Crucial link for desperate families

The Casualty Bureau
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The Independent Online
It is only a small room, with hardly enough space for the few dozen workers packed inside, lined up at their desks like telesales workers. But it is here, at New Scotland Yard, that the police have had to deal with some of the worst outrages, disasters and tragedies to have affected Britain.

It is only a small room, with hardly enough space for the few dozen workers packed inside, lined up at their desks like telesales workers. But it is here, at New Scotland Yard, that the police have had to deal with some of the worst outrages, disasters and tragedies to have affected Britain.

Tucked away around the corner from the main "gold" control room with its banks of televisions for co-ordinating operations across London, these are the more spartan surroundings of the national casualty bureau. A steadily growing list on a poster on a wall details the human cost that officers and officials have been forced to count over almost 20 years.

From the 1983 Harrods bombing, the sinking of the Marchioness pleasure boat on the Thames in 1989, the Docklands bomb attack in 1996 to the rail crash at Selby in February, this group of officers has answered the fears of worried friends and relatives.

At the central London office yesterday, 19 Metropolitan Police officers and Foreign Office staff were answering calls that had been coming in at the rate of more than one a minute. Since the lines opened on Tuesday evening, the 24-hour bureau has received 14,000 calls.

At the front of the room, a constantly updating digital display showed the number of calls that had been received since midnight: 896. Within six minutes over the lunchtime period, it had increased to 925.

On the other side of the room, other officers collated and graded the huge amount of information that was coming in. Information was graded from number one – for those known, or seen to be at the site of the "incident" at the time – to number two – for those who were "believed" to be there – down to number five, which was for "any others".

Other signs suggested how callers should be greeted. When the call was over, the instructions also urged the operator to ask the families to call them back if they heard from the missing person.

In the far corner, a small sign that read "family liaison officer" hung above a desk. Another said "casualty information unit". It was clear that some people calling the unit would eventually learn that members of their family had died when the twin towers were struck and finally collapsed.

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