The Long Journey Home

For millions, it was neither business as usual nor business entirely suspended. Instead, a day of distracted work gave way to an evening of transport meltdown. John Walsh found the city streets packed with stressed, frustrated but surprisingly stoical commuters
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The Independent Online

Many people's eyes were fixed on one building after 9am, yesterday. Canary Wharf Tower stood stolidly gleaming in the fitful sunshine as though advertising itself as the largest available target to anyone with a grudge against the British people. The news that the long-awaited attack on London had visited its ignorant savagery on random members of the public rather than symbolic targets and key political sites did not necessarily allay the fears of the public. All day, a prodigious rumour factory maintained the production of urban myths and fairy stories at a spectacular rate. It was as if the tallest building in Europe had become the occasion of the tallest stories in town.

The bus and Tube explosions had been the work of suicide bombers. Suicide bombers had been poised for action all over the metropolis but only some had succeeded. The Tube atrocities were only the beginning. All cars had been banned at Canary Wharf, ergo there must have been a suspected car bomb there. This was only the beginning... As thousands of Londoners scurried across the main concourse in front of Canary Wharf Station, wondering how they'd ever get home, a few looked up nervously as a seemingly stray Boeing 727 sharked across the blue firmament and disappeared - thankfully behind, rather than straight into, its gleaming steel walls.

At the Wharf, roads quickly became impassable as traffic came to a standstill. The Tube was shut by 10.15am. The Docklands Light Railway ceased working (it re-started later but was not available to stop at stations on the main Tube line). No taxis could come in or go out of the congested roadway. It was like being stranded on a well-upholstered glass-and-chrome desert island without hope of getting home for days.

Then the Dunkirk spirit kicked in and everyone headed for the river. By lunchtime the queue for boats stretched a mile in the distance. It was the finest marketing opportunity that Fate ever handed to Thames Clippers Riverline, the company which holds a virtual monopoly on riverboats, plying their fleet of catamarans - the Hurricane, Sun Clipper, Moon Clipper, Sky Clipper, Star Clipper and Storm Clipper - upriver from Docklands to Woolwich, taking in London Bridge, Waterloo Station and the backyard of the Savoy Hotel along the way.

"I was feeling a bit stuck here," said Yvonne, an Australian banker, who had been standing in line for 10 minutes. "I was resigned to staying here for ever but then we saw the crowd heading for the pier." A recent arrival on the London financial scene, she is clearly rattled by the morning's events. "I'm a bit concerned about security. Down in the Tube, you're all held in and travelling in darkness and you feel so vulnerable. I hate the way the bombers are targeting civilians. I've lived in Manila and felt less concerned." Her eyes widened. "Is it true there were three suicide bombers in Bond Street?"

Farouz, a business technician in Docklands, was vehement. "I'm very shocked, actually, that such things can happen. They were trying to kill ordinary people like you and me. You get up, eat your breakfast, think you're going to have an ordinary day... What kind of people are they? They're disgusting human beings. I'm hoping it's over now - they usually only strike once in a place, don't they? - But I'm not going to stop being vigilant." He too had heard the rumours. "Someone at work was saying a suicide bomber had been shot dead by police just outside the Tower. But the police are denying it," he added darkly.

At the long grey walkway which led hundreds of London commuters down to the boats to take them home, security was present but hardly tight. Burly security men, their hair all buzz-cut to the same uniform silver stubble, tried to look menacing under the CCTV cameras as the long snaking horde of besuited middle class refugees shuffled forward. The explosive-sniffer dogs were a brace of friendly cocker spaniels with spotty paws. A tough-looking cove, the dead spit of Ernest Borgnine, addressed the crowd through a whistling microphone - "Come along now, there are 200 spaces on this boat for Waterloo" - as if urging the crowd at a fair to buy the last few choc-ices.

A cheery atmosphere was developing. A rival to the Clipper boats appeared in the shape of a Mississippi paddle steamer called the Elizabethan, which chugged away eastwards, churning up the brown and wolfish Thames water as it sailed towards the Gherkin building, and a burst of late sunlight suddenly appeared over the ochre loading bays of Columbia Wharf.

"Step right up," shouted a wag, "Free drinks if you take our boat."

"It's such a good idea, isn't it, the river?" said Rorie Delahooke, "like a 13-lane motorway, with no congestion and no charges." Ms Delahooke turned out to work for Thames Clippers, but her point was a sound one. In the queue people smiled benignly at the rescue craft, as if they were being airlifted out of trouble.

I asked a long and perfectly triangular-faced business type what he thought of the day's events. "In mah opinion, said David, a banker, "people seenk far too murch. Zey should concentate on getting 'ome and leaf zer big sorts to zer politicians." Around him, his neighbours silently digested the information that he was French. A bad-taste joke had done the rounds all day, that the French must be behind the explosions: the Olympics decision had been the last straw.

"The bombing was inevitable, wasn't it?" said Sylvia England, a DEFRA secretary from Poplar, as if reading their thoughts. "It was whoever got the Olympic bid." David looked uncomfortable. "Al-Qai'da, I mean. They would have bombed whoever got chosen. It could have been Paris."

"By the way," said the man next to her. "Is it true that the suicide bomber at Canary Wharf was shot by a sniper?"

Elsewhere the spirit of generosity and enterprise was alive and kicking. In Aldgate, scene of one Tube atrocity, the management of the local Tesco Metro handed out supplies of their unsold food to passers-by and security men. Andrew Carter, Declan Kiernan and John Taylor left work in west London in the afternoon, started walking for about an hour but then gave up and managed to commandeer a bicycle-rickshaw in Wardour Street, Soho. "The journey took us about an hour to get to Fenchurch Street station. The driver said it would be about £30 but we offered him £40 because he was so good, and we stopped on numerous occasions for refreshments along the way. Now we have to get back to Essex. We've told our wives we'll be home by 11.30pm."

Kyra from Greece had left work at 4pm and at 5.30pm she was still waiting for a taxi in Aldgate. "I'm dizzy and exhausted," she said, "and I just want to go home."

Martyn Webb, 21, a computer programmer, was heading for Ipswich. He had already walked from Old Street in East London, and was planning to hop from trains to taxis to buses to get there. "I hate to say this, but I think it's going to take me at least two and a half hours."

Juan Iturrizaga had already been walking for an hour, and needed to get to Wood Green in the north of London. He was hoping to get a bus but had no idea if they were running or not. "My phone battery is dead which doesn't make the walk anymore enjoyable. I'm having to get a bus because a taxi would cost an absolute fortune but I'm taking it all very Olympically."