"When it happened, I immediately knew it was a bomb."
I'm having lunch with Sudhesh Dahad, a survivor of the '7/7' London terrorist attacks, that happened on 7 July 2005. We meet at the Blackfriars edge of the City, where he works for an investment firm. At a glance no one would be able to tell what lies in Sudhesh's past. He looks like a polite, but average, suit in a part of town that's full of people just like him. Despite being in the same carriage as one of the bombers that day, Sudhesh didn't sustain any visible injuries. However, he still deals with the mental trauma every day.
"Just like any other day"
"I was on my regular route to work — back in 2005 I was working for an investment manager on Regent Street. My train came into King's Cross from Hertfordshire, just like any other day, and I made my way down to the Underground."
Sudhesh's daily commute took him onto the Piccadilly line. Like many experienced commuters he had a usual set of doors he aimed to get on at — the 'optimum' place to alight. "On that day it was too crowded to get to the usual second set of double doors, so I went to the first set." This might just have saved Sudhesh's life.
The platform was packed, because the Northern line experienced severe delays that morning — which is what led one of the bombers, who'd planned to detonate his bomb on the line, to switch to the number 30 bus. "It was very, very crowded, within half a minute of being on the platform, there was no way I could have left, even if I wanted to change my route."
"Two trains came and went and I couldn't get on because it was so packed. The third one came along and I got bundled along with the surge of the crowd. I ended up squashed up against the door, I wasn't sure it would even be able to close. The doors closed and I was sandwiched in."
Some version of hell
"Within a few seconds of the doors closing and the train leaving the station, it felt like three things happened all at the same time." There was a "popping" sound. There was the darkness. And the train came to a complete stop.
"I found myself thrown onto the floor... even though a few seconds earlier I couldn't even move."
"When it happened, I immediately knew it was a bomb. I didn't have any doubts, because since the Iraqi invasion and all the media coverage around terrorism, I felt that London would be a target. The tube is a soft underbelly of the city, an easy target."
Despite Sudhesh's immediate understanding of what happened, he says: "I didn't know if I was really there or not. I thought that I wasn't really there, it was just a nightmare. Even though I knew it would always happen, I never expected that I would be there."
I immediately knew it was a bomb
Eventually he realised what he faced was incredibly real. "Some dim lights were on from people's mobile phones. I saw from these lights shadows along the floor, and I could hear screaming. Lots of different people screaming."
"It felt quite surreal." Looking back on it now, Sudhesh compares the scene to illustrations of Dante's Inferno by Gustav Doré. "It felt like a scene from hell." Just for a moment, that's where Sudhesh thought he was. "But then I realised I was awake and alive. I realised it was real."
"My next thought was to try and get off the train as soon as possible because of my daughter — who was only five or six years old at that time — I had to get back to her. I had survived and I didn't know that anybody had been killed — I didn't put two and two together, that there were people not moving in the carriage, I didn't think that they might be dead. I could still see people alive and I thought 'if this was a proper thought out terrorist attack, we wouldn't be alive and there must be more to come.'"
"I was worried about some sort of secondary thing, be that a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon. I thought we were all severely at risk of something. So when the smoke started drifting down — it might have been soot rather than smoke — I didn't know what it was. I tried hitting at the tube doors — it was futile really there was no way I was going to break the doors with my fist."
"After 10 or 15 minutes, the driver was able to communicate with us and said if we were able to, we could leave the train through the carriage at the front and walk towards Russell Square." After a protracted day spent in a shell-shocked city, Sudhesh's brother was able to get in contact with him and drive him home.
He didn't have any pressing physical injuries, just a perforated ear drum and some small bits of glass in his skull, which he got checked out at the hospital after he got home. Later he discovered a serious spinal injury that needed attending to.
Throughout our conversation Sudhesh never appears upset, or overly-affected by revisiting such harrowing memories. He maintains a calm tone throughout his recollections, and although he has a tendency to shoot off on a tangent, is confident, presumably from the many times he has told this story.
"I didn't go back into the office during rush hour for a few weeks." He travelled at other times of day always keeping his distance from the tube, finding alternative routes. The first time he took the tube again came two weeks later.
"On that day I was coming into work late, just to meet with Scotland Yard, to give a statement. I had no intention of using the tube. There was a neighbour who I'd never spoken to before, he was walking to the station at the same time. We got talking, I told him what had happened and that I was going to walk to Piccadilly Circus. He said, 'Don't worry I'll come with you on the tube.'"
Even now I don't use the tube unless I really have to
This wasn't in rush hour, and everything seemed OK. "I got to work and started giving my statement, when the detective's phone started going off." It was the 21 July, and the police officer's phone was buzzing with news of the second, failed, attack.
"So after that, I didn't go back on the tube until at least 2006." Between the attack and that point, Sudhesh got taxis or would even walk the two miles from King's Cross to Piccadilly in the morning. He started using the tube again only as a last resort, if the weather was bad and he'd forgotten an umbrella.
"Even now I don't use the tube unless I really have to — if I'm short of time." Nowadays Sudhesh works in Blackfriars and can get all the way to work using National Rail services; he takes Thameslink to City Thameslink station. Despite the fact that his commute on Thameslink takes him beneath central London in tunnels, he's unaffected by this, and doesn't make a connection to the tube.
"I'll use the tube at off peak times when it's not crowded. If it's excessively crowded I won't use it. If I really have to use it when it's crowded, it's very uncomfortable, sometimes I feel like a panic attack might be coming on. There have been quite a few times in the last 13 years where I've got on the tube, and I've felt so uncomfortable that I had to get off. It still happens sometimes."
It's not just overcrowding that can trigger a panic attack for Sudhesh. "It could be a combination of fine weather — as it was on 7/7, which was a very hot day — and massive crowds." Another trigger for Sudhesh relates to the fact that 7/7 happened the day after London won the 2012 Olympic bid. Now, good news is another trigger. "If there's some really good news [personal or public] and the weather is fine, then I might start to feel nervous."
Talking through trauma
Sudhesh has spoken many times about his experiences both in public and in interviews like this one, and this has helped him work through his trauma. "I don't know exactly how — a lot of people find it quite cathartic to speak about their experience in public. I don't understand the process, why it helps."
"One way I find it helps me — and I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing — is the more you tell a story the more detached you come from it. It just becomes a story. I hope that's not the case because it would be sad if that's the reason I'm telling the story."
"Another way in which it helps me: every time I tell the story, at least one person contacts me afterwards and tells me, 'Well said, that really helped me.' Whenever I speak up, I feel like I'm helping somebody else." He's not just talking about survivors of 7/7, but anyone who's suffered any sort of traumatic shock. He downplays the importance of this calling it a "selfish" motivator, when in reality doing something to help others is the complete opposite.
Today, Sudhesh is in regular contact with other survivors of 7/7. "When you've shared an experience like that with somebody else, even if you didn't know each other — the fact that you went through it and then were able to talk about it to each other afterwards — it helps to form a type of bond that you just don't form with other people. There's an automatic understanding of each other at a certain level."
"Some of them are like a second family, we're always available to each other if we're going through something difficult. I've been to celebrations, birthdays, weddings of fellow survivors." Though Sudhesh does not speak for any of them, and though everyone has their own unique reactions to trauma, he finds that their lives have changed in similar ways to his.
After every terrorist attack, one major viewpoint emerges. That we should not live in fear, because that's letting the terrorists win. It's a noble stance, but how realistic is that, especially for those who've survived terrorism?
It's an ideal situation where you live fearlessly
"We should try and lead our normal lives as much as possible, but to say that we shouldn't live in fear is a difficult one. It's an ideal situation where you live fearlessly, and it's easy to say we should do this for people who've never directly been affected. But when you have been, the risk calculation changes completely. It might be irrational, but you do start seeing more risks everywhere, and you behave in a way that mitigates those risks for you."
"I don't think there's anything wrong with changing the way you live as a result [of terrorism]. What is a shame, is if you stop enjoying your life as a result of it."
Hear Sudhesh and other survivors of 7/7, 9/11 and the 2017 London Bridge attacks speak about their experiences at the Imperial War Museum event Conflict Cafe: Life After Terror, an open discussion about how people can move past trauma. The event is free and takes place on 12 May 2018.
If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact the Samaritans by phoning 116 123.