It was the silence that shocked me

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The Independent Online
nyone who has heard a bomb go off will recall the distinctive sound it makes, a soft crump which resembles an exhalation of breath. When I heard it in Soho, nine days ago, the floor shook beneath my feet and I knew instantly what had happened. So did some of the other people in an upstairs bar in Dean Street, just round the corner from the Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton Street. "It's a bomb," we said to each other - tentatively, as though we hoped to be contradicted. I remember my friend Maureen spelling it out loud, "B-O-M-B", to some people at the back of the room who had not heard the blast so clearly.

Not long afterwards, Maureen and I went downstairs into Dean Street. Looking back, I realise that shock had already set in because one of the gaps in my memory is leaving the building. Nor do I know exactly why I walked towards the site of the explosion, even though it had already occurred to me that there might be a second bomb. Maureen remembers, as I do not, people rushing in two directions: some towards the blast, some away from it. All I can say, and I am not proud of this, is that my reactions were unusually slow. I couldn't believe that a bomb had gone off in Soho, even though my recollection of a terrorist device exploding in Istanbul was sharp enough to remove any real doubt.

Then I reached the junction with Old Compton Street. Half an hour before, when I walked along it, it had been a bustling, lively street, so noisy and cheerful that I was reminded of a fairground. Now there was silence. I can recall no screams, no cries, just silence and what seemed, for a moment, like a remarkable stillness. The traffic had stopped, smoke drifted on the quiet air, shattered glass lay everywhere. I slowly became aware of people huddled together at intervals up and down the street, as though they were trying, like we had a moment before, to make sense of what had happened. Seconds later, I realised they were not talking but bending over people who were lying injured on the pavement and in the road. I heard a woman's voice gasping that someone was dead. On the corner of Dean Street, I saw a man look down at his arms, his shocked face registering dust and splashes of blood.

Writing this, I am furious with myself. Why didn't I understand at once, as some people obviously did, the enormity of what had happened? Even Maureen, who took in more than I did, did not realise for two days why some of the people in the street were tanned and shirtless. They had been burned and I heard later that waiters hurried from nearby bars with ice to treat them. But the next thing I remember is a young policeman running towards us, his face contorted with what seemed like anger. "Get back!" he shouted over and over again. "You're in danger!"

We did as he said, not because we felt in danger - shock ensured that I felt no fear, even when we were told with apparent certainty that another device had been found in Dean Street - but from a sense of uselessness. Neither of us knows first aid and the doctors and paramedics were on the scene with astonishing speed. Not thinking logically, we returned to the Groucho Club, where one of Maureen's friends, who is heavily pregnant, was holding her leaving-party. This was, in retrospect, a mistake because it turned us into helpless spectators as the para-medics transformed Dean Street into a casualty clearing- station. Not literally, because the staff pulled down the blinds to shield us from flying glass, if there was another bomb, and from the sight of injured people waiting on stretchers to be moved to a field hospital which was being set up in Soho Square, at the top of Dean Street.

I kept away from the windows, not wanting to see but also not wanting to gawp, like those ghouls who rush to the scene of traffic accidents. When we were able to leave, an hour or so later, it was past dozens of police in bullet-proof vests and a long line of ambulances, reinforcing the incredible impression that the familiar streets of Soho had been turned into a battlefield.

This is not really my story. I was no more than a horrified onlooker. But details keep coming back to me and I start from sleep in a state of sick dread. That is the difference between reading about terrible events - whether a terrorist attack or the Nato bombing raids on Yugoslavia - and experiencing even a small part of them. In violent times such as ours, we get used to reading about atrocities. But some things remain beyond words. They are, perhaps, beyond our comprehension.