Mary Dejevsky: Heroes born the day 999 let us down

Time and again passengers have noted how official help was, for an excruciatingly long time, simply not there
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Earlier this week, at the latest public session of the 7/7 inquest, Gill Hicks related how she tied her scarf and a jacket around the bleeding stumps of her legs, and with such improvised tourniquets saved her own life. Of the scene in the mangled Tube train, the 42-year old Australian events-manager said: "We were all talking, it was a very serene and calm and quiet time within the carriage, except for the very few that perhaps were passing away orseverely injured around us."

At the end of her testimony, the coroner, Lady Justice Hallett, offered this valediction: "Until I started this process, I had no idea that people could survive injuries as horrific as yours. You are amazing, you sound amazing, you look amazing. So thank you very much for coming to tell me about it."

This was an effusive tribute by any standards, but it was by no means the first time that this sombre judge had seemed overcome by what she had heard. Since the inquest opened on 11 October, words such as "astonishing", "heroic", "courageous", have repeatedly passed her lips. Invariably they have described the actions of ordinary members of the public who found themselves, on that one day, in extraordinary circumstances – people who, to put it mildly, were tested and not found wanting.

When an inquest, or rather inquests, were convened into the deaths of 52 people in the London bombings five years ago, the decision was not uncontroversial. Inquests are not usually held into deaths that have been the subject of criminal proceedings. There were the costs in time and money to be considered, not to speak of the ordeal for the survivors and the bereaved families who would be asked to relive their traumas one more time.

Six weeks into hearings expected to last five months, however, the decision has been handsomely – or, to borrow Lady Hallett's word, amazingly – vindicated. Amid the gloom of shortening days and economic belt-tightening, one inspirational personal story after another has illustrated how generously human beings can behave towards each other in the most extreme conditions.

There were dishonourable exceptions, of course, including those whose first reaction was to whip out their mobile phones to take voyeuristic pictures. But you did not have to be in the courtroom to wonder in admiration at Steve Hucklesby, who applied CPR to a fellow passenger, recalling an episode in a television show and following instructions mouthed by someone on the other side of the window.

Or, on the same day as the "amazing" Ms Hicks testified, at Alison Macarthy, who – without first-aid training and severely injured – used her jacket to stem the bleeding of Garri Holness, and recalled: "I turned to Garri and introduced myself. I think we shook hands actually. Garri said 'I've lost my leg' and I could see that he had." Or at the woman who had the presence of mind to pass a sanitary towel down the carriage that helped to stop bleeding and saved another passenger's life. Or at Colin Pettet, who – in the absence of any emergency services – stayed underground to help those worse injured than he was.

Which, alas, exposes the other, far less inspirational, side of the evidence heard at these inquests. While many ordinary individuals displayed superhuman compassion and strength, many of those who were trained and paid to be heroes appear to have fallen grievously short. Time and again, passengers have noted – some with regret, some with anger, some simply as a matter of fact – how official help was for an excruciatingly long time simply not there.

Of course, there were distinguished exceptions, and any criticism is less a comment on the conduct of particular individuals than on the services. London Underground, the police, the fire brigade and the ambulance service seem to have been very slow to appreciate the gravity of what had happened and then to mobilise and co-ordinate their response. As John Taylor, the father of one of the victims, put it after listening through the first month of evidence: "We were told that we had the best resilience planning in the world for something like this. If this was the best resilience plan, I would not want to see second best."

Now it is possible to object that such a conclusion is premature; these inquests have several months still to run. It can also be argued that four almost simultaneous bomb attacks at rush hour in different parts of a densely populated city, three of them underground, would have taxed the very best emergency services anywhere.

Yet a pattern is emerging from the evidence that speaks of quite specific failures in the system. The most obvious are material: the inability of phones to communicate underground, and the lack of even the most basic medical aids, such as bandages or a stretcher, in the vicinity of trains. But these, potentially, can be rectified. Far, far more damaging were the formalistic attitudes that seem to have governed the response: a built-in fear of breaking rules, a retreat to learnt formulae that demanded caution, and an absence of the very qualities that defined the passengers' response: resourcefulness, flexibility and sheer grit.

Some of the initial delay – the fear of further devices, or fire, or live rails – may well have been justified. Risking the loss of whole emergency teams could have jeopardised the whole effort. But it also appears that some of the disaster planning and training provided in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States could have been counterproductive. A senior fire officer who attended Edgware Road said he had attended a course on disaster scenarios the previous week and at first feared that a chemical, biological or nuclear device, even a "dirty" bomb, might be to blame. This is why, he said, he had initially refused to allow his men down into the Tube tunnel. Did such training, multiplied across the emergency services, actually confuse and hinder the rescue response?

It is important to recognise that what is going on at the Royal Courts of Justice is an inquest. It is neither a trial nor an inquiry. And the definition of an inquest is "a fact-finding inquiry to establish the answers to: who the deceased was; when and where the death occurred; and how the deceased came by his or her death". Culpability rests with the bombers alone.

But among the conclusions to be drawn – along with admiration of many, many modest individuals – might usefully be humility. We have long allowed ourselves to believe that Britain's emergency services are second to none: super-fast, hyper-efficient and infinitely humane. We have lionised them, as we have lionised the NHS, reluctant to accept that other countries may have come later than we did to instituting such services, but may also have noted our shortcomings and devised improvements of their own.

The chief benefit of this inquest will be the national and personal catharsis it provides. But there should be another benefit, too: a thorough reappraisal of our emergency services and the way they operate, reflecting a new willingness to learn from others.