Tragedy and triumph-all 6’s and 7’s

I love sport. I love sporting events and I have always loved watching the Olympics. Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci were favourites of mine during the 1970’s and more recently our national treasure Steve Redgrave has been inspirational. In the grand build-up to London 2012 however my interest was definitely muted. Strange considering that I still have a box full of Olympic memorabilia in the garage including a 1972 Munich Olympic souvenir book complete with collector cards; a Nadia Comaneci tribute book from 1976 courtesy of the Daily Express and for which I pestered my mum for weeks to collect the tokens and a Misha bear mascot brought back from a trip to Moscow by a school friend. So why the apparent disinterest?

I think that I know now but the penny dropped only after I read an article in a newspaper during the Games. Dr Andrew Hartle was a volunteer medic during London 2012. These were the Games that we found out we’d won on 6 July 2005.  He was also involved in helping victims of the London Bombings on 7 July 2005. Two days of such extremes of emotions that even now, 7 years on it is difficult to comprehend.

I too was in London on 6 July 2005. I remember listening to the radio at lunchtime eagerly awaiting the result of the bid but not believing for one minute that we would get the Games. Being based in Canary Wharf, I couldn’t make it across to Trafalgar Square to hear the announcement and participate in the euphoric ticker-tape frenzy of joy and excitement which followed the good news but my journey home that evening was a precursor to the goodwill and friendliness that the Games have recently demonstrated. Everyone (well, almost everyone) was thrilled to have captured one of the greatest shows on earth and the mood was buoyant. Even the annoying signalling failure couldn’t dampen our spirits and I arrived home already looking forward to London 2012.

Sadly, our joy was short-lived. I too was in London on 7 July 2005, as coincidentally was my sister. This was the dreadful day that 4 bombs shook and shocked London during the morning rush-hour and although I wasn’t directly involved in any of the bombings, I was affected by the aftermath and what I experienced and saw that day clearly took its toll. I was travelling from King’s Cross St Pancras towards Bank Station on the underground at around 9.00am when the first indications that something was wrong was when we sailed past a scheduled stop. I asked the woman standing next to me if I had imagined it, but she hadn’t noticed. My suspicions were confirmed  on arrival at Bank where we arrived to wailing sirens and emergency announcements to evacuate the train and station as quickly as possible. I wasn’t to know at this stage but those sirens and emergency announcements would continue relentlessly all day and would be in my head for days afterwards.

Unlike some, who sat on the train assuming this was a hoax or drill, I wasted no time in getting out of the station. There was some confusion at ground level and the staff were busy redirecting people to local stations. At this stage, we were told that “power surges” were to blame for the disruption but no further information about the delays and reinstating the services was forthcoming. Again I was based in Canary Wharf and I headed down to London Bridge hoping to get the Jubilee Line instead. Things were no better here and no one could give any more details. Not to be thwarted by the trains, I decided that I would catch a boat down the Thames to the Wharf and treat it as an unexpected adventure. Before I could leave London Bridge however, I overheard two policemen talking about “bombs” and “explosions”. I challenged them about the “power surges” and managed to get them to admit that there had been a series of explosions on the tube, and a bus had just blown up near Euston. Clearly they didn’t want to announce this publicly as panic may have ensued but for me based on what I’d just been told survival mode kicked in immediately and I made an instant decision to make my way home.

By this time, the streets were full of emergency vehicles; police cars, ambulances, bomb disposal unit vans, dog handlers and the sirens were ear-piercing and incessant. The buses flew past either full of passengers and unable to stop to pick anyone else up, or with their destination signs showing “out of service”. There were no trains, no taxis and no buses. Shank’s Pony was my only means of getting out of London and so my 10 mile trek Northwards out of London began.

Fortunately, I had my London A-Z with me (although I was to walk so far North that I went off the page in the end) and first made my way up to Islington. Having done some training there many years ago, I knew that there was an M&S where I could get some food and water as I already figured it would be a long day. I took £200 out of the cashpoint, bought some sandwiches and drink than started to walk.

One of my first encounters heading up to St Pancras and Archway was with a man in a suit, carrying a briefcase who stopped to talk to me as he went by. He reminded me of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. He was clearly agitated, and his clothes were splattered with blood. He was telling me not to go to Euston. He had seen a bus blow up and he was late for work. At this stage I was too wrapped up in my battle to get home that I am ashamed to say I didn’t comprehend straightaway what had happened to him. He rushed off before I had chance to think clearly and by the time I realised that he was in shock after witnessing the Tavistock Square bomb blast, he had disappeared.   

I walked for a long time. Sometimes people walked with me, a shared experience with a shared goal. Getting out. The traffic was gridlocked. There were long queues at garages and car-hire kiosks.  No one who was lucky enough to be on wheels was going anywhere anytime soon. A double-decker bus crawled past and came to a stop outside Holloway prison. I will never forget the young man who banged on the door of the bus demanding to be let on. The bus was crammed with people and the driver could take no more. Tempers and frustration were building and this particular man ran round to the drivers window shouting abuse and smashed the glass in fury. The bus driver then had to try to report the incident before moving on. This was impossible as there was no mobile phone signal and everyone was incommunicado.

This was another frustration. The communication channels were down. I couldn’t contact anyone to let them know I was ok. They couldn’t contact me. They knew I was in London; had been at Kings Cross St Pancras but nothing. I knew my sister was somewhere in London but didn’t know where or whether she was ok. Thankfully she got home safely later in the day.

It started to rain but that was the least of my worries. It didn’t seem to matter. The day could hardly get any worse and I had to keep on plodding on. I had in my mind that if I could get up to Golder’s Green, I might be able to catch a National Express coach heading “Up North” somewhere. I wasn’t bothered where exactly, as long as I got to a place where someone could fetch me.

To make sure I was following my A-Z properly, I stopped at a Shell garage to check my directions. When I explained what had happened, a woman approached me and asked if I’d like to borrow her push bike! It was a kind thought, but on the basis that I would not be able to return said bike, I thanked her for her offer and continued walking.

I walked for a long time, and although the traffic started to thin, there were still no buses available. I struck it lucky when I crossed a road and looking to my left, spotted a taxi sign. I walked down the side road and into the shop where a woman in front of me was arranging a taxi to take her to St Alban’s. She too was trying to get home. The cost? A mere £36. I leapt in and asked if I could share her taxi and the cost and was thrilled when she agreed.

My journey home got a lot easier from here as the taxi dropped me off at St Alban’s train station from where I caught a train to Bedford (no ticket required when I explained to the guard where I had come from). By now it was 3.30pm and I had been non-contactable for almost the whole day.It was whilst I was on this train that the mobile phone signal returned and my phone went berserk with incoming text messages and voice mails that had accumulated during the day.  I was able to call everyone and reassure them that I was fine and on my way home albeit I needed someone to pick me up from Bedford.

The local BBC reporter greeted me when I emerged from the station and asked to interview me about my experiences in London that day. Apparently I was one of the first people “out” but I couldn’t oblige. It was too harrowing, I was exhausted and I made my apologies. He understood totally and invited me to share a cup of tea with him and his reporting team whilst I waited for my husband to pick me up. For this I was grateful and for the first time that day, stopped to take stock. I sat in the BBC van, drinking my tea and watching 20+ live TV screens broadcasting out of London. For the first time I saw the carnage that I’d left behind; the casualties and the amazing efforts of the emergency services and volunteers.

I was one of the lucky ones who made it home on 7 July but, subconsciously, like Dr Hartle I too had associated the 2012 Olympic Games with the 7/7 atrocities but it wasn’t until  I read about his experiences that I realised it.

This may help to explain why, having spent so many years and months being outwardly unenthusiastic about the games, I became an emotional wreck from the moment back in May when I saw the Flame arrive at Culdrose. I watched the plane approach and I started to cry.  I cried when a local hero carried the torch through my village of Lubenham on 2 July in the pouring rain. I cried at the opening ceremony; the 5 Olympic rings appearing out of the molten metal “factory” as they soared into the night sky made me sob and I thought I would never stop crying when I thought that Sir Steve Redgrave was going to light the Olympic flame as befits a 5-times Olympic gold medallist. But that was nothing compared to the beauty and inspirational lighting of the cauldron performed by 7 young people. The hope of a nation. “Inspire a generation” was the motto. They did and I cried some more.

In the end, the Games were a massive triumph of goodwill and support and will represent the start of an amazing legacy for a whole new generation. I am now able to separate the two incidents of 6 and 7 July 2005 and I enjoyed the sporting feast without ever losing sight of those who lost their lives or were injured on 7/7.

Finally, I was able to bring the both events together one day in July. We went to Hyde Park to watch the Olympic action on the live screens and watched Tom Daley qualify for the 10m diving final. The canoeists also won gold that morning and we enjoyed a couple of hours in the sunshine with fellow revellers before leaving for the theatre.

Then, on the way out of the park, we stopped at the 7/7 memorial to the 52 victims of the bombings to pay our respects and for me, to say goodbye to the demons.

I will never forget that tragic day in London, 7 July 2005, when 52 people lost their lives but equally I will always remember that fabulous day in London, 6 July 2005 when we learned that the biggest sports show on earth was to be entrusted to London in 2012.

I think we owed it to all those people to do it right in their memory.

I think we did just that.

and….moving on to the Paralympics. How about this for inspiration.

Martine Wright-GB Sitting Volleyball team. Good luck! 

File:7 July Memorial - Hyde Park.jpg


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