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July 7 ten years on: Dr Peter Holden remembers his experience

Euan Ferguson

On July 7, 2005, London was hit by four suicide bombs: three on the Underground and one on a bus. Fifty-two people were killed, and 700 more were injured.

Today, on the tenth anniversary of the bombings, we're publishing first-hand accounts from people who were profoundly involved.

Dr Peter Holden was at the British Medical Association in Tavistock Square when the bomb was detonated on the number 30 bus

‘On July 7 2005 I was supposed to visit the Law Society for a meeting, but my schedule was changed and I had to stay back at BMA House. That was fateful. 

‘At 9.47am I was working on the third floor. Suddenly everything went pink: that was the pressure wave hitting us. Then we heard the bang. There were three or four of us in the room, and we all looked at one another and said: “That has to be a bomb.”

‘I could see a cloud of white smoke and debris; the tree canopy in the square had gone. What else could it be? At that time it hadn’t been officially announced that there had been earlier explosions on the Underground. But I could hear so many sirens in the city, and the Royal London Hospital helicopter was hovering overhead for a long time. The building’s security guy tried to evacuate us, but I said: “We’ve got work to do. We’re staying.” 

‘I’ve been a major incident commander since 1989. I’ve been trained in how to respond to such situations, except normally I’d be deployed to the scene, not be part of it. That day I was the right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Downstairs I found BMA doctors were already bringing casualties into the courtyard – on stretchers made from tabletops, using curtains as bandages. My friend Sam – now Sir Sam Everington – was there too: he said, “Peter, this is your scene. Tell us what to do.”

‘I walked out as far as the gates before I was stopped by a policeman. He said: “There are no live victims out here.” I went back in and started to work out what medical supplies we needed – a quick triage. The decision-making rate is just incredible. They told me later it had rained: I don’t even remember that. 

‘The first ambulance personnel arrived around half past ten and began to ferry people out to hospitals. I’m proud to say that apart from the two who were mortally wounded, everyone who we treated at BMA House left in considerably better shape than when they arrived. The toughest decision of the day was when I invoked what’s called “Priority 4”, which has only been used in a civilian situation in the UK once before. It’s when you decide that someone is so severely injured that they’re not going to survive, no matter what you do. You just put another human being with them and wait. I knew I was going to have to live with that decision for the rest of my life, because it is a “do the most for the most” situation. Twice a week, I walk past the place where I made that decision. That can be hard to live with. 

‘Ten years on, I think it’s changed London; it’s changed medicine. Disaster response is much more advanced, which is a good thing. But the key thing is – and this isn’t disrespect – it’s time for people to move on. Because if we don’t, we don’t take the “terror” out of “terrorism”. They win. It’s a psychological war as well as a physical one.’ 

Image: Rob Greig


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