Thursday, June 01, 2006

7 July Review Committee Report...coming soon

On 23rd March this year I and 12 others gave our public testimony at the London Assembly. The cross party committee was set up to investigate the 7th July bombings with a focus on communication, both on the day and afterwards.

Eight months after the terrible events someone finally listened to our story. It was a harrowing and emotional day followed by an immense sense of relief and release. Hundreds of others gave their testimonies in writing or through a private interview. The committee and those organizing the events of the day treated us all impeccably and with the utmost respect. It was the first time we had been addressed as intelligent human beings rather than the usual sympathetic tone reserved for emotionally traumatized survivors.

Everyone speaking at the meeting had met personally with one of the committee beforehand and was shown the space in which we were to speak. We were explained the risks of media intrusion by speaking out in public but were assured that they would not be allowed to approach us on the day. The meeting was shown on a live webcast on the London Assembly website and was reported on the national news.

We were the last group that they heard from, they had held several other meetings before ours. They spoke to the Fire Services, Ambulance Services, and telecommunication companies in a thorough and neutral manner in an attempt to gain an accurate picture of events.

On Monday they will be publishing their report. I have high hopes for its honesty and integrity. The Chair, Richard Barnes wrote to us after the hearing:

‘ May I give you this assurance: the report will be written without fear or favour and we will tell the truth as we see it and as we have been advised and learnt. To do anything else would be a total betrayal of you all and that I will not do, under any circumstance.’

This is the first report that will have been conducted publicly, but is certainly not an attempt to substitute a public enquiry. The remit was narrow and focused, none of the events prior to the day were under investigation, neither were the Security Services nor the Government. This was purely about ‘communication’, about learnings, recommendations and an attempt to ensure that next time we do it better.

Many spoke about the lack of ambulances at the scene and frustrated firemen unable to do their jobs, hands tied by bureaucracy. For me, personally, I was more affected by the appalling breakdown in communication during the months that followed. The key to this (and a fundamental learning for all future disasters be they terrorism or not) was the collection of information at the scene. Hundreds of walking wounded and severely traumatized people (myself included) were left to wander, unaided, through the streets of London our minds paralysed with shock, our faces blackened by smoke.

No-one approached me as I emerged from that tunnel, I finally forced myself upon a police officer and gave him my details. Details which were ultimately lost. It was from this point that it all went wrong for everyone but the severely physically injured (who by all accounts have received faultless treatment).

We were left, lost and forgotten. Thankfully many of us have found each other. If it were not for the support of my fellow passengers I don’t know where I would be today. My fear is that there are still hundreds of others suffering alone, filled with terror by their unfamiliar minds, silenced through pride and stiff upper lips. We have found over 100 other passengers from that Piccadilly line tube. But at full capacity (which that one most certainly was) they can hold up to 900 people. Where are the other 800? What about the 3 other sites? Doubtless some will be coping and getting on with their lives. Only 1 in 4 people will be likely suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after such an event. I have been through it and can safely say it is not something to bear alone. You travel through places so dark and terrifying that you cannot believe they have been created by your own mind. No-one understands, no-one can help, except professionals and people who were there. Some have even attempted suicide, others may have silently succeeded but nobody knows, and they damn well should. 56 people died in those terrorist attacks but hundreds (if not thousands) of other innocent lives have been affected in varying degrees.

For me this reflects a snapshot of society. Mental health is a taboo, a subject to be whispered about in corridors and pushed under the nearest carpet and this is so very very wrong. Mental illness can be as debilitating as physical injury and often more so. This needs to be recognized in society as a whole, not just in the aftermath of terrorist atrocities.

The meeting at the London Assembly kicked off a small media bubble. It felt good to have our plight discussed and debated at last, the ripples even reached the Cabinet Office and we all received a letter from Tessa Jowell offering her sympathies for what we had been through. Well it was a start, but a pretty weak one.

I have said many times that I am not looking to see heads roll, but we absolutely have to learn from this attack and prepare ourselves for the inevitable next one.

I fear the report on Monday will tell a sorry tale. A tale of failed policies, under funding and communication quagmires. Under absolutely no circumstances must they be interpreted as a criticism of the men and women who gave infinitely more than their due and risked their lives for the sole purpose of saving others. It is they too who were let down by the very system which was supposed to be their foundation.

I would like to thank all the members of the 7 July review committee and their supporting team for the exceptional job which they have done. Whilst this report is no substitute for a public enquiry, the manner in which it was conducted should surely be an example to our leader and his cronies.

I feel confident in predicting that Monday will be no whitewash or smokescreen. It will hopefully be the beginnings of the truth.