By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 24, 2005
The flowers disappeared quietly one night, while a wounded city slept.
A midnight work crew dismantled the makeshift shrine to London's bomb victims at King's Cross Station, where the spontaneous tribute had blossomed on a patch of sidewalk in the heart of the terror zone. It was time, officials had decided, to move on.
No announcement was made; no protest raised.
The clean sweep of hundreds of bouquets and cards and crayoned drawings offered a startling reminder of just how complicated the public grieving process has been for Britain's capital.
Yet even as the capital shuddered beneath a fresh wave of smaller attacks Thursday afternoon, the most tangible signs of the city's suffering, like the flowers at King's Cross, continued to vanish -- were taken down, bustled away, tucked aside.
With most of the carnage and destruction buried deep beneath the ground in subway tunnels where three of the four bombs exploded, Londoners have no visible equivalent of a Ground Zero. In many ways, their pain is hidden away, as well.
"There are several layers to the effect this is having on people," said Janet Haddington, a Westminster city social worker who has been counseling bereaved families, stunned survivors and citizens who felt traumatized by the July 7 attacks that left 56 dead and hundreds more injured.
"There is a resilience around, a kind of intent not to let the bombers triumph," she said. But the outward pluck disguises the private suffering. Hotlines set up to help citizens cope with the trauma hear from people too afraid to take public transportation, from those who missed a train and wonder why fate spared them.
"A lot of people need to be very gentle with themselves right now," Haddington said.
Public books of condolence are being officially archived, tribute bouquets are being shuttled from park to park near the various bombing sites as city and government officials ponder where and how to memorialize the victims. Most funerals have been private, and brief eulogies from stricken families are issued at the bottom of police press releases announcing that the coroner has officially declared someone dead.
The survivors, considered witnesses, stay out of the public eye. Even the news photo that became most emblematic of the wounded portrayed no expression -- just the eerie white gel mask over the face of a young woman burned by the explosion.
The only visible ruin from the tragedy -- the bombed-out bus on Tavistock Square -- is also gone, hauled away by police who finished collecting their forensic evidence and closed down the crime scene. It was that red No. 30 bus that became an enduring image of these attacks, photographed by the world media with its top deck twisted and shorn, and its side panel still advertising a horror film called "Descent." A reviewer's words on the ad became a killer's taunt: "Outright terror. Bold and brilliant."
Officially, Londoners acknowledged what had happened to them without words. Two minutes of silence a week after the bombings brought the bustling city to a dignified halt, telling the world what they felt not with words but with stillness.
But the search for some touchstone to this tragedy became obvious at King's Cross.
Even people walking right over the subway blasts "didn't hear or feel anything," recalled P.J. Taylor, a spokesman for the British national railway network, whose office was just a few blocks from the two worst attacks. "The first indication we had of anything was smoke rising from the Underground."
Within two days, Taylor said, he noticed that flowers were piling up so high they were nearly blocking the main entrance to the King's Cross Station. "I guess people flocked there for the simple fact that more people died there." Taylor arranged to open the iron gates to a tiny trapezoid of land the railway owned at the side of the terminal -- just a cement plot with a lonely tree and a brick wall bearing a Harry Potter plaque.
Smaller floral tributes had sprung up, too, on church steps and in small parks near the other bombing sites across London, but King's Cross became the main pilgrimage site. Small flags from around the world began to share the space with mounds of freesias and roses and lilies, while handwritten messages of loss and sympathy papered Harry Potter's wall. "Stand tall," wrote a 10-year-old English girl named Emily. "To the cowards who did this, we are not afraid," wrote a London policeman.
Visitors came to slowly circle the tiny yard, crouching to read the cards on the bouquets still in their cellophane wrappers. Nestled in the growing pile were the small stuffed bears and bunnies left to comfort. Railway chaplains and clergy from nearby churches took turns standing by quietly to offer solace if needed. Red Cross volunteers in crisp uniforms circled in pairs with boxes of tissue for those moved to tears. A sense of grief contained and efficiently managed prevailed.
"You can make the leap that it sums up the British psyche," said Taylor. The stoicism, Taylor surmised, comes from a sad familiarity. "We were bombed by the Nazis and the IRA," he pointed out.
David Golovner, a New Yorker who lost his best friend, Minh Matsushita, in the attacks, said he was drawn to King's Cross even as rescuers continued to dig for Minh's body. He longed to stand on the ground above the mangled subway car where his friend was entombed, but quickly realized "I would be in the middle of the street."
He went to the tiny memorial, instead, to shed his tears.
Now, the iron gates are closed again, and the flowers have disappeared.
"This is one of the big cross-hubs of London, and there's a lot of construction going on, so it can't stay here forever," Taylor explained. For the time being, officials wanted to shift the various impromptu memorials to Embankment Gardens in Westminster, well away from any of the bombing sites. The blossoms that weren't already wilted at King's Cross were being divided between a local church and a mosque, railway officials said.
The cards, letters and condolence book were to go to the mayor's office, which planned in turn to have them archived along with similar mementos from the other sites. In years to come, scholars might find, then, the drawing of a Palestinian flag with its message of solidarity, but might not know that it was on a wall with an Israeli flag bearing similar hopes. They might find quotes copied from the Koran and perhaps not realize how close they were to the printout of the peace prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.
Quiet history will be made of the condolences a little girl from Texas addressed to the queen, asking her to please write back. And how will they preserve the delicate paper chain of origami cranes that fluttered on a branch of that solitary tree alongside King's Cross?
With the flowers gone, the only reminder of what happened at King's Cross is found on a blue wall surrounding the construction zone for the station's new concourse. In the days following the bombings, it was filled with the fliers left by desperate families and friends.
Now just a few posters remain, Xerox ghosts, and the urgent descriptions become fleeting eulogies: Rachelle was wearing a smart dark pantsuit and frameless glasses, Karolina carried a mobile phone with a screensaver of falling autumn leaves, Phil was a hairdresser who had dyed his hair red and black.
People rush by without looking. No one is missing anymore.
They are all lost.