I wasn’t on that train. I could have been, the line is one I use every day. But I wasn’t. I can’t possibly guarantee that I would have behaved well if I had been. I hope I would have done, but, though I have dodged bombs in Belfast during the troubles, I have never been in quite the situation those commuters were faced with last week. Would I have panicked? Would I have done the things I am about to describe? Again, I say I hope I would not. But, and it is an awful thought, maybe I would have.
Before I say more I should make it clear that I am sure many passengers on the train put others before themselves, helped the young and the elderly and did their best to ensure that women and children got out first. But that, sadly, was not the whole picture.
The account I now give comes, largely but not entirely, from a schoolboy friend who was on the train. He is, I think, twelve years-old. I can reveal his story without breaking any confidences because his mother has already paid tribute, on social media, to his courage, and that of the splendid young woman who came to his aid.
Harry was not at the end of the train where the bomb was. He was further up. He was happily chatting to his friends when some schoolgirls on the platform suddenly started screaming and running for the exit. He assumed they were engaging in a childish jape. But, moments later, as the doors of the train re-opened, several women dashed from the train, also screaming. As they headed for the exit from the platform they kicked off shoes and discarded bags. Then the shout went up from further down the train that there was a bomb and a gunman. There was not, of course, a gunman, but that was the message. Pandemonium broke out. The women screamed louder and louder. Large men shoved them, and children, out of their way so as to get away before others. We know that some children were pushed to the ground and trampled on by the terrified men.
Harry, fortunately, was not assaulted. But he was separated from his friends and buffeted by these splendid specimens of British manhood. Eventually he found himself outside with many hundreds of other terrified passengers. He couldn’t see his school friends. Parsons Green was not somewhere he knew. His school banned portable telephones, so he couldn’t contact parents or school. He was on his own in a massive crowd of people who were not inclined to think of anyone but themselves.
There was a happy ending. A young woman saw him and thought of him, not her. She took him under her wing. She used her telephone to ring his distraught father (who had been told about an hour earlier by an older brother that Harry was probably on the train). She then walked with him to his school. It was only about a mile away, but it was not a route he could possibly have known. He had undergone a very frightening experience. He was thoroughly shaken by it. But, thank God, he was otherwise unharmed. The same, the newspapers, tell me, could not be said of another boy at the same school. He was thrown to the ground and trampled on. He is recovering from his injuries, but he will no doubt live with that nightmare for a long time to come.
How could grown men have behaved so despicably? Again, I stress that many almost certainly did not. But far too many did. Yes, they were under the misapprehension that there was a gunman loose on the train. But does that make it all right for adult men to put their own safety above the safety of women and children?
I hope I am never put to the test. But, if I am, I pray I will not behave like those Parsons Green men.