London bombings

The post edited on August 12th. Thanks to Ronja for comments.

Many of you may already know that I was on a bus going to London at the time of the first London bombings on July 7th. I’m writing this entry partly because of a request from a colleague who is doing research on mobile emergency announcement systems and sensemaking in connection to emergencies.

I woke up in Oxford around 7AM eager to get an early start to London. I had come there on Tuesday to meet a friend and would spend Thursday in London shopping for clothes. My plane was to leave Heathrow 10.20AM on Friday, so I would only have Thursday for shopping. So it was important for me to get there early. I also had a lunch meeting arranged with a libertarian friend of mine on the other side of London at 1PM.

Alas, my trip had a bad start from the beginning. Another guest spent at least a half an hour in the shower, which delayed me considerably. Still I got on a bus and was merrily getting to London, when my sister called me on my cell phone to ask if I was okay. The time of call was probably 9.15 or so. I could not check the time afterwards, because my Nokia Series 60 phone only retains time of call for each caller’s newest call (and since my sister had called again later I could not check the exact time anymore). She could still reach me (probably) because I was only approaching London at the time. She told me that there had been explosions, at least two, in the subway system, and that it was not yet known if it was terrorism, or something else. I told about this to the passenger next to me, who was going to an exam and became quite worried. When I got up and went downstairs to ready myself for getting off, I talked about the situation with two other passengers who had heard of it and that it was only a glitch in the electric system and no terrorist attack was involved.

My hostel was at Shepherd’s Bush and I stepped out of the Oxford express at Notting Hill Gate stop. (I noticed later that I should have stepped out one stop earlier, but I didn’t care about that so much before, since Notting Hill should be an easy place to get off at and I should be able to use subway anyway. I could not really concieve of a situation where the whole subway system would be offline.) I walked to the subway station entrance and saw that it was closed. Lots of men dressed in the subway neon colors at the entrance talking to people. I waited around for a while (perhaps 5-10 minutes) to get to one of them and asked what was going on. They told me that bombs had detonated in the subway and that the whole subway system was closed, as well as all bus traffic in Zone 1. I asked them directions for Shepherd’s Bush and started walking.

Got to the hostel, which was pretty easy to find, around 10AM. Put my stuff into a locked backroom, since check-in was only after 2PM (or something like that). Received some text messages from friends who were worried, perhaps during the walk or after I got to the hostel. I spent some time talking and asked the personnel to put the Tv on to follow the news about the bombings. It seemed they hadn’t even heard the news. I tried to call friends, but could not connect to the network. I tried to send SMSs but sending failed. Then I took a look at the nearby shopping mall to see if anything interesting was there.

When I got back to the hostel, I found that there was an Internet terminal at the hostel and I logged on. Then I logged into my universitys webmail site and sent an email to a friend and told him that I would appreciate getting news via SMS, if and when new information was available. Through the day, he sent me 6 messages telling the most important developments (including the critical information that Heathrow Express was not running). Then I started thinking about contacting other friends. I knew there were some irc clients that can be used through web and googled for web irc. So I found cgi-irc, which was amazingly simple to use (just give a nick and a channel you want to join and you’re ready to go); I joined some channels which I use for keeping in touch with friends and told them ”Yes, I am in London and yes, I am okay”. I also asked them to spread the information around.

To be truthful, I was amazed by how many people knew that I was in London and how many people were worried about me. Somehow I didn’t think they’d remember, or care. Sometimes it is good to be positively surprised by your friends. (Of course, knowing my friends I shouldn’t have been but, there it is, I was). I wasn’t really afraid for my own safety. I had arrived in London almost an hour after the bombings and thought it quite unlikely that there would be more attacks during the day. I was anxious to get a message through to my friends, though. Luckily my sister had reached me, so I was confident that she’d let my family know that I was alright. I felt bad that my friends might be wondering if I was okay (especially since they wouldn’t be able to get any calls through to me to check). So I was intensely relieved to find that computer.

From here on, my memories on the order of things starts to get blurred. So I’ll first tell you what I did during the day and then try to parse the different rumors I heard and to remember how I tried to make sense of what was happening.

The day was approaching noon and I decided not to abandon my shopping for such a little thing as these bombings.
So I walked to Notting Hill Gate and went to eat in an Italian restaurant (which had really nice food). Then I went to nearby shops to find some clothes. When I didn’t find anything interesting, I decided to continue to Oxford Street – walking this time. Soon it started to rain and I stopped into a bookshop for a while to pass the time. I just love bookshops, so that was okay (though I’d already passed my credit limit for books in Oxford). Continued the walk, which took longer than I had expected and finally got to Oxford Street. I went around shopping, most shops were open. I bought some clothes and decided to take a bus back. It was perhaps three or four o’clock in the afternoon.

At one point, while I was traveling in the bus, I suddenly started thinking of the possibility that one of the other passengers was a terrorist with a bomb. It was quite interesting to observe my reactions to this idea. I saw in myself the possibility for a panic should I let myself continue thinking about it. So, instead, I told myself not to feel it and limit thinking of it into the rational part of my brain, which assured the other parts of my mind that the likelyhood of a terrorist to be on this bus is vanishingly small – and then proceeded to make myself feel a little better by checking out the other passengers and making sure I’d notice, if anybody did anything suspicious.

It was a revelation for me that I could actually be so close to such a primal reaction and I knew had I succumbed to it that I could not have regained my self control easily. Still, I did not succumb for which I am extremely glad. I think I may have to use this idea in my roleplaying hobby in some way or another. Perhaps the will checks used in some games do have some merit after all. It will also allow me to understand those who do fall into that primal reaction a little better. That reaction, the place I could have gotten into, was probably the most scary thing that I encountered during that day in London.

Throughout the day, there were several different rumors flying around. Many people had heard that there had been 6 bombs, at one point people even talked about 9 bombs out of which only 6 had gone off. Then the news started talking about 4 bombs and nobody mentioned those others. There was a girl who told that they had been evacuated from their home by police officers who said there was a bomb on the street (if I recall correctly she referred to a trash can). I have a vague recollection that even in the news, they would have spoked of some bomb that they found before it exploded, but my memory may well fail on this.

All in all, many people had the feeling that the government was not telling everything – that they are hiding something. I heard many people saying similar things at the pub next to the hostel, at McDonalds, at the hostel, etc. I heard comments like: ”They are hiding something.” ”They haven’t mentioned anything about this thing I heard about, they are hiding something.” ”There’s something going on that they are not telling us.” And so on.

Now I can think of several rational explanations for these rumors and why they were not addressed by the government officials. Firstly, they might want to withhold some information which only the police and those responsible could know. This might be useful information to help determine the guilt of future suspects. Secondly, the police might not actually have said that they found a bomb on the street. He might have said (or meant to say) that they suspected a bomb on the street. Or perhaps he did say there was a bomb, because they suspected such, and he really wanted to stress the importance of people leaving the area. Or perhaps the girl had heard it from another person leaving the area or just remembered things wrong.

Whatever the reason for these rumors, there are things that the rescue workers, police, etc. could have done better. For example, if there were places were police did search for hidden bombs and informed some local people of it, they should publish that they did so and whether they found anything (note that currently they mostly seem to tell, if they found things and not so much when they didn’t find things. It’s the latter kind of situation that creates the feeling of somebody withholding information).

So to enhance emergency communications, all the information that the rescue workers, police, firemen, etc. pass to the public, everything they do should be automatically collected, processed and then as good a report as possible of things done should be published (remembering that some things may have to be withheld, because you might not want the terrorists to know everything about how the emergency organization works). This could be achieved for example if each rescue worker carried a recording device with gps and radio for network connection. It would automatically track and save the movements of the rescue worker. Whenever the worker would start to do something new, he would make a short comment to the recording about what he is about to do. So for example, if he was to evacuate an area because of a possible bomb finding, he would state that he starts to evacuate people because of a possible bomb finding.

In the evening I started thinking about getting to the airport in the morning. I realized that the subway was not working yet and might not be in the morning. I also found out that no busses I could use were going there either. I talked with the subway guard who said that the subway system might be operational in the morning and if it was, it would open (I don’t remember whether it was) 5.30am or 6am. So I got up early, a little bit after 5am, got some breakfast from a grocerie store nearby (how I love a country that allows shops to be open at such times). Got into the subway and asked the helping people there how I could get to Heathrow. Some lines weren’t operational yet, so he advised me to get the Central to Notting Hill Gate, then District south to Earl’s Court and then continue with Piccadilly to Heathrow.

I got on the Central, got off at Notting Hill Gate and found out that neither District, nor Central were running (though the information desks and the subway info worker at Shepherd’s Bush told differently). I asked the workers what I should do and they told me to take a bus to some other station from where I could continue with Piccadilly to Heathrow. I don’t remember exactly which it was but I think it might have been Turnham Green.

Unfortunately, I got to the right bus, but it went the wrong way. I was on the right bus stop, but didn’t realize that both directions used by the one and the same bus stop. I asked about my destination from the driver who told me I was in the wrong bus perhaps after 10 minutes drive. I got off, and found the correct bus. I finally got to Piccadilly line and found myself in Heathrow airport around 8AM.

The crowd at the Heathrow airport was something I never saw in my life before (at any other airport). The queues for check-in weren’t so bad. Perhaps 30-50 meters long. I checked in and went to the security check line. The line was so long that it filled the approach area, got to the check-in hall, where it split in two. Each of the lines then continued to the other end of the hall, then across and then the queues almost met in the middle of the hall on the other side. I was sure I’d be in a hurry and not have time to buy whisky in the terminal since it was already past eight o’clock.

I am still amazed at how well things worked there. It took me 45 minutes to queue and get through the security checks. And during that time, the airport workers were constantly going through the queue to find people with flights leaving soon (under 45 minutes) and getting them to a special fast line. So I got to the shopping area in time for shopping a bag full of whisky and eat a little something, before going to the gate. There I got to be one of those who went through the security checks again before getting to the gate. I wonder if the security guys near the gate were even a little bit amazed by my hand luggage when they saw my bag. I have this 2-wheeled bag and I had squeezed 6 bottles of whisky in it. It also dawned on me that whisky bottles are probably rather good weapons for terrorists in aeroplanes. At least a lot better than nail clippers. You can break the glass bottle (which gives you a weapon) and you might be able to use the alcohol as a weapon too (e.g. burning it).

Then I got back to Helsinki-Vantaa airport, where I got my luggage and heard part of an announcement. I didn’t hear all of it, but I deduced that there was some kind of catastrophe aid/council for people coming from London. Looking around I saw some tables/chairs behind a screen next to the go out door. I went out and stumbled on a friend who was working there as a catastrophy helper/councellor, or something like that. I talked with her for a while and gave some comments to her supervisor and then started home. I was tired, so tired when I got back home.

So many people dead in such a horrible way. The bombings were a tragedy and I feel sad for all those who lost friends or relatives. And angry at those terrorists. I was amazed at how calmly people of London took the situation and continued their lives.

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  1. I was thinking the same thing about whisky bottles. When I was flying 10 days after 9/11 I bought a whisky bottle that had the sharpest edges and was holding it all the way, ready to hit any terrorist over the head just in case. Luckily no terrorists came so the whisky was used in the usual way.

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