I often stay at the Britannia Hotel in Canary Wharf in the docklands. As 2016 marked twenty years since the bombing I decided to visit again. As the skies pastel shades and the weather was clement I strolled into the buzzing night life that goes on afoot the sky-scrapers. The bistros, cafés and restaurants were busy with people sitting outside as well inside. I strolled around listening to some Genesis, day-dreaming and people-watching. I was surprised to see so many city people out on Friday night (still in suits and yielding briefcases.) Don’t most people want to go home on Fridays and rest from a week’s travails?
I enjoyed just tootling around, analysing the body language of people, trying to guess their countries of origin. Most of the impressive financial buildings were empty except for porters playing games on the phones but I noticed three chauffeurs in three limos waiting for their gaffers.
One night in 1996 this place was blasted into millions of pieces. On 9th February 1996 the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) parked a benign-looking truck near the railway bridge, sent a coded message to the police saying a bomb would explode in 90 minutes. The blast rendered £150 million of structural damage, killed two people, injured over 100 and marred some permanently.
I can remember seeing bombing on the 6, o, clock news and guessed it was about 12 years ago. It was twenty years ago though – blimey 20 years. Time only goes slow in your dreams when you’re dangling naked upside down in school assembly. In February this year a memorial service was held near where the benign-looking truck was parked and twenty doves were released.
Knowing I was stopping at the docklands area I had printed off some photos of the buildings the day after the bombing. Now, walking around, I decided to see if I could identify the buildings now. The docklands was mostly a business hub twenty years ago but now many of the skyscrapers there now are people’s homes (with binoculars you can zoom into their television to see what they’re watching or if they’re wearing an embarrassing onesie. An young Asian man interrupted one of my saluting photos to ask where the Marriot Hotel was and I guess he was still a little tadpole twenty years ago and never knew of the bomb.
I strolled around but couldn’t match up any of the structures in the photos with the building before me. Most of the skyscrapers had been glass but surely the metal infrastructure would exist? I found a nosey man in a security uniform who saw the papers in my hand. I thought I’d quench his nosiness and spread the photos out on a low brick wall. I was on the wrong site of the building but he said the bomb had been so powerful most of the buildings had been demolished and re-built.
I went back round to Marsh Wall Road and, comparing printed-out photos, found the approximate spot where the flatbed truck had been left. Two days before the bombing it had been brought over from Northern Ireland on a ferry, someone had driven it 300 miles and parked it just where the railway crosses the quay. It had been adapted to house a 1400 kg bomb fitted with a timer and device which would set off the bomb if hands tampered with it.
The driver pressed a switch inside the cab at 5:01pm knowing within two hours it would explode. Meanwhile an IRA made at least six telephoned warnings about the bomb using a code word only know to the security forces. Police arrived by 6pm, evacuated people, cordoned off the area and cleared it of vehicles. With only 13 minutes to go the police officers found the truck.
The bombed exploded on Friday night at 7:01pm. The IRA normally attacked military and political targets but this time their aim was to ravage the economy and cause so much disruption the British government would negotiate a withdrawal from Northern Ireland (this wasn’t their first bomb – in 1992 they detonated one in the Baltic Exchange which killing three people and causing £800 million worth of damage.)
Waves of pressure and debris from the bomb shattered nearly every pane of glass into trajectory. The dark winter sky light up. The Canary Wharf Tower shook. Billowing smoke made the place look like a battlefield. Around the 10m crater where the truck was parked was now a scene from an apocalypse. Two men in the newsagent (near where I am stood in photo) were blown through two walls and killed. 39 people needed hospital treatment immediately. A man in a nearby car spent two weeks in a coma and suffered permanent brain damage. A leaking gas pipe caused a second explosion.
Though the truck no longer existed three thumb prints were obtained from a site in east London where the bomb was primed, a café in Carlisle and from the Stranraer ferry port (CCTV tracked the truck’s journey.) The thumb prints did not match police records but the following year the Special Air Service captured an IRA sniper team in South Armagh. James McArdle’s fingerprints matched and in 1998 he was convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions and sentenced to 25 years in prison (another 25 years was added for being a member of the sniper team.) Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement he was released in June 2000.
One night I walked up to the local shop for some milk (don’t like those thimbles of cream they leave in the rooms) and went in the re-built newsagents. I touched the wall and thought about the two men had been blown through two walls. On the way back to the hotel I crossed over to walk over the area where the truck had been parked. Not really sure why. Will it be because these events will be written in History’s ledger forever but I’ll be gone in other fifty years? Mmmm….not really sure why.
Touching the bridge that was quickly reopened…
The railway bridge was quickly rebuilt All these windows would have been shattered…
The bridge works okay now…
A dove being released at the 20-year memorial service….
We will always bounce back from terrorism…
The docklands these days (I’m the one saluting)…that dude in the car ruined my shot so I ruined him with a shot…