Inquest judge to rule on London transit bombings

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Posted: May 05, 2011 10:37 AM
Inquest judge to rule on London transit bombings

David Gardner was brushing up on his Shakespeare. Martine Wright was reading a newspaper on her morning commute.

They and others remember a pop, a flash, then dust, darkness, body parts and horror _ a scene likened by one witness to a trench during World War I.

A judge will deliver her findings Friday at the inquest for 52 people killed in the July 7, 2005 bombings on London's transit system, the deadliest terrorist attack on British soil.

Judge Heather Hallett will almost certainly find that the commuters were unlawfully killed by four British Muslim men, inspired by Osama bin Laden, who blew themselves up on three subway trains and a double-decker bus during the morning rush hour.

While that verdict will be no surprise, Hallett will also make recommendations on how to avoid future deaths. She is likely to propose changes to emergency response procedures and could criticize Britain's domestic intelligence agency, which had two of the bombers under surveillance but failed to stop the attacks.

The inquest hearings themselves have been a revelation, offering a detailed picture of a horrific day in all its pain, terror, drama and poignancy. The sessions reawakened memories of the attacks _ stirred further this week after the killing of bin Laden by U.S. special forces _ and provided both pain and comfort for survivors and relatives of the dead.

"One of the good things about this inquest is that it has made us close, that we were in it together and that it wasn't a godforsaken place down there," said Gardner, who lost a leg in the bombing at Edgware Road subway station.

"There were a lot of good people," he told the BBC.

In Britain, inquests are fact-finding inquiries held whenever a person dies violently or under unusual circumstances. They can't establish civil or criminal liability, but their recommendations to prevent future deaths carry considerable weight.

The July 7 hearings _ actually 52 simultaneous inquests _ were a monumental undertaking, involving five months of testimony starting in October. The 309 witnesses included some of the 700 people who were injured and fellow commuters who stopped to help, along with police officers, firefighters and ambulance workers.

One of the first witnesses was a policeman named Detective Inspector Ewan Kindness. Maybe it was a sign. The kindness, usually of strangers, was a recurring theme.

Gardner, an amateur actor who was going over lines for his role as Brutus in "Julius Caesar" when the bomber struck, was helped by a fellow passenger and a policeman who staunched his blood and talked to him. He gave his baby daughter the middle name Jane, after the paramedic who treated him.

Wright, who lost both her legs in the bombing at Aldgate station, recounted how she was comforted by a stranger, off-duty police officer Elizabeth Kenworthy, who used her corduroy jacket as a tourniquet, held her hand and waited with her for an hour until help arrived.

"I know in my head that she saved my life," said 38-year-old Wright, who has become one of the highest profile, and inspiring, survivors of the attacks. Despite double amputation, many operations and months in hospital, she has since married, had a son and become a member of the national sitting volleyball team. She hopes to compete at the 2012 Paralympic games.

Kenworthy, who also helped save another passenger, was honored by Queen Elizabeth II for her actions.

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her," Wright said after giving evidence at the hearings. "People like that don't come round a lot. Thank God she was there."

There were details that shocked the courtroom at London's High Court to silence. Daniel Biddle, who lost both legs, his left eye, his spleen and 87 pints of blood, told the court how doctors "removed my door keys (and) about 7.40 pounds worth" of change from his body.

"And I've got a 20 pence piece lodged in my thigh bone still," he said.

Investment banker Philip Duckworth, who was standing so close to bomber Shehzad Tanweer that he was blown out of the train, told the inquest he had lost his left eye to "a fragment of the bomber's shinbone."

The judge told him he had "reduced us all to silence."

"It's an astonishing story," Hallett said. "The idea that you could be so close to the bomb, be blown out of the carriage and still be here to tell your story is just amazing."

Duckworth replied simply that he was "very lucky"

Alongside tales of courage amid the carnage, the hearings revealed failures in the emergency response _ confusion, shortages of first aid supplies, radios that did not work underground.

Victims' families want Hallett to propose changes to the way emergency services respond to crises, and tighter restrictions on the sale of hydrogen peroxide, a common household chemical that was one of the main ingredients in the bombs.

The inquest also asked difficult questions _ and got partial answers _ about whether the attacks could have been prevented.

A senior officer from thee MI5 intelligence service gave evidence anonymously, and said that while two of the bombers had been on the agency's radar, they could not have been stopped.

Although officials initially said they had no advance knowledge of the bombers, inquiries revealed that two of them, Mohammed Siddique Khan and Tanweer, had been under surveillance as part of an investigation into an earlier, foiled, bomb plot.

They were never pursued because officials were overwhelmed with other threats perceived to be more serious. Some victims' families say only a full public inquiry can answer their questions about the intelligence failures.

Graham Foulkes, whose 22-year-old son David died in the Edgware Road bombing, said "we didn't get the answers to the questions we wanted" from the MI5 witness.

"So there is still a sense that there are some important questions that need to be asked and answered that the inquest didn't address," he said.

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Online: http://7julyinquests.independent.gov.uk/index.htm

Jill Lawless can be reached at http://twitter.com/JillLawless