"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

February 21, 2008

BLUE WATCH 7/7


It seemed like a routine "shout" for Alpha 242, an engine from the Soho fire station in central London. The printer read "smoke issuing" from a tube station. Within minutes, Aaron Roche and his crew on the Blue Watch were plunged into hell - the bombings of July 7, 2005.

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The following is excerpted from an article by Mark Townsend in the Oct. 9, 2005 edition of The Observer newspaper:
He found her bolt upright, sitting still in some sort of private hell. For an hour she had remained, unblinking in the gloom, hemmed in by corpses on either side. The two people stared at one another, each wondering how they had stumbled across such carnage that mild summer's morning.

She was an ordinary commuter who found herself at the epicentre of Britain's deadliest terrorist attack. He was firefighter Aaron Roche, the first person to enter carriage 346A of the 8.51am Piccadilly Line service from King's Cross after the 7 July bombs went off.

It was the 48th such service to leave London's busiest tube station that morning, each carriage crammed with commuters, many reading the newspaper coverage of London's Olympic triumph the previous day.

But what should have been a routine trip would, within moments, become part of London's history. Inside the 51ft by 9ft aluminium shell of 346A, 26 people died. It was the carriage where Britain's bloodiest attack since the Second World War took place; where the deadliest of the 7 July bombs was detonated.

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Until now Roche has been reluctant to articulate the horrors he found. But almost 100 days after coming across the macabre contents of 346A, the Blue Watch crew manager from London Fire Brigade's Soho station has offered an extraordinary account of what he saw that July morning.

It had just turned 10am when Roche began striding along the dark tunnel towards the stranded train. No one had a clue what had caused its sudden breakdown. Roche had begun to fear the worst, though, as he came across a bedraggled string of passengers, their blackened, bleeding faces almost invisible in the choking clouds of smoke.

The train itself, though, seemed in better shape. Structurally, it seemed fine, its windows smashed by fire extinguishers hurled by commuters desperate to escape. Inside it was a different story. Passengers lay sprawled in each carriage, some nursing wounds, others simply too shocked to move.

As the pale-faced, softly-spoken fireman crept towards the first carriage, a sense of dread began to consume the 31-year-old. The smoke was becoming thicker, the air increasingly acrid, the wounds of passengers noticeably more debilitating.

Finally, Roche reached the entrance to the first carriage, 346A; this time there was no door left to yank open. He edged through a knot of twisted metal and peered inside. A thick dust cloud had yet to settle. Beneath, it felt slippy underfoot. Gasping for breath, Roche felt instantly that something terrible had occurred. As he turned his torch on to the carriage contents, the thin sliver of light illuminated its horrors.
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Arms lay severed at the shoulder; individual legs blown from their owners' bodies lay bent at impossible angles. In the dim light Roche made out a head. Nearby was a legless torso. It was impossible to determine which limb belonged to whom. At either end of 346A, bodies lay three to four feet deep. In its centre, though, the floor was clear.

On closer inspection, Roche discovered a metallic crater, the point where suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay had detonated his rucksack of explosives. 'The dust was still thick; it was hard to see to the other end of the carriage. At this stage it was difficult to gauge the number of casualties because all skin tissues were grey with dust.

'It was very dark. Slowly, I began to make out body parts - the legs and arms of people. Limbs that I couldn't tell which body they belonged to.'

At first, Roche deduced that everyone in 346A must be dead. Then he saw the elderly woman. She was yards from where the imposing frame of 19-year-old Lindsay had settled as he counted down the moments before detonating his explosives.

'She was staring back at me. I can remember the whites of her eyes so clearly because the rest of her was just covered in dust,' Roche said. Then from behind came a low moan. Roche turned disbelievingly. It was coming from beneath a mound of corpses.

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'There was a sea of bodies and body parts at either end of the carriage. If you looked hard enough, you could see bodies shifting and twitching underneath piles of bodies.'

Roche called out to two colleagues who had followed him and together they began dragging off the corpses from those still breathing. In the minutes that followed, they remember hearing the soft accent of a Geordie man offering his gratitude as they freed his foot trapped from beneath a seat.

Blue Watch dragged six people alive from carriage 346A, some with miraculously minor injuries. The elderly woman sustained only a sore ankle.

The last survivor pulled from the carriage was Garri Holness from Streatham, south London, found lying on the blood-soaked floor among dead passengers. Scarred all over from the blast, Holness already knew he had lost part of his left leg. Some time later, the 37-year-old would tell how he wanted each day to be 'beautiful' from now on.

By now it was obvious to Roche that they needed help. No one above them had any idea of the atrocities they had encountered, nor that terrorists were to blame. Similarly, Roche could not know that, 150ft above him, the capital was already adjusting to the reality that London had suffered its first successful bomb attack on the London Underground in its 142-year history.

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Not only had the suicide bombers struck the Piccadilly Line, but within moments they had struck at Aldgate tube station, where seven died; at Edgware Road, where six were killed; and an hour later on the Number 30 bus at Tavistock Square, in which 13 people died.

'I wanted to radio, but we were so far down the tunnel we had lost communication,' said Roche. He had to make his way back up to the station concourse. As he ran from the train, barely discernible down the tunnel Roche could just about make out the forms of two bodies 100 yards away, hurled from the carriage when the bomb exploded.

Another corpse was found with its legs sheared off; it too had been blown through the window and dismembered as the train hurtled on for another hundred yards or so. It was then Roche recalls a profound sense of loneliness, induced by a suffocating, almost unbearable sense of quiet.

'It sounds strange, but the silence was deafening in that tunnel,' he said. He did hear one scream, a wail from a woman beneath the train. 'She was screaming for help, she must have seen my legs as I ran,' he said. Roche faltered as he toyed with whether to free her, but then he remembered the cold, bureaucratic language of their emergency coda; he had to keep moving; he had to let the world know of the horrors he had seen.

When police officers subsequently interviewed Blue Watch to recount what they had found that morning, some tentatively asked how those they had saved were doing. But Roche could never bring himself to ask if the woman beneath the train survived. 'I never followed up what happened to her. I can't bear to think she didn't make it. I still feel guilty.'

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The call-out that came at 9.04am on 7 July seemed as routine as they come. Roche and his crew boarded engine Alpha 242 and set off. In his hand a strip of tickertape read: 'Smoke issuing at Euston Square tube' alongside the order that they should head as back-up to King's Cross nearby. They remember the traffic being bad. By the time they pulled up outside King's Cross, it was 9.13am.

Seventeen minutes earlier, three bombs had crippled the network but, as Roche trooped on to the station concourse, his was the only emergency vehicle parked outside the network's most vital hub.

Emerging from the underground escalator came a stream of shellshocked passengers. Faces were blackened - something was burning in the labyrinth below. More passengers followed, hundreds of them. Pass-engers were appearing with broken noses, blood coming from deep facial cuts.

'Not only was there extensive blackening; we started seeing classic collision injuries,' he said. 'Gradually they were becoming more severe.'

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Although London had planned - almost waited - for such an eventuality, the minutes after the terrorist explosions held a surreal quality, marked by flashes of improvised decision-making from those like Roche alongside odd episodes of semi-confusion when the truth began to emerge. Colleagues tried to radio for more back-up, but the system was overloaded.

'I couldn't get through [on the radio]; that has never happened before,' said Simon Wilson, who was standing near Roche. Half-wondering what could have caused such a meltdown, the 37-year-old was forced to use his mobile phone to call for help.

Roche, meanwhile, decided to send two firefighters down to the platform. They returned gasping soon after with tales of corpses, the smell of burning flesh clinging to their nostrils. Roche immediately declared it an 'eight-pump incident', a major event. But outside, central London had ceased to function like a world city; traffic could barely move. Fellow members of Blue Watch were forced to abandon their appliances on their way to King's Cross and half-walk, half-run, complete with kit.

Around 40 minutes after Roche arrived, his first colleagues arrived on foot, startled at the hundreds being treated by Roche and his men in the cavernous waiting hall of King's Cross. Roche signalled his men to pick up their cutting gear, the equipment used to slice open cars in traffic accidents, and grab their torches. They were going down.

They could scarcely believe it. Roche and the crews of Alpha 242 and Alpha 241 had been back at headquarters after dealing with carriage 346A for barely enough time to grab a shower and sandwich when the tickertape machine printed out a fresh challenge. A man in a pub was claiming to be carrying a bomb. During those early strange, surreal hours of 7 July, anything seemed possible. This time, though, there was no bomb; only a drunk.