Three years ago today I went to work by bus. I could have walked, but I didn’t. When I arrived, I started the morning with a cup of coffee – the regular pattern back then. I arrived before most people and liked the moments of quiet before I got going. Then people started to drift in talking about problems on the underground – on the buses too. Most of us were in the office by that time and we turned to the BBC website for some information about what was going on.
First they said it was a power failure, then some talk about gas explosions, no-one really knew. Then news about a bomb on a bus, and then more news about more bombs on local buses. Much confusion – lots of rumours. The telephones had all gone down by this point. Mobile phones and landlines. The Internet was still working and I got an email from my sister asking if I was ok. She said there was trouble in the city. We heard the police sirens. We heard the ambulance sirens.
We were told not to leave the office and that our managers had to account for all of us. When the phones came back, we all phoned everyone we had been due to visit that day to tell them we couldn’t come. No-one was surprised.
Everyone knew someone who could have been affected. It comes from living in the city and the underground network being so extensive. Parents whose children went to schools in the city, spouses with partners working in the centre. Close friends, more distant friends, acquaintances. Everyone had someone they were worried about. No-one could make contact – not for a few hours.
We sat together – not knowing whether to stay or to go- the relentless chatter dying out as we ran out of things to say to each other – and the things we didn’t need to say to each other.
We went home late that day. We were asked, those who lived within about an hours’ walk of the office, if we could put up colleagues in our homes. There was talk of a shelter being set up. Although the offer was there, in the end, everyone wanted to go home – no matter how far it was – the buses started to clunk back into action later in the evening. But I walked home that night – on the roads with many others, there were no cars around that evening – not as I remember it.
A few days later, our council – the Social Services Department anyway, was asked, as all Social Services Departments in London were, I believe, to provide social workers for the Relatives Reception Centre at the The Royal Horticultural Halls near Victoria. I am not at all sure how I got to be one of the people to go. I honestly can’t remember the process of deciding who was going to go. I know I volunteered and then was given a day to go down there. I was glad to be able to do something but had no idea what to expect – nor what form the help that I had volunteered would take.
I was told when I arrived, that a new way of coordinating disaster relief was being used. Families and people affected were directed to the hall where we were. There was to be a central point of contact in which all agencies that might be able to offer help would be located.
Access was limited to those who were brought in by the police – namely those who were either directly affected or had a close family member who was directly affected.
We (the social workers) were there alongside the Metropolitan Police, Salvation Army, Transport for London, CRUSE Bereavement Services, Victim Support and no doubt many other services I don’t remember.
I was told that the model of providing a centrally located ‘one stop shop’ type place for the people affected was a result of disaster-planning that had taken place in consultation with the US authorities following the destruction of the World Trade Centre. It had been in place – the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the preparations for an attack that was never really a great surprise.
The lead authority would be chosen depending on where the disaster occurred and other authorities would be called on to help.
We were available to provide advice and support – let people know what would be available and coordinate with their own local authorities. Of course, this was generic work at its most generic as the people attending could have been from anywhere – but as it happens – one of those things, the first person who came to us actually did live where I work – so at least in that case I was able to advise with a bit more assurance.
Mostly, it was, at that stage, confused and distressed people. Family members of people who were still in hospital asking about what kinds of things could happen when they came home – if they were able to. Or injured parents who wanted to know how to visit and support each other while maintaining as much normality for their children.
I felt humbled and still do that I was able to play at least a very minor part in the those days. On 7th July 2005, 52 people died and 700 were injured on three underground trains and one bus.
The city pulled herself up and moved on. But she didn’t forget.