Real Life: A bomb victim's story: When IRA terrorists attacked a London pub 13 days ago, Sef Townsend was there. He is still struggling to come to terms with the experience, as he told Linda Grant

Linda Grant
Saturday 24 October 1992 23:02

A WEEK last Tuesday, the morning after the IRA bomb went off at 1.30pm at the Sussex pub in central London, most newspapers carried an eyewitness account of the carnage from Sef Townsend, described as 'a student, 44'. The 6.30pm regional BBC news ran a live interview with him. People who didn't know him thought he seemed calm, collected, coherent and articulate. Those who knew him well, however, thought he looked in deep shock. A couple of days later, David Heffer, who had been badly injured in the explosion, died, and the story briefly reappeared. But towards the end of the week the news had moved on, and those who had performed for the cameras during the drama of the Sussex bombing returned to obscurity, after a moment of fame as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there were several more scenes still to unfold, as Sef discovered.

Sef Townsend has spent many years travelling. He lived in New Zealand in the Seventies, working as an actor. In the Eighties he became a successful performance artist. Two years ago he began a course in fine art and metalwork at Camberwell Art College and that is where he should have been on the day of the Sussex bombing.

He had been invited to a dress rehearsal of The Magic Flute at the English National Opera at the bottom of St Martin's Lane. A friend had asked him to help him move that morning, but Sef had refused because the dress rehearsal was a pre-arranged date. At the end of the performance he was invited backstage, but Sef got lost in the maze of corridors and by this time was very hungry, so he decided to leave. He'd brought sandwiches with him and he began to make his way to St Giles's churchyard, behind Centrepoint, to eat them.

Just before Long Acre, on the right, he stopped at the NatWest cash till and took out some money. The time on his receipt was 1.23pm. Across the road he noticed some tables outside the Sussex and thought he'd have his lunch there instead.

He chose a table on the corner where he could see the activity on the five roads that converged opposite. He wondered if he should go into the pub and get a drink first and then eat his sandwich or have the sandwich and then get a drink. (Would he be allowed to sit at the table without ordering something from the bar?) He decided to eat the sandwich. When he had finished, he was just about to enter the pub when he saw a man looking at a map. He asked him if he was lost. The man said: 'I know I'm in Long Acre.'

'ALL the things that happened to me after he said that seemed to go on for ages and ages,' he says. 'Time seemed to expand. In the split second before the bomb went off there was this enormous tension, a great calm, like the stillness I used to feel in New Zealand the moment before an earthquake. Then there was this great force, I was moved forwards, and then came the bang. The man with the map said: 'Was that a bomb?' And I said: 'Yes, it was.' I didn't feel immediate shock, because the bomb had gone off and I was still in one piece. But from then on everything became more frightening.'

Sef was now standing amid shattered wood and broken glass. There was an acrid, sulphurous smell in the air and the man with the map had blood on his hand. Out of nowhere, two of Sef's friends from college appeared on the other side of the road. They asked him if he was all right and he said he was. 'One of them said: 'He's shocked, he's shocked.' And I thought: 'I'm not shocked' but I didn't say it. I couldn't say anything.' He found himself being gently led away from the pub, when the sight of an ambulance woke him up. He ran towards it shouting at its occupants to call the police. He was gestured at, as if to say everything was under control.

But there was only one ambulance and two ambulancemen. Sef thought he should do something. As he was about to enter the pub, three Australian girls came out: 'One of them had cut her head and it was bleeding down the side of her face. Another one was a very weird colour, a sort of beige, like my coat, and she was sweating all over her face, holding onto her hand, and her eyes were streaming tears. I think they must have just arrived in London because one of them said: 'What a welcome.' They just walked away, disappeared into the world.'

The man with the map had reappeared and Sef asked him if he was OK. He said he was, but the people inside weren't. They went into the pub: 'I knew it was going to be awful but I was totally unprepared for the smoke, the acrid smell, the total calm. Everything was slow motion. There was no light and in front of me the bar had blown out. In the rubble under it was a man with a green face. He was lying straight, with his arms on either side, like a plank. He looked totally relaxed but his head was moving about two inches from one side to another, like a character in a surreal play. On the other side of the pub was David Heffer. He was leaning on one arm as if he was trying to support himself, trying to get up the way you do after you've fallen off a bicycle. But he had this awful injury to his head where the flying debris had implanted itself.'

Sef was finding it more difficult to move. Unable to do anything, he started to walk out. He was filled with terror and he became rooted to the spot. The man with the map said: 'I'm a nurse and I'm a coward, I went in to help and I couldn't do anything. I'm a coward.' Sef told him he wasn't a coward but he wandered off. By now Sef was terrified that another bomb would be detonated. It was then that the police arrived. 'I heard people shouting: 'Clear the area'. I felt as if I was invisible. I wanted to be cleared but I couldn't clear myself. I couldn't walk but I couldn't speak either. And everything I've described so far could only have taken about a minute.

'Then I found myself on the other side of the road, where the man who had been lying under the bar was sitting under the NatWest till together with the landlord. We heard the police say: 'Keep them, they're witnesses' and then, under their breath: 'Don't let any of them go, they might be terrorists.' It was the sort of thing you hear on television. They'd cordoned off the area and it started filling up with ambulances and police and medical staff. They knew what to do but they didn't know what to do first, so they moved us around, shuffling us from place to place.

'Finally they decided that I should go in the ambulance and I was strapped into a seat - the man with the green face was lying down. There was a very helpful police officer who said: 'I'm Irish. We're not all like that but we do feel it.' In the ambulance I panicked because I was sure another bomb would go off. We were held up by traffic, the sirens going off and not getting anywhere.'

WHEN the ambulance finally arrived at University College Hospital, a plastic ID tag which carried the number 30 was put around Sef's arm and a file with the same number was thrust into his other hand. 'I started saying my name and address endlessly, I don't know how many times. They would come up to me, look in my eyes, ask me if I needed a cup of tea and take my name and address. They came in relays, very caring, but no one person stayed with me and I needed someone. This went on for four hours. I think that's what the treatment for shock is, cups of tea and giving your address. They told me not to go home on my own, to make sure someone was in when I got there, but I wasn't in a position to follow their instructions. They did ask me if I wanted to talk to a friend but I didn't want to upset anyone.' He was anxious about the people in the pub. The man with the green face, he was told, had been temporarily deafened, but his injuries were not serious.

He was beginning to feel that the enormity of what had happened separated him from other people, yet he needed them. The Irish police officer told him he could go home, though he said that if Sef needed to talk he could ring him any time and he gave him his number. Sef walked out of the hospital only to be brought back. The CID wanted to do forensic tests to eliminate him as a suspect, but they needed a sterile comb to run through his hair for traces of explosives, and that took half an hour to find. Sef began to feel suspicious of everyone around him.

When finally he was able to leave, he walked into the arms of the press: 'By the time I came to talk to them I'd already told my story over and over and over, and it seemed as if I had to tell it again. As I started to give one interview, out of nowhere, hundreds of cameras appeared.' A man from BBC's Newsroom Southeast asked him if he would do a live item at 6.30pm. There was an hour to kill and he was taken to a hotel where he was given asparagus soup and smoked salmon sandwiches. They tasted of nothing. He thought how strange it was to be living it up like this when he was in no fit state to enjoy it.

The final question of the interview was: 'What do you think of people who do things like this?' Sef evaded it: 'I felt they were trying to manipulate me into a pat, acceptable answer which I was totally unprepared to give, because it's much more complex than that. I'm appalled and horrified by the outcome of this terrible event, but I wasn't going to let my ideas about that war and the censorship in this country be reduced to a sound-bite. When the item was shown, it was edited in such a way that you'd think I was talking just after the bombing. People thought I was so coherent, as if the bomb hadn't affected me, but it was five hours later.'

By the time he got home, at 7.30pm, his phone was ringing. Some friends told him he'd done very well on television, as if he'd given a performance. He didn't want congratulations, he wanted sympathy, but his own coherence had made his friends think he had recovered quickly. At 2am he rang the Samaritans.

IN the days that followed, Sef found it impossible to get up in the mornings. He would lie in bed for four or five hours. When he did get up, he would find himself in a room without remembering how he got there. He would go to the sink to brush his teeth and stand, looking at it. He went to the baker's and found he couldn't go in. His mind told him: 'This is what you do in the morning, you brush your teeth. This is what you do at a shop, you go in and buy something.' But he couldn't act on that information. He felt floaty, as if he was high on drink or drugs. He began to wonder if the bombing had happened at all. He checked the time on his NatWest till receipt to make sure he really had been there minutes before the blast. He was very worried about the Australian girls and he has tried, without success so far, to make contact with the man with the map. He went back to the Sussex to leave some flowers and sent a card to David Heffer's family. He would have attended the funeral but they wanted it to be quiet.

Back at college, his friends were jokey. They said things like: 'I saw you on TV again last night night. You must have charisma.' Someone else told him he was a star. Another that there was no stopping him now. By the end of last week he had finally met up with one of the students who had seen him immediately after the blast and she told him what she saw: 'Me sitting there, the glass explode out on one side of me and wooden things come out of the other side - as if there was pandemonium all around me, but that this little bit of corner wall was a haven that saved me. And then I knew it really did happen. It was no longer me telling the whole country, not sure if I believed it myself. She gave me a picture of it: it had been so dreamlike, a very quiet nightmare.'

On the Thursday after the bomb, a policewoman from the anti-terrorist branch rang him to see if he was all right. He couldn't tell her how he did feel. It would have taken ages. He had to be convinced that people really wanted to know, that they were giving him the space to tell them what had happened and what it meant. She said that she would put him in touch with a Victim Support Group. 'I haven't heard from them yet,' he said, three days ago. 'I suppose it's been quite a long time.'

(Photographs omitted)

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