Thursday, January 05, 2006

July 7, six months on...

It took Michael Henning two hours to get ready for work yesterday.
In fact, it took him six months - the harrowing period since he came close to death in the July 7 London bombings.
Hundreds of shards of glass hurtled into his eyes, face, arms and legs when his Circle Line train exploded just outside Aldgate.
But the hurt inside has been more shattering.
He has been tormented by nightmarish flashbacks, incessant echoes of dying-second screams which surrounded him, and ultimately a nervous breakdown.
Yet yesterday morning Michael gingerly took his first steps back into his City office - and back into the 'normal life' he longs somehow to recover.
Tomorrow will be six full months since the suicide attacks which killed 52 commuters, on three Tube trains and a London bus.
Michael thanks God for the 'split-second decision' which saved his life - though feels wracked by guilt by his survival, when so many more were not so lucky.
July 7, that lethal day, actually began with a petty row for Michael and his girlfriend Steph Moore.
As he shut the door of their Kensington flat behind him, though, he heard Steph anxiously call out: 'Don't die on your way to work.'
'I like to think I followed her instructions to the letter,' he ruefully smiled yesterday.
But it was a closer-run thing than either one could have imagined, as he set off for work in the City with her words ringing in his ears.
Twenty-four hours later, his scarred, blood-streaked, eyepatch-covered face would be dominating Metro's front page - accompanied by his shell-shocked message of defiance.
The 39-year-old Lloyd's broker had been standing just 8ft from suicide bomber Shehzad Tanweer as he blew up a Circle Line train between Aldgate and Liverpool Street at 8.50am. Michael had almost boarded that fateful carriage at Tower Hill, but at the last second decided to enter the less-crowded next one along.
'That saved my life,' he said.
'I would always get in that carriage, but not that day - I don't know why. I've asked myself why me, why was I caught up in something like this? But then again, why did I survive?'
Yet he hopes his latest, painstaking step forward will help inspire other July 7 casualties who are 'struggling big-time' - and help warn against future atrocities.
He revealed: 'I have dialogues in my head with those who died. I like to think they're saying: "Life goes on, Michael."
'If we let only negativity to come out of something like this, then the terrorists win.
'The last six months have been so hard. Everything I do is in slow motion.
Getting ready for work was like wading through treacle.'
The physical pain has faded, the scars on his face now faint, most - though not all - of those glass splinters or chunks removed.
It has not been easy, though - far from it.
Michael said: 'I lost my father to leukaemia when I was 11 - I didn't deal with it properly at the time, but maybe now I am.
'I'm someone who always did the bloke's thing of bottling up my emotions.
'Not anymore. I can be sitting in a bar and suddenly find myself in tears.
'I've been crying an awful lot - in public, at home, at almost no prompting. Anything can trigger it.
'I went through a spell of having dreams about myself killing terrorists. And the flashbacks keep coming.
'Everything puts you on edge. Even sitting close to the glass of a window.
'I see explosions over and over again. I can't look at the sky and see a plane without imagining it blasting into flames.
'But the screams are the worst, they keep coming back to me.
'I've heard people scream before in panic, like on an aeroplane in Dusseldorf which suddenly filled up with smoke.
'But I'd never heard the screams of people dying before. I hope I never shall again. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.
'I've seen people trapped, covered in blood - with unbelievable despair in their eyes, and despair in their screams.'
'But I'm a lucky one. I'm still here. I haven't lost a limb or my entire life.
'I just want a normal life, which is why it feels so good to finally come into work.
'I feel quite buoyed, now I've done a few hours in the office. Just being here again is worth so much to me.'
A caffeine-packed cup of coffee to the good, a glass of red wine in front of him and that satisfying first morning back behind him, Michael began to open up about that awful aftermath in the carriage.
Recall more. Relax, even.
In the chaos which followed the blast, he had helped guide two fellow blood-drenched commuters towards the back of the train.
There, they had to explain to confused passengers what had happened.
One of the women Michael helped guide to safety later tracked him down, to thank him for his calm presence and soothing good sense.
He remains frustrated by the fact passengers had to evacuate themselves, with police and firefighters reluctant to rescue them for fear of a second bomb.
It was ten minutes before Michael and fellow survivors realised they would have to clamber over dismembered bodies and along the dark tunnel.
He said: 'No one panicked, which was amazing. Everyone just got on with it, helping each other out.
'I remember one man asking if anyone had seen his glasses. I picked up about three pairs, including his which were broken. But he said at least he could see out of one eye.'
But he is full of praise for how emergency services and hospital staff worked together throughout that day - and how victims even shared black humour to somehow cope.
Michael boarded a specially-arranged bus to the Royal London Hospital, saving the ambulances for the more grievously-injured.
He said: 'It was good idea to lay them on, though it felt a bit Monty Python-ish at the time.
'Everyone was in such a state of shock, but there were strange bits of humour flying about to help us get through it somehow.
'One man covered in soot asked if he could sit next to me. I told him: "No way - have you seen the state of yourself?"
'Then there was a little old lady who looked really nervous at the hospital. I made a comment about 'not another whingeing malingerer', and she looked up with such a relieved smile on her face.
'I'd only moved to London in March. My girlfriend later asked if this was the exciting London life I'd been expecting? Not quite.'
At one point in the hospital, Michael found himself wearing two identification bands for victims - one with the label, 'Dead'.
'When I noticed it, I had to explain to the nurse treating me - that old Mark Twain line, that the rumours of my death were greatly exaggerated.'
Most of the glass was removed and he was discharged that same day - though he can still feel a fragment deep inside the back of his neck.
'There was so much of it - filling up my pockets, penetrating my bag. When I got home I rolled off my sock to find an ankle injury no one had even noticed.
'On the bus, one of the ladies had tried to show me my injuries in her make-up compact, but I just couldn't take it all in at the time.'
Before getting a lift home, he had stopped for a cup of tea at the East London Mosque, where appalled Muslims rushed to sympathise.
'I was so glad I went there, to know there are an awful lot of good Muslims who hated what happened.'
But a later return trip had to be cancelled when armed police surrounded the mosque in a security alert.
Michael was also caught up in the high-profile arrests of two suspects in the July 21 failed attacks, who were captured on his estate in Kensington.
'I couldn't believe it. Terror seemed to be following me,' he said.
'When I heard police blow down the suspects' door, I knew it was an explosion, but didn't want to admit it. I told my girlfriend someone on a construction site must have dropped something.
'But I knew inside just what the sound really was.'
Yet while some of his friends remain too afraid to travel by public transport, boarding a train held no fears for him yesterday.
Michael insists he would have happily travelled home by Tube on July 7, had all services not been cancelled.
He first travelled a train again six weeks after the attacks - urging himself on by imagining another dialogue, this time with Tanweer.
'I told him: "You looked at me that day, and you thought you were going to kill me. But you didn't." I suddenly felt brave and went to stand where he was on that carriage.
'I travel by Tube now and think, my instincts will save me again - just like they did last time.
'It did take me a bit of time, though, to feel confident enough about playing my MP3 player - I wanted to keep all my senses about me at first.'
But an attempt to return to work in September proved too much, too soon - and he collapsed with a nervous breakdown.
He also suspects the relapse was triggered by the release of footage, showing the bombers' 'dry run' a week before the attacks.
'Their body language really rankled with me,' Michael said.
'I couldn't believe they could be so calculated, and look so cocky with the knowledge of what they were going to do.
'I had tried to move too quickly, really. My body said no, it's too much - I've been constantly exhausted ever since.
'I can barely concentrate on reading, on sleeping, or on relaxing. I'm not good at chilling out, but I'm learning to be.'
Michael has so far stayed away from the support groups set up for July 7 survivors, but may attend a meeting scheduled for the end of this month.
'Until now, I haven't felt up to it, really. But I've called the special helpline set up, quite a lot in December.
'Now I'm feeling more ready to make contact. There are a lot of us in the same boat - struggling big-time.
'I just want my normal life back, and the energy to do things again.
'December was very difficult. I said to my counsellor, how can I still be struggling, it's been five months now? He told me: "Five months is nothing."
'But Christmas was a real struggle - trying to relax with family and friends, but thinking of all those homes now with someone missing this year, an empty place around the table.
'It feels so bad, trying to find something positive from such a horrific event. But I'm determined this will make me a better person.
'Just talking about what happened can make the event more real for people who weren't there - and encourage people to be more vigilant.
'That front page seemed to touch so many people. They come up to me and shake my hand, say congratulations - for what? But it seemed to sum up London's spirit.
'There is so much beauty around - so much worth getting up for in the morning.
'I'm thankful to God for each extra day I have. I was given a second chance. I really appreciate that.'
* Anyone traumatised by the July 7 attacks can call a special helpline on 0845 054 7444, or visit www.7julyassistance.org.uk.

3 comments:

ozzyru27 said...

Dear Akr

I have been reading your blog as I noticed your name on another blog you had written a comment on. I hope you don't mind me writing and won't be in any way offended by what I would like to say, as its in no way meant as a criticism.
I have read your post 'July 7th, six months on', I myself as a fellow Londoner have written a small tribute on this first significant anniversary.
Anyay to get to the point, Im afraid a particular downfall I have in life is to rant on a little so youll have to excuse me, but as all londerners had great association on July 7th whether being directly involved or not, I am the partner of a London firefighter, who was in fact off shift on this day, but his colleagues were caught up in the attack aftermath and as you can imagine this day was particulalry harrowing, to say the least.
Obviusly I am biast towards my partner as of course I love him, but I am not biast towards to the whole of the London Fire service spciafiacally but I can safely say the work they did on this day, as I feel the police did also was remarkable, and as human beings they do all they possibly could, and the reacted far beyond duty.
I am saying his as I read part of your blog and how the gentleman who ws in the Aldgate blast felt particulalry angry about the emergency services response, although he praises them now. Quote "he remains reluctant by the fact passengers had to evacuate themselves with the police and firefighters reluctant to rescue them for fear of another bomb".
The men who were called on this day, were firstly called to 'unknown' incident and whilst on their journeys to the bomb sites had no knowledge of a bomb blast or 'serious' incident. They arrived and as with all procedure had to assess the site before entry, as yes there could be a scond bomb and if there had of been then as with 911 we would have lost many emergency services which would have made the situation far worse. After a quick and with the knowledge they were given they did in fact rush in as quickly as possible and did work beyond anything I have ever known.
They did I know their best on this day, they followed a procedure which they have been preparing for for a long time, and it worked to the best of its ability, passengers were able to help first because they were there and saw the initial cause and injuries.
Anyway, I just wanted to say how I felt myself about the emergency services and yes I wasn't there, but I know they did ll the ould and that was beyond anything.
Anyway, Ill be eading more of your blog in future, thanks for letting me type here
best wishes.
r

Aidan said...

Hi.
Thanks for the comments, which were much appreciated. I understand what you mean about that particularly remark, but to be fair to Michael - without wanting to put words into his mouth or assume - I think he was on the whole extremely grateful and admiring of the emergency services that day, yet was just also expressing the haphazard, panic-stricken confusion and instincts from that first ten minutes trapped in the tunnel.
I know I certainly wouldn't want to diminish at all from the work of the emergency services in such harrowing circumstances both that day and many others, so hope no offence has been taken.
Thanks again for the post, and link to your own interesting blog.
Best regards,
Aidan

ozzyru27 said...

Dear Aidan

I hope I don't make to many spelling mistakes as Im at home with flu and to tired to see things at the moment!!!
Thanks for posting back, there was no offence taken in the slightest, and in fact I thought you're writing of Micheal and the 7th July was actually a very profound peice of writing. I can totalyl appreciate how he felt, especially in those first ten minutes, to say he must have gone through hell is an understatement.
Ill add your blog to my favourites so can read it regulalry.
Best wishes
Ruth