Everybody has a certain degree of human courage that they can draw on in a difficult situation but human courage only goes so far. In our quieter moments we all must consider how we would cope with catastrophe and tragedy and whether the experience would crush or strengthen us. This is probably the reason most of us admire people who have experienced tragedy and instead of being crushed find an inner strength to fight back. I have thought about this over the weekend seeing the bravery of Gill Hicks, a victim of the London bombings on 7th July 2005, who lost both legs in the attack and who has completed a 250 mile walk from Leeds on her artificial limbs to publicise her Walktalk charity. She is one of a number of remarkable women who have found strength in adversity and then gone on to make a positive contribution which reinforces our common humanity and having been confronted with evil have renewed our faith in human goodness.
One such person was Diana Lamplugh who responded to the traumatic disappearance of her daughter Suzy Lamplugh by becoming an indomitable advocate for reducing the fear of crime by raising awareness of the importance of personal safety and helping to provide solutions to help people, particularly young women like Suzy, avoid violence and aggression and live safer, more confident lives. In 1986 Suzy Lamplugh, a 25 year old estate agent disappeared after she went to meet an unknown client. So far her body has not been found. However, she has been presumed murdered and legally declared dead. Her parents, Paul and Diana Lamplugh, believed that Suzy, like most people at that time – and even now – was simply unaware of the possible dangers that individuals can face in society. Paul and Diana founded the Trust to highlight the risks people face and to offer advice, action and support to minimise those risks. I met Diana when she was a member of the Police Committee of the Transport Police representing the public interest. She was a tireless advocate for improving public safety and intolerant of excuses, no matter how practical, of not doing so. I greatly admired her spirit and determination in the face of the terrible loss of her daughter and the cruel uncertainty of not knowing what had happened to her or where her body was. Diana has suffered a severe stroke since and has contracted Alzheimer’s but the work is continued by the trust and her husband, Paul who has always been the organiser behind the scenes.
The attacks by four suicide bombers on the London Transport system on 7th July 2005 were the largest mass murder in Britain in peacetime killing 52 passengers on The Tube and on the No. 30 bus at Tavistock Square and injuring 800 more, many seriously. Injured or not, and serious or not all who lived through the experience carry vivid and unsettling memories. There is a curious obscenity about suicide bombing, about the personal fascism which rationalises killing yourself and complete strangers you have first looked in the eye because you have convinced yourself it is for a greater good. There is a particular perversity, if you have religious faith, in destroying what you believe are God’s creations because you have appointed yourself as God’s representative and indeed have convinced yourself that shortly afterwards you will be personally thanked by Him.
Of the bombings the greatest loss of life was caused by a 19 year old Muslim convert living in Aylesbury (where he was not known to the local Muslim community) Germaine Lindsay who had married a local girl and had a young son. At 08.50 hrs a bomb exploded on Piccadilly line train number 331 travelling south from King’s Cross station to Russell Square. The device was next to the rear set of double doors in the front carriage of the train. Twenty-six people, plus the bomber, were killed. More than 340 were injured. The Piccadilly line is 21.3 metres (70 feet) below ground at this point. Intense heat of up to 60C, dust, fumes, vermin, asbestos and initial concerns the tunnel might collapse delayed the extraction of bodies and the forensic operation. Being a single track deep tube line the force of the explosion was concentrated in a smaller area accounting for the high number of deaths as well as the number and the severity of the injuries caused.
One of the survivors Rachel North wrote a compelling diary for the BBC News website in which she detailed her experiences and emotions on 7 July and the days that followed. Her story is more complex as she was rebuilding her life at the time after a rape attack and since the bombing she has been harassed by an obsessive stalker who has since been jailed. Her story is told in this article in the Times Newspaper; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/article597033.ece
She has maintained a Blog (Rachel from North London in my BlogRoll on the right sidebar) detailing her experiences, her effort to rebuild her life and campaigning for a public enquiry into the events of 7th July 2005 – here she explains why in her own words;
“Lessons ‘not learnt’
It’s not about blame, or politics, I say, it is about saving lives. I truthfully don’t think all the lessons of 7th July have been learned and shared amongst all the agencies and people who need to prepare for and respond to disasters and terror attacks – which include the public itself. And until the learning’s are shared, as publicly as possible without compromising the safety of the realm, how can the public feel any safer than they did on 7th July?
I would love to step away from the devastation of 7th July that still haunts my dreams. Campaigning for answers is not something I do to bring “closure”; it is tiring and it is hard work. But I strongly believe that it is the right thing to do. I couldn’t help the people who died and were hurt on the train but I can try to help people now, to tell what happened so that people can learn from it, understand, be safer.
I continue to write of my journey after 7th July, the personal and political fall-out, on my personal blog.”
Some have unfairly accused her of publicity seeking but in her efforts I see great honesty and openness which I am sure just doesn’t help her cope with the traumatic aftermath but also helps her co-survivors and many others who have experienced great trauma.
In that same Piccadilly Line train as Rachel North was a woman who lost both legs and who completed a 250-mile walk which she hopes will help unite communities. Gill Hicks, 38, took 30 days to walk from Leeds to London, stopping in 22 towns and cities along the way. Her Walktalk project aimed to help people of different faiths and communities to engage with each other. Arriving in Trafalgar Square on Sunday 17th August 2008, she said a “belief in humanity” helped her complete the journey. Gill Hicks walked from Leeds – the city where three of the suicide bombers lived – to London to prove that people of different faiths can live together. She was the last person to be pulled from the wreckage of the Piccadilly Line carriage in 2005 and “died” twice on the way to hospital. Despite her injuries she has learned to jump, jog and climb stairs on the prosthetic legs her doctors fitted.
Gill Hicks finishes walk in Trafalgar Square
She began the Walktalk in Leeds as three of the four suicide bombers, who killed 52 people and injured nearly 800, had links with the city. The walk first headed to the Beeston area, where bombers Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain lived and where their leader, Mohammed Sidique Khan, had many connections. At the end of her month-long trek, she said: “All of us stepped into this journey with great faith and great belief that humanity would carry us through from town to town and that’s exactly what happened. “For me to walk from Leeds to London is probably the single most difficult thing I could ever have imagined. I still can’t quite believe that I have achieved it but I never gave up because of the people that never gave up on me.”
Her husband, Joe Kerr, 48, said: “We’ve come on a small journey in the scale of things, but a large journey for us, of hope, of optimism, of reconciliation. The journey to build a better and fairer and more equitable society is a journey we must all continue on relentlessly and continue on together. We can build a society that’s based on mutual respect, which respects difference but recognises our common humanity.”
Perhaps I should leave the final word to Rachel North describing the actions of the Piccadilly Line train driver on the 7th July;
“The train driver stayed behind on his train and once the front of carriage one, where I was, was cleared of frightened passengers, he was able to walk into the horrific aftermath of Europe’s most deadly suicide bomb attack. He has never spoken publicly of what he did, what he saw. But I know now how he stayed for nearly two hours, trying to save lives. I dare not imagine what it was like. I wish I had known how many were hurt. I wish I had been able to help them.”
Here are the websites for Walktalk and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust – Organisations which deserve our support and which are a vibrant and practical testament to the courage of some very special people.