After the bomb, the agonising private battles

Sunday Times, The (London, England) - October 2, 2005

  • Author/Byline: Deirdre Fernand Section: Features Page: News Review 7

 

Many of the survivors of July 7 are on a slow and uncertain road to recovery. Deirdre Fernand hears their stories.

 

For the survivors of London's July 7 bombings, living comes at a price.

 

For some there are moments of unalloyed joy in having come through; for others there are nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks -dark memories that are not fading with the passage of time.

 

It is nearly three months now since John Simmons boarded a train on Thursday morning at King's Cross station to go to work. Normally he would have taken an earlier Tube to avoid the rush hour, but on this occasion he had slept in. It was just before nine when he stepped into the second carriage of the Piccadilly line train. It was crowded and he rammed himself against the door. Seconds after the train pulled out of the station, the bomb exploded.

 

"I thought the train had derailed," he remembers. "There was dust and soot everywhere and it was black. People were using their mobile phones as lights. I could see silhouettes of people who were not moving. Bleeding faces were dripping black, not red, because of the soot."

 

He remembers there being screaming and then calm, with people passing T-shirts around to bind gaping wounds. Next to Simmons a young man was bleeding profusely from the head and chest. As the emergency services arrived in the next few minutes, he helped him to safety. "He kept saying he was going to die. I would like to find him now, but all I know about him is that he had a Scottish accent. I want to know if he pulled through."

 

Simmons considers himself fortunate to have survived the terror in which 52 died and hundreds were severely injured. Glass penetrated his ear, he suffered smoke inhalation, perforated eardrums and a head wound.

 

Others, such as Martine Wright, a 32-year-old marketing manager who lost both legs above the knee when she was pinned in the wreckage of the blast at Aldgate, suffered grievously.

 

"I'd been twisted round 90 degrees and I looked at my legs, there was all this metal wrapped over them," she said last week. "But I could see my legs in the metal, my jeans were all ripped and there was blood everywhere."

 

Danny Biddle, 26, lost both legs and an eye and spent four weeks in a coma after the explosion at Edgware Road. The train doors had crushed his legs.

 

The litany of suffering continues. Louise Barry, 29, a marketing director, was at the back of the No30 bus in Tavistock Square. Despite a broken neck she was able to crawl out of the debris. She had to endure a titanium cage screwed into her skull as part of her treatment but now wears a neck brace.

 

"My neck is still broken but doctors tell me it has started to fuse at the top. I cannot move my neck up, down or to the side. I cannot wash my hair," she said.

 

Gill Hicks, 37, who lost both legs at King's Cross, was the last person to be brought out alive from the buckled carriage. "There was one very clear point when I looked round and said: I am not going to die down here," she said last week. Her heart stopped twice on the way to hospital and she had lost 75% of her blood.

 

Garri Holness, 36, travelling just a few yards away from Hicks, lost his lower right leg. Rehabilitation at the Douglas Bader Centre at Queen Mary's hospital, Roehampton, where he and Wright are both patients, will be a slow and painstaking affair: "After the blast I put my hand down to the floor and felt bone and flesh and goo. I put my hand down on the other side of me and felt the same." Holness, who has just had his artificial leg fitted at the clinic, is hoping to make a full recovery: "I just want to get back to the gym."

 

Whatever the scale of injury, whatever the loss of limb, the road to recovery is an uncertain one for all concerned. For those who boarded the fated bus and trains that morning, their lives were changed in an instant. How do we calculate their loss? How can we measure each person's pain? There is no sliding scale of suffering. A man who loses a leg may make a better recovery and return to work sooner than someone whose hearing is permanently impaired. Suffering is not a competition.

 

Although he bears few physical scars, Simmons is certainly suffering now. In the aftermath of the attack he could not bear to be alone. He started drinking heavily and lost his job. He has nightmares and wakes up drenched in sweat. "My dreams are all about war and conflict now," he says. "I am a soldier in them and bullets are flying around. My friends and family are in them and I am trying to help them. I don't have happy-go-lucky dreams any more."

 

Simmons is one of the forgotten victims of July 7. Having lost no limbs, he attends no rehabilitation clinic. When he was taken to the Royal London hospital in the aftermath, a social worker spoke to him, but he has not been contacted by any trauma specialist. Police visited him a few weeks later to take a statement; but for that house call he has been left entirely alone. He is one of many hundreds who have fallen through the net.

 

In addition to the 52 lives lost and 100 serious injuries, another 150 passengers or so suffered smoke inhalation. Long after the soot has cleared from their lungs, however, they and many hundreds like them are experiencing the long-term effects of flashbacks, anxiety attacks and trauma.

 

Some of the victims trying to make sense of that day were children. Jack Linton, from Hockley in Essex, was 14 at the time of the blast. A schoolboy, he was on the third day of a work experience placement when he was caught up in the blast on the Circle line. He thinks it may be years before the horrifying memories are expunged.

 

"When I close my eyes I can still picture what I saw that morning -I remember the smoke, the flames and the dead and injured. My ears were hurting because of the blast and I used my tie to cover my mouth to stop me breathing in smoke. As we stumbled out of the carriage there were three or four bodies on the track. I was crying a lot because I was frightened -I had really thought I was going to die and would never see my family and friends again. I still wake up at night thinking about what I saw."

 

After mounting criticism about the lack of financial assistance for victims, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has pledged to approve the first handouts by Wednesday. Victims will be entitled to a fixed payout for their injuries and compensation for loss of earnings up to Pounds 500,000. The London Bombings Relief Charitable Fund (LBRCF), set up by Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, has raised Pounds 9m and has already paid out Pounds 1m among the families of the dead and injured. Survivors such as Simmons, who has not worked since the attacks, will also be entitled to payouts.

 

The size of this group is, however, unknown. Gerald Oppenheim, chair of the LBRCF, said last week: "We are now offering help to those who were medically certified as unfit for four weeks or more. Exactly how many are in this position we don't know."

 

The survivors describe an apparently haphazard system of monitoring and follow-up treatment. Many say they have not been offered any counselling or support since the attacks. Like Simmons, they are confused and isolated as a result of what they experienced.

 

According to Leslie Carrick-Smith, a forensic psychologist who treats post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), confusion and isolation are symptomatic of the syndrome. Even for those without severe injuries, their emotional reaction can be very disabling, he adds: "What can also happen is flashbacks. They don't have to be pictures, they can be images, sounds or smells. We call it intrusive recall.

 

That can happen in the daytime or through dreams and nightmares. Then there is avoidance. This can be avoiding wanting to talk about it, answering correspondence, the place where it happened, the Tube, central London and even wide open spaces."

 

There is often a shift in personality. "People may find they can't take pleasure in things any more. They are becoming distanced from people, unable to express loving feelings or enjoy nice things. They may also feel there is no real future, that it has been foreshortened. Then there is over-arousal, blazing outbursts of temper, disturbed sleep patterns, poor concentration, lousy memory and physiological reaction, such as stomach churning and cold sweats."

 

Not everyone, however, benefits from PTSD treatment. For some, reliving the events with a therapist can re-traumatise them if the pace is too fast. Others may be helped simply by forging links with fellow survivors.

 

That is a view shared by Rachel (see panel, left), who started her own web log after emerging from the blast at King's Cross. Now a point of contact for survivors, she has set up her own support group, Kings Cross United, for them.

 

They meet regularly in a pub in Islington, north London, and more members are joining every week.

 

One of them is Jane Hovey, a web designer. "Coping is about contact and offering practical advice," she says. Meeting up is essential: "It stops me feeling so alone. There is always someone now when you need them who really understands. I met someone from my carriage at the first meeting and we held each other tightly.

 

We recognised each other by what was said down there -not by sight, it was too dark."

 

The web is an increasingly important part of the fight against isolation. The police have set up a forum for families of the bereaved. Hovey has heard of families in distant parts of the country buying computers so that they can stay in touch.

 

As for Simmons, who has yet to link up with Kings Cross United, he keeps a journal. Immediately after the blast he could not bring himself to write anything.

 

His thoughts were a blank page. But gradually he is beginning to record his feelings. "Is the world going to get worse before it gets better?" he asks at one point. "What we need is a beacon of genuine hope."

 

Additional reporting: Laura St Quinton.