Friday, July 08, 2005

Gibraltar bomb blast eye-witnesses recall tragedy

By Brian Reyes, Alice Mascarenhas and Dominique Searle

London underground massacre

A young Gibraltarian lawyer whose office is just minutes away from the scene of one of the explosions in London yesterday described how the blast rocked the building where she was at work.

Fiorina Fortunato works for a law firm in Bloomsbury Square, close to where an explosion tore apart a crowded double-decker bus during the height of the morning rush hour.

“The bang from Russell Square, I think, was at 9:45 and it seemed like it was in our building, even though it’s a good 10 minutes to Russell Square,” Ms Fortunato, who was not harmed, told the Chronicle.

The situation around Russell Square was “manic” as police and emergency services descended on the scene of the incident, she said.

And yet other Gibraltarians who were lucky enough not to be caught so close to any of the explosions were initially unaware of the chaos that was unfolding around them.

Some of them suffered delays in their commutes into work but did not think too much of it, putting it down to the often unpredictable nature of London transport.

“I left the house at eight to get to work and weirdly the tube stopped for about 45 minutes between Charing Cross and Piccadilly Circus, then kept going again,” said Kim Loddo, a young architect living in London.

“They said that it was because there was a faulty train at Piccadilly Circus. I changed at Euston as usual and the lights went out as I was on the platform and the escalators stopped. Then they came back on and the announcement said that there had been a power surge.

My train came and I got on, changed at Camden and then they evacuated that station and I walked the rest of the way to the office at Kentish Town.”

Ms Loddo did not dwell on the delays to her journey and only realised what was happening in the British capital when her sister Kelly phoned from Gibraltar 30 minutes later to check if she was alright.

From then on, the phones rang incessantly in the office – at least until the networks started collapsing intermittently – the radios were switched on and the BBC web site was monitored for minute-by-minute news.

It was the same all across London, as people tried to glean whatever information they could from as many different sources as were available.

The news had spread fast on the Rock and people scrambled to phone the UK and check on loved ones and relatives.

Initial reports put the number of blasts at six, though the number later dropped to four, including three in the Underground network and one on a bus.

As the news broke, rumours were rife as to the location of the explosions and the extent of the damage. But much of the attention was focused on central London locations, many of them close to hospitals used by Gibraltarian patients undergoing treatment in London.

Calpe House

“Gibraltar OK,” said Julio Alcantara, former Director of Education, when the Chronicle reached him at Calpe House, where he was staying while his brother recovered from treatment at St Mary’s Hospital.

He first heard of the attacks when St Mary’s called him and told him that out-patients and visitors were to stay away because the hospital was preparing for the emergency and was clearing beds to accommodate any casualties needing urgent treatment.

“Our worst problem was with the cutting off of the mobile telephone network,” Mr Alcantara said.

“We could not receive or make calls, although text messages arrived which we could not reply to. That is very frustrating. People tend to think the worst when they cannot get through to you.”

Calpe House is round the corner from Edgware Road, one of the areas targeted by terrorists yesterday, and many of the injured were taken to St Mary’s.

The usual 10-minute trip to the hospital from Calpe House took Mr Alcantara an hour on foot and he found surgical and other teams with an impressive array of emergency services waiting for patients at the hospital. Out-patients were being turned away.

“Our patients were fine, thank God,” said Mr Alcantara. “I found my family there having coffee and biscuits.”

A few hours later he spoke to the Chronicle, however, Mr Alcantara conveyed the sad news to Gibraltar that one of the nurses looking after his brother in hospital had died in the bus explosion near Russell Square.

Last night, the mood in London was subdued and other residents in Calpe House were staying in for a quiet night. One couple expressed relief that their appointment for treatment at a Russell Square clinic had not been booked for Thursday.

Gibraltar Office

Albert Poggio, Gibraltar’s representative in London was making his way back to London from Brussels when the incident occurred.

He reported that his staff and all known Gibraltarian connections in London had not been directly caught up in the incidents.

The Gibraltar office was being kept open as late as possible as a refuge for any Gibraltarians who might need help as the city ground to a total standstill.

As the hectic confusion of the initial hours began to clear, it was replaced by the uncertainty of the journey home. All across central London, people were left trying to work out how they were going to get home. Roads were closed, police were on the streets and much of the transport system had ground to a halt.

“Most offices are letting employees go home, but that’s if they can figure out how,” said Ms Fortunato at around 2pm London time.

“There are no cabs available. I just tried booking and the first available is for 8pm.”

The last time the Chronicle spoke to her, Ms Fortunato was walking back to her home in Hendon through streets that were heaving with police and emergency services.

The emotional impact of yesterday’s atrocities was sharply heightened by the contrast with Wednesday’s celebrations at news that London had won the contest to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

“By chance I was passing by Trafalgar Square when the Olympic decision was announced,” Mr Alcantara said.

“It was so sad, after that excitement, to go through this sort of excitement today.”

Ms Loddo made a similar observation.

“It’s so strange after the euphoria of yesterday with the Olympic bid success,” she said. “We were all so excited about that.”

Late News:

A Gibraltarian man working in London was caught up in the London bombings but escaped with minor injuries for which he was hospitalised, it emerged last night.

The Chronicle learned, from usually reliable sources, of the incident which occurred as the man was heading for work and was in the Aldgate area.

We are withholding his name pending confirmation of details and his family being informed.


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