I survived: stop asking questions

By <strong>Alice O'Keeffe</strong>

A man took my arm as I staggered, sooty and shaken, out into the daylight outside King's Cross, having spent half an hour trapped in the train listening to screams and breathing in smoke. He led me gently through the crowds of commuters and sat me down on a step. As I looked up to thank him, he stuck out his hand. "I'm a reporter," he said. "Can I ask you a few questions?" Three more figures materialised at his side, clutching notepads and Biros. I was surrounded. I'm a reporter too, I replied. And no, I can't answer any questions. I can barely talk. Leave me alone. He buggered off and left me sitting there.

The callous nature of the encounter didn't surprise me at all - on a different day, I might have been in his shoes and done exactly the same thing. But it was a strange sensation to be on the receiving end. Watching coverage of the bombings on TV later, I thought about all the survivors who had been corralled into giving interviews seconds after emerging from the wreckage of the trains or the bus where they had nearly lost their lives. People who are vulnerable, injured or in shock, and find their misery plastered all over the papers or beamed around the world. As a journalist, I know that personal stories make for gripping news. As a fellow survivor, I thought they deserved more privacy.

Even though I had been directly involved in the attacks, the full horror of what had happened on that train sank in only when I read the Saturday papers. I opened one and was confronted by a graphic description of the conditions in the Piccadilly Line tunnel where I had been trapped. The stench of 20 decomposing bodies, the heat, the rats. All described with a certain relish. Again, the journalist in me recognised a good story. The survivor thought, who needs to know that? What if one of those 20 bodies was your daughter's, your husband's or your friend's? Shouldn't you be allowed to imagine that they had a less horrific, undignified death?

That night, as I was trying and failing to get to sleep, the images whirling around inside my head were not only the ones I had seen on the train. They were also the ones I had seen in the papers. And wasn't that exactly what the terrorists wanted?