Mum" was enough for her mother to start weeping.


ALISON was taken to Great Ormond Street and operated on that afternoon, the first of three operations in which she was given 30 stitches and six skin grafts to repair her calves. Her other injuries included internal bruising to her back and thighs and two perforated eardrums.


The first thing Alison asked her police liaison officer when she emerged from hospital two weeks later was what happened to the three people in the carriage. "He told me Garri and Gill were alive. I felt so relieved, so exhilarated. I asked about the third person but he said that without a name he didn't have enough information to tell me.


"To this day, I don't know whether that third person made it. To be brutally honest, I'm too afraid to find out. I worry that I should have done more and that it will be a scar and stay with me for the rest of my life."


Alison refuses to accept that she is a hero. "Anyone would have done the same," she insists. But Garri Holness, who has met her numerous times since, is emphatic: "What she did goes way beyond what any ordinary person would have done."


She suffers flashbacks and depression, can't stand for longer than 10 minutes and has been unable to return to her flat. Alison says her sense of safety has been "shattered" and she "will never ever be able to travel on the Tube, or even a bus, again".


The train journey from her parents' home to St Paul's today will be quite a challenge. But she is determined to be there, standing alongside the people she considers the real heroes - people like Garri and Gill who lost limbs - and paying her respects "to those who travelled with me that day and didn't make it".


"I can never comprehend the hatred of the bombers," she says. "It was the worst day of my life but also the luckiest - there isn't a day that goes by that I don't feel how incredibly fortunate I am to be here."

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