At the corner shop, consul's wife watched as truck rolled by and blew her world apart

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, just after 11am, Roger Short, the 58-year-old British consul general, and his wife, Victoria, walked in the wintry morning sunshine from Istanbul's bustling Beyoglu district to his temporary offices, a small annexe next to the main consulate building, which was being renovation.

Mrs Short was brewing coffee when she realised there was no milk. Slipping on a coat, she walked to the corner shop. The café owner across the street greeted her cheerily: "Good morning, Victoria Hanim (Madam)", and offered her a cup of tea. As she sipped it, she saw a van marked as a catering truck - which was packed with explosives - slam into the consulate gates, shattering the building where she had just left her husband. The explosion set the premises on fire.

Hours later, weeping and distraught, she was trying to comprehend what she had witnessed. The security checkpoint and the building where Mr Short was working are now a pile of bricks, glass and mangled metal.

Dust, smoke and a pungent smell of ammonia hung in the air as rescue workers sifted the wreckage. The main consulate, a solid neo-Classical building, stood intact, but its windows were blown in panes. Curtains fluttered eerily outside rooms covered in a sea of glass. Some weeping, worried relatives waited at the police barricades for news. "The scene is exactly the same as it was at the synagogue a few days ago," said one rescue worker, his red uniform cloaked in dust. "We're not pulling anyone out intact, the building was demolished. Nobody is calling for help."

Hospitals posted bulletins outside their gates with the names of people admitted. At Taksim Hospital, beneath several Turkish names, one entry read simply, "Woman, English". A young woman arrived at the hospital and was told her mother, a cleaner at the consulate, was dead. "My mum, now see what they've done," she shouted hysterically. "My poor mum," she wept. As she was helped away onlookers muttered: "Damn them, damn whoever did this."

The street where the British consulate stands is cramped and jammed at all hours of the day with cars and pedestrians. "Of course, you think about this place being a target," said Ali Dilan, who works at a hotel near by. "I walk past there every day. But then you think they must have precautions."

The consulate is a local landmark. Built in the 18th century as the embassy, the complex was demoted when Turkey was declared a republic in 1923, and all embassies uprooted to the new capital, Ankara. It is a throwback to an Imperial era, a sprawling oasis of verdant gardens and imposing buildings hidden by high walls and tucked away from the traffic of the busy neighbourhood. Agatha Christie is said to have wandered in its sprawling gardens for inspiration while writing Murder on the Orient Express.

Mr Short's wife, Victoria, a passionate gardener, had made the transformation and upkeep of the grounds her mission while they were here. The couple, renowned for their lovingly planned parties that brought together local intellectuals, businessmen and expats, introduced an annual summer dance in the gardens.

Claudia Turgut has known the Shorts since they were based in Ankara in the 1970s. "I remember it was pouring with rain the last time the dance was on, so I rang up Roger, sure it would be cancelled," she said. He told me, 'Of course it's still on', and he was laughing. Sure enough, we danced all night under a marquee with rain coming down like a curtain around us."

Mr Short's posting as consul general to Istanbul was his third to the country, the previous two in Ankara. He spoke fluent Turkish, learnt the hard way by living with a Turkish family in London when he joined the Foreign Office. The diplomat came to Istanbul in 2001, after serving as Britain's ambassador to Bulgaria from 1994 to 1998. He was in the Office of the High Representative, the civilian organisation overseeing peace-building in Bosnia-Herzegovina, between 1999 and 2000.

Mrs Short's gardens too were destroyed by the explosion and fire. Aerial TV pictures showed a charred, gaping hole next to the pile of rubble. The streets next to the consulate fared little better.

The Fish Bazaar, a nest of small streets packed with seafood restaurants, fruit and vegetable vendors and sweets shops beloved by tourists, was cordoned off by police. Britons in Istanbul shop here for delicacies, including good bacon, that are hard to come by elsewhere.

Ramazan Kizilkaya has run Nizam Pide, a Turkish fast-food shop opposite the consulate gates for the 25 years, and knows the staff by name. "They are regulars here, we have lived together for years," he said, his face covered in cuts from shrapnel. "They shop here, we know them. It's hard to understand who could have done this." Like many of his neighbours, the blast blew in his windows and ceilings. Mr Short was well-liked in the neighbourhood. Locals said they loved to hear him, by all appearances a fair-haired Englishman with a typically rosy complexion, speak their language with the colloquialism of a Turk.

Most of Istanbul's thriving nightlife and numerous businesses are concentrated in the surrounding area. The Americans, worried about security since the 11 September attacks, moved from their premises a few hundred yards away to a purpose-built high-security complex away from the city centre.

The British stayed put, choosing instead to renovate and refurbish the historic building, a process that was almost completed. When the bombs exploded, I was inside the US consulate, an imposing fortress on a hill, which I jokingly labelled Alcatraz.

Even from this distance, we heard the explosions. Guards barking orders swarmed into the building, shutting it down and barricading the street in front in minutes. Even in a city accustomed to disaster, life ground to a halt. Mobile phones stopped working, rumours of new explosions swept the city, radio broadcasts called for blood donations and schools and many companies closed.

The streets were emptied of most traffic except ambulances taking the wounded to hospitals, and police who set up checkpoints.

Turkish army troops appeared briefly on the streets, an unnerving sight in a country with a history of martial law. At least a dozen Turkish soldiers, wearing helmets and camouflage uniforms and armed with German-made G-3 assault rifles, stood by their trucks near the bombed HSBC headquarters, but were later withdrawn.

"It feels a bit like Judgement Day," said Mehmet Karakaya, a barber with a shop near Beyoglu. And it did.

SECOND BRITON NAMED

A second Briton killed in the Istanbul suicide attacks was named as Lisa Hallworth, a member of the consulate staff.

Ms Hallworth, 38, was personal assistant to the consul general, Roger Short, who also died in the blast.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said the "pain of these deaths" was felt at "our posts across the world". He said: "They posed a threat to no one. They were working in Istanbul to help British and Turkish citizens alike in support of the strong relations between our two countries."

Mr Straw said three or four British employees at the consulate had not responded to a roll call after the blasts.

Graham Carter, 38, a company director from Lincoln, suffered facial burns and an arm injury. He was picking up a visa for a friend when the bomber struck. "I saw a truck smash through the gates, then there was a big explosion inside."

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