London nail bombs: The two weeks that shattered the capital

It is 10 years since David Copeland planted nail bombs in Brixton, the East End and Soho, spreading destruction and fear. For those who felt the full force of his prejudices, life would never be the same again

Lena Corner
Sunday 12 April 2009 00:00 BST

On Friday, it will be 10 years since a nail bomb went off outside a busy supermarket in Brixton. No one died, but 45 people were injured and a nail embedded itself into the skull of a two-year-old boy. The bomb, containing up to 1,500 four-inch nails, had been left in a holdall and was spotted by a market trader who tried to move it to safety moments before it went off.

Exactly a week later, the bomber struck again – this time at the centre of London's Bangladeshi community on Brick Lane. Seven people were hurt. The following Thursday, on a balmy spring night in Soho, the kind of evening that draws people out on to the streets for a drink, a third bomb went off. This time, the deadly holdall had been placed at the heart of the gay community, in the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street. The bomber had obviously honed his technique, because this one proved deadly. Two people died at the scene, including 27-year old Andrea Dykes, who was four months' pregnant. Another, John Light, who had been best man at her recent wedding, died later in hospital.

For a while, the capital felt under siege. Debate raged over who the nail bomber was, what his motives were and where he would strike again. A new, intense vigilance for unattended holdalls arose and a distinct sense of comradeship broke out between strangers, unusual among Londoners.

The police investigation was swift. After studying reams of CCTV footage from each attack, by early May detectives were able to swoop down on a house in Hampshire belonging to 23-year old electrician David Copeland. During his trial, it emerged that Copeland considered himself a Nazi and believed in a master race; psychiatrists diagnosed him as having paranoid schizophrenia. He was found guilty and received six life sentences, which he is serving at Broadmoor Hospital.

The fallout from Copeland's campaign continues to this day. There was widespread horror when the news broke in 2006 that David Morley, an Admiral Duncan barman who had helped the injured out of the pub, had been brutally murdered on London's South Bank by a group of "happy slappers". And although Andrea Dyke's husband has now remarried, he has, understandably, never spoken of the horrific events of 1999. So it is left to others – the injured, the police, the medical workers and the bystanders – to tell their stories here. n

The medic

Gus McGrouther, professor of plastic surgery

"I was working in University College Hospital at the time and was just doing a walk around when someone phoned me up from A&E and said a bomb had gone off in Soho and the victims would be coming in. The hospital switchboard was immediately jammed, so I got on my mobile and started phoning around to try and summon some colleagues. We were able to mobilise huge resources very quickly and by the time the patients started coming in we'd managed to round up about a dozen surgeons and a dozen anaesthetists.

"The patients all had severe blast injuries. Most of them were bleeding and many had limbs hanging off them – legs mostly. There were a lot of burns as well and several were unconscious. They were all cleaned up and taken to theatre within two hours of arriving. We had to amputate quite a number of limbs.

"It was after the operations that the trouble really started. Blast damage from nail bombs creates countless injuries. One or two of the patients probably had more than 1,000 wounds; you just couldn't count them. In the days after they all started to bleed because they had what's called a coagulopathy, which means their blood isn't able to clot any more. One patient unfortunately bled to death because he had multiple injuries to his head and both legs. He was unconscious. Another patient had to be given 200 pints of blood in a week. You only have eight to start with, so that gives you an idea of how much he was losing. He had 35 operations and was in hospital for 15 months but ultimately survived.

"I was in the hospital for 72 hours from the day the bomb went off and was there every night until 11 o'clock for the next month. I got to know all of the patients intimately. There was one who recovered some days later and we had to tell him that his wife and unborn child had been killed in the blast. That was horrific. The measure of devastation to these people's lives from one insane individual was just enormous.

"I think it affected every person in the hospital. Everyone was emotionally devastated by the terrible waste. Bombs are an untargeted, malicious and cowardly way of waging war or making a point, because you've got absolutely no control over who you'll kill. I think that when there's a natural accident, a train crash or something, people have a certain level of acceptance, but when people are victims of a terrorist outrage due to one unbalanced individual, it's much more difficult to come to terms with it.

"I still feel tremendous compassion for the victims. I've kept in touch with some of them for several years and still occasionally meet up with one or other of them. The ones with the worst injuries have shied out of the media limelight. All of these people will carry scars forever. Some have been badly physically distressed ever since and I often wonder how their lives can continue to go ahead with such a horrific memory behind them." '

The volunteer

Andy Wapling, 36, head of emergency planning for the health service for London and a St John Ambulance volunteer

"I was working full-time for St John Ambulance at the time and was driving home when I started hearing things on the radio about something happening in the West End. Normally, there can be disruption on a Friday night but something felt different about this. I pulled in and phoned our call officer, Dave Bell. He told me a bomb had just gone off.

"I turned the car round and headed up to Soho Square. What I noticed straight away was there were about 25 injured people in the square and just one policeman, who was obviously anxious and overwhelmed. I said to him, 'Hang on in there, I'll get some help.' It was evident that the critically injured were still on Old Compton Street and a lot of the moderately injured had been carried or managed to walk to the square. It was agreed that we would stay there and try to clear casualties by either treating them on the spot or sending them to hospital.

"I remember the scene well; it looked like something out of a war film. I've been to other bomb scenes but I'd never seen anything on this scale. One chap must have been quite close to the blast because he had flash burns and the first couple of layers of the skin on his face were peeling off.

"There were some very scared, shocked people there. There wasn't any panic or confusion, it almost felt calm, but you could see the fear in people's eyes. This was never supposed to happen in the West End on a sunny Friday night. There was also a lot of anxiety; some people didn't want to leave until they had found their friends. We had to say to them, 'Actually, you need to go to hospital to get yourself sorted out first.'

"I went into automatic pilot and became completely focused. It was immediately afterwards that it really started coming home to me. Once the square was cleared of patients, it was full of debris – bandages, jackets and bags strewn across the grass. That's when it began to hit me.

"On my journey home, when I was on my own for the first time afterwards, it was a very emotional moment. I shed some tears and I thought about what had happened – all these people meeting up for a drink and all of a sudden their life was changed or finished. It was a turning point for me. I stayed in emergency planning because of it. There will always be crackpots and individuals with grudges, we just have to learn to do the best for the most. I can still see Copeland's face, but weirdly I can never remember his first name."

The firefighter

Cathie Reeve, 42, operational station manager

"I was a firefighter at both Brixton and Soho. At Brixton, I was one of the first to arrive and there were a lot of very distressed and very confused people wandering around. There were sirens and alarms going off everywhere but there was also a weird sense of quietness.

"I dealt with quite a few of the casualties. There was a young man who couldn't see, he was completely and utterly covered in blood. He came stumbling towards me, so I sat him down and started dealing with his injuries. Once I had done that I was able to move on to the next casualty.

"From a personal point of view, it was extremely upsetting to see so many people distressed and confused. People simply didn't know what was going on. Why should they? The police quickly managed to set up a restricted area and tried to get people away. We were worried a secondary device may go off.

"Three weeks later I was sent to Soho in the middle of the night, some time after the bomb had gone off, to relieve someone who had been on duty for hours. I am gay myself and I knew it was the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual community that was being targeted. My partner, who I hadn't met at the time, was working just across the road from the Admiral Duncan when the bomb went off. She said it was horrific, the shop completely filled with smoke. I found it hard to believe that someone was targeting my community in such a horrifying way. I was deeply, deeply hurt."

The bystander

Rachel Manley, 36, mother

"I was walking along the road in Brixton with my flatmate Tara; I think we'd popped out to get a paper and a few other bits and bobs. I can't even remember what time of day it was, but we were just walking past Iceland when suddenly there was this enormous noise. It was totally disorientating. I didn't know if it was right behind me or a mile away.

"What followed was like slow-motion film happening right in front of my eyes. I'm not sure if this did actually happen, but I think I remember the windows blowing out of all of the shops. It all happened really quickly, but immediately after the deafening noise, everything just seemed to stop and this deathly silence took over. Shortly after that I think I heard the word 'bomb' and I started to run. I pegged it. I'm not sure what direction I went in, just any direction. Because I couldn't work out where the noise was coming from, I didn't know if I was running towards the bomb or away from it. I couldn't work out where my friend was either. I just remember thinking there could be another one and just running and running.

"I ended up sprinting all the way back to our flat and found Tara already there. She had done exactly the same. It's a bit weird because I thought I may have turned and grabbed on to Tara or tried to help those caught up in the bomb, but I didn't. The adrenaline rush is amazing. It was incredibly instinctive. I was a bit shocked that that was my reaction. I wasn't a heroine that day, that's for sure.

"The whole thing just made me shake and shake. It's funny how my mind dealt with the situation [below]. I lost my hold on everything. It was all a complete blur. I don't have any images in my head of people or faces or injuries. All I can remember are the broken windows.

"Weirdly, it was only when I watched it on the news that night that I was able to piece it all together – that was how I came to understand the facts of what happened. There was a child with shrapnel injuries deeply ingrained in their head. I was able to watch it totally dispassionately because it felt like a completely different event. I didn't even think, 'Wow I'm so lucky.' I just felt as if I had never even been there. '

The policeman

Sir Hugh Orde OBE, Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland

"I was head of crime in south-west London when the first explosion went off. A call came in the afternoon saying a bomb had gone off in Brixton. There hadn't been a bomb in London for years and I remember thinking, 'What on earth is that about?' I headed straight up there.

"I did a press conference at the scene of the bombing. The attention was huge and the one question I got was, 'Was this a racist attack?' I said I thought it probably was. It was one of those calls you make where you simply have to rely on your judgement. There was no logic for a bomb in Brixton and, at this stage, David Copeland wasn't known to the police. It just seemed logical. We were proved right. This man went on to target the gay community in Soho and the Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane. He just hated anyone who wasn't him.

"Obviously, it all became more serious as the other crimes followed. We had police officers ploughing through miles and miles of video-tape 24 hours a day. In the end it was all down to bloody good police work. Someone spotted Copeland in one video image carrying something and then in another empty-handed. We released a picture of him in a baseball cap going into Brixton Underground.

"It's always a hard decision whether to release a picture, because you're always going to be inundated with information and the job then is to sift through it. We did get one call, though, from a member of the public, and the officer who took it just felt instinctively it was important and knew we needed to act quickly. Again, it was just good, simple detective work. Members of the Flying Squad went down to Copeland's house in Hampshire and arrested him. The evidence they found there was damning.

"My mortal fear throughout this whole investigation was simply that more people would die. It's hard to talk about emotion because, with these things, you just do the job you are trained to do. It was clear to us that the person responsible was a lunatic and these are the most difficult crimes to solve. Copeland was acting alone and he didn't have a history. He just wasn't on the same planet as us."

The local businessman

Leo Epstein, shop owner, Brick Lane

"I first heard about the attack when my son drove over to my house in Hendon after hearing a news report. We went dashing down there, showed the police our IDs and they let us through to take a look at our shop. The whole front was smashed in, the shutters were broken and there was glass everywhere.

"The bomb did a lot of superficial damage to nearby shops, including ours, but luckily nobody was seriously hurt because on a Saturday everything is closed round here; it's a tradition going back to when it was a Jewish area, where everything would close for the Sabbath. It was very lucky. But when we came back on Sunday morning to open up, the police had cordoned off the whole area, so we couldn't get near it. For the first time in my life, we didn't open for business. I felt annoyed – I wanted to start clearing up and getting on with it.

"We all trade with open doors on Brick Lane, so on Monday morning, when they let us go back, we all stood around looking at the damage and talking about it. It was like the Blitz spirit, people were coming round and saying to me, 'We've got builders in doing some work on our shop, do you need anything done?'

"I've been here for 52 years and I know everybody, and we're good friends. As I'm the last Jewish trader in Brick Lane, many of the Asian shop owners come in from time to time and say, 'Oh good, you're still here, why don't you come and have a meal on us.' You can't exist if you don't get on with everybody else.

"It was, in a way, a weirdly pleasant time to see how everyone pulled together. The next few days weren't quite business as usual – people were a little worried about coming down as they thought there might be a follow-up attack, but it got back to normal soon afterwards. I lived through the war here, so the attack wasn't really that big a deal."

The concerned citizen

Morgan Tindall, 33, market-stall holder

"I was just up the road when the Brick Lane bomb went off. I went straight to the scene to see if I could help. I ended up comforting a woman who was shaking uncontrollably. She wasn't sure what her injuries were and was panicking.

"It's weird, because I had a friend who was caught up in the Brixton bomb as well and so I had become a bit obsessed with the whole nail-bomb campaign over the course of the summer. I remember endlessly discussing where he or they would strike next. And when the police released the picture of Copeland, I really did scour the streets looking out for him.

"So to be there when he struck again felt a bit like karma or something. The police seemed to catch him quickly. I remember being horrified that he was my age at the time of his campaign. I still have his mugshot in my head – he looks like any one of my mates, but that one slightly closed eye makes him more sinister." n

The injured

Mark Munday, 31, graphic designer

"I was 21 at the time and had moved to London quite recently. My friend had come down from Manchester to visit me and we were planning a big night out. We were just wandering round Soho. We walked on to Old Compton Street and happened to be going past the Admiral Duncan pub when the window exploded.

"It was horrific. It didn't sound how I would have expected a bomb to sound. I felt the impact rather than heard it. The noise itself didn't seem that immense – I thought it would be a massive boom but it was a dull thwack. The impact went right through me; everyone instantly knew it was a bomb.

"It's hard to work out whether some things I think I remember really happened. So much of what I saw that day is very hard to compute or comprehend. The mangled limbs and stuff just made no sense. It was like in a cartoon when things explode and people's clothes get ripped and shredded. It looked ridiculous. A lot of people barely had any clothes on, because the blast had just blown them all off. I am pretty sure that a man flew out through the window of the pub and across the pavement right in front of us.

"To this day, I don't remember anyone screaming. In fact I can't remember any noise apart from the sirens, possibly because I was deafened from the impact. At first, neither me nor my friend knew how injured we were; we just couldn't tell. We moved away from the pub itself and went and sat in a nearby doorway. The actual pub didn't look like a pub any more, it just looked like a smoke-filled cave.

"It felt like the emergency services were there straight away and suddenly it seemed as if the whole place was swarming with people. I remember my friend saying to me, 'Does this mean we're not going to go out tonight?' I had to say, 'Well, no because all our clothes are ripped and we have to go to hospital.' We've laughed about that since. But what was happening was so far out of our everyday experience that we couldn't understand it.

"We were sitting with a guy whose leg had either blown off or wasn't entirely there. We tried to talk to him and comfort him. Other people were coming up to us and checking we were OK. It turned out I only had lots of tiny cuts and bruises.

"I stayed in my room for days afterwards. My friend came and we just sat there together for days. My family didn't know I was gay at the time, but worked it out after seeing me on the news. So I had to go through the coming-out process at the same time as trying to cope with post-traumatic stress. That was a really hard thing to do and still isn't resolved to this day.

"For months afterwards, I was very nervous. Sometimes walking past certain shops or doorways would trigger stuff and freak me out. I remember walking down Oxford Street not long afterwards and there was a small bang – an electrical explosion or something – and I just went back to the office, went in to the toilets and cried. The bombs in July 2007 brought everything back all over again. I had a panic attack on a bus and tried to force my way off it as it was moving.

"I have discussed it since with my friend but we never over-talked it. It almost becomes an unspoken thing, because what do you say? It happened, it was horrific, people died and we survived. But having experienced what I did on that day, the idea that something terrible can happen at any time, and when you least expect it, doesn't ever leave you."

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