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Let us now praise uncommon heroes

2011 March 6
by Paul Vallely

You could have been forgiven for wondering what would be usefully served, almost six years on, by the inquests into the deaths of the 52 people killed by suicide bombers in Britain’s worst terrorist attack on London’s transport network on 7 July 2005. The verdicts are utterly predictable: unlawful killing. The lessons for the emergency services and the intelligence community were already fairly clear. But in the event the process held up a mirror to the nation which has been revealing.

For the families of the bereaved the purpose was clearer from the outset. It was not for what we blithely and banally call closure. “Quite simply, I have been attending in honour of my daughter,” said Julie Nicholson whose 24-year-old daughter Jenny was killed on her way to work that sunny summer’s morning when a bomb exploded on a Circle Line train at Edgware Road station. But the rest of us have learned something about honour, and responsibility, too.

The world we saw reflected back to us was, in part, wearily familiar. The 73 days of grim evidence ended with a moment of light relief. The coroner, Lady Justice Hallett, indulged in a tirade against the “management-speak” in which senior fire and ambulance officials had couched their evidence. The court filled with a rare laughter as she lambasted an officer from the London Fire Brigade for referring to a “conference demountable unit from the management resource unit” when he meant  a mobile control room.

We live in a world of jargon. Some of it comes from laziness, but there are those who weave it as a cocoon around themselves to bemuse lesser mortals, and deceive us into supposing that they are possessed of some higher wisdom to which the rest of us had best defer.

It can be a way of deflecting responsibility – for the chaotic scenes at the London ambulance service headquarters, with emergency phone calls going unheard, key personnel unable to log on to computers and emergency vehicle ignition keys lost. Or perhaps for the lack of trust between fire, police and ambulance services who could have reached the injured sooner had they not all wasted time on separate checks to ensure there was no biological or chemical element to the attacks. Management-speak here was a barrier to clear and swift communication at a time when clarity was key. There is more to the need for plain English than campaigning pedantry.

Likewise it was impossible to escape the suspicion that the intelligence services were hiding behind process and procedure to dodge crucial questions about whether they could have prevented the bombings. The leader of the bombers had been spotted by the secret services on the periphery of another terror plot two years earlier – but had been allowed to slip through the net for reasons which “could not be disclosed for national security reasons”.

That may be so, but this month a senior FBI officer, whom was responsible for liaising with the British security services over terrorist surveillance, claimed that MI5 should have been on the tail of the 7/7 bombers a year before they struck. Here is yet more of the evasion and shifting of responsibility so familiar in contemporary public life.

But there is also a way in which those at the receiving end seek to avoid responsibility too – the responsibility of facing up to the fact that real life is untidy and messy. Conspiracy theorists seek to impose neat explanations on contingent, accidental or complex events. The inquest met head-on, and dismissed, stories of explosives under the Tube carriages or myths of a “fifth bomber” who was supposedly with the other four when they met up at Luton station to travel to London. We have to find other ways of shaping meaning out of life.

Yet if this long inquest reflected back to us parts of the contemporary world which are depressingly familiar it also did something else – and something more important. It set before us accounts of ordinary individuals who did take responsibility and who acted in remarkable ways.

Perhaps the most striking image was the story of the train travelling in the opposite direction which pulled up alongside the wrecked carriage at the Edgware Road bomb. Its passengers peered out at a scene of unreality. Framed in their train windows it must have looked like a film. No doubt many stood and stared in paralysed horror.

But four of these morning commuters, maybe more, immediately smashed through their carriage window and swung on the ceiling handrails into the unknown danger of the bomb-blasted wreckage. They had no idea what had happened, only that there were anguished fellow human beings in need. The selflessness and heroism of ordinary travellers who would jump to the aid of total strangers, not knowing what had happened nor whether there was worse to come, is at once humbling and heartening.

Nor were they isolated individuals. Composure and compassion was everywhere on display. There was the train driver who had the presence of mind to shut off the electricity that drove the trains by touching together two copper wires running along the tunnel wall. There was the RAF group captain who kept awake a professor with head injuries who desperately wanted to succumb to a fatal sleep. There was the events manager who cradled a dying young woman in his arms, joking about the state of her hair in a desperate attempt to distract her from the horrors of the day. There was the man who had never done any first aid in his life but who attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a bloody victim in accordance with mimed instructions he was given through the window by a woman on a parallel train.

Some of the responses sprang out of previous training. Off-duty medics and former members of the military found their training kicked in. But others acted purely on instinct moving from safety into the pitchy darkness, towards human cries of help and venturing into what the coroner described as effectively a war zone.

Then there were stories, too, of the survivors, like Martine Wright, one of the last people to be pulled alive from the Aldgate train, who lost three-quarters of her blood in the bombing. She spent nine months undergoing major operations and then learning to walk again at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton. She is now a member of the Great Britain women’s sitting volleyball team and hopes to compete at the 2012 London Paralympics.

“Your story is truly inspirational – the triumph of human spirit over dreadful adversity,” Lady Justice Hallett told her. It is not to take anything away from this remarkable woman to say that those words could just as well be applied to so many others that day.

“Through courageous acts, bravery, pain and suffering, appalling injuries, fortitude and near-death experiences, humanity flowed through the courtroom like a river,” said Julie Nicholson afterwards, saluting the bravest and the best. And that was the real point of the 7/7 inquest. These were stories that needed to be told for the catharsis of the bereaved. But they were also stories that the rest of us needed to hear.

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