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The unsung heroes of 7/7, Time Out

“What affected me more, in a way, was seeing the handbags and the mobile phones scattered everywhere, personal belongings.”

It is a sunny Spring evening. Team Three, Camden, of London Underground’s Emergency Response Unit (ERU) are starting the night shift, checking equipment in their swaying van, lifting heavy generators and drills with ease.

Lee Stephenson, 45, the group’s greying leader with his trim moustache, is working with Brian Hathaway, 46, short-haired and muscular, old tattoos on his arm, Steve Snelling, 45, a joking, taller version of Brian, and the quiet, smiling Bill Vincent, seconded from the ERU’s Tottenham base.

With Stuart O’Brien and Tony Savage away, the team is under strength. In all there are 15 six-man ERU teams and four bases: Camden, Acton Town, Tottenham and Vauxhall (there are no women working in the teams themselves). Most Londoners have never heard of the Unit. But without it, the tube wouldn’t run. And after 7/7, its men played a heroic role.

On call every minute of the year, the ERU handles emergencies large and small: derailments, holes in trackside fences that attract children and animals (even baby deer up near Epping), broken tracks and that sad tube perennial ‘one-unders’ – officially, a person under a train.

In the high-ceilinged garage at the Camden base, a hefty door from an engineering train leans against a wall, one corner peeled back after hitting a tunnel. A freezer holds track-kill waiting for collection by the Cambridge Pet Crematorium. The team’s motorbikes and Steve’s Wrangler Jeep stand in a polished, perfect line. Gym equipment sits to one side.

Lee: We’re always training or playing volleyball or football tennis.

Brian: Other teams do their own thing.

Steve: We’ve started to wife swap.

The joking never stops, continuing upstairs in the team room where they wait for call-outs. Blue armchairs congregate around a TV; there is a group leader’s desk and a kitchen, where Stuart cooks roast dinners on Sunday shifts. All the team are former Underground employees who joined the ERU for the varied work. Brian drove tubes for 22 years. “Once they made it one-man, it was soul-destroying. I was going mad, up and down.” The long, 7.30-7.30 ERU shifts mean more days off; “Money’s decent,” says Lee, and the training is good.

But nothing could quite prepare them for 7/7. Lee says, “There were things in the air, rumours. Something was going to kick off sometime, but we didn’t know where and when.” Team Three were off duty when the terrorists attacked, but when they did, every available ERU man came in.

The Unit had ten men at each bomb site within 20 minutes. They helped clear the stations and evacuate passengers and wounded. Later, they went back in to make the stations structurally safe for SO 13, the Met’s Anti-Terrorist Branch.

Geoff Edwards, 47, the shift’s pensive, slightly worried-looking duty manager, has dropped by. “Police forensic, the fingertip guys, they said they wanted us. And we still had to supply service to the railway that was running.” The ERU bases became dormitories until the men living outside London were put into hotels. “We had blokes sleeping on the floor. We had blokes getting up, and other blokes would lie down in their place.”

Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, the ERU worked at all three station bomb sites. At Aldgate Team Three helped build a mobile platform so the forensic teams could access damaged carriages. Often using only hand tools and with just inches of leeway, they cut down blown-out carriages and moved undamaged ones, sometimes by physically pushing them. After forensics finished, they moved the bodies as well. Conditions were hard.

Geoff: Hot. Absolutely blazing.

Lee:  It was the middle of summer, wasn’t it?

Geoff:  And the smell… They could only leave us down there for so long because people began to chuck up. We had face masks and this eucalyptus stuff. But it was even coming through that.

Even for men used to one-unders, the scenes at times were difficult.

Steve:  Not very attractive, bodies on the track. Three bodies on the train, four flung out.

Geoff:  The others flung out on the cables, but they…

Steve:  Melted together, stuck together.

Geoff:  You never forget stuff like that.

Steve: What affected me more, in a way, was seeing the handbags and the mobile phones scattered everywhere, personal belongings. At Aldgate, that’s where we were based, all the body bags were laid out on the platform. But we’re all right with things like that. It’s part of the deal.

They still find something to laugh at. Remembering one man who overdid the eucalyptus oil on his face mask has them falling about.

Geoff:  We said just a couple of drops. But he put half a bottle on, like putting vinegar on his chips. It was so funny, “I can’t see! I can’t see!” His eyes were streaming.

One sombre fact about the ERU and 7/7 remains: no one from the unit was recognised in the honours awarded after the bombings. There are quiet hopes from Tube Lines, which runs the tube-wide ERU, that this might be rectified. Certainly none of the men talk about recognition.

Geoff:  It was different. I wouldn’t want to go through that again, I’ve got to be truthful. Hopefully it won’t happen again, but [if it does] you’ll see the same blokes step up to the mark, who’ll do the same thing.

In fact, the ERU constantly steps up, particularly when dealing with one-unders.

A week before joining them on shift, I’d watched the ERU train two London Fire Brigade crews in removing one-unders. The crews patiently jacked two old carriages up off the rails at the Acton Town training centre. Slumped across the rails, a heavy, stuffed dummy stood in for the victim. Did they give it a name? Duty manager Gary Burnham, looking like a thinner Phill Jupitus, said “Whoever the boss is at the time.”

How frequent are one-unders? “It’s a bit hit and miss,” he said. “You might have no one for weeks then three in three days.” About half survive.

The ERU’s Tom Holden, small and quick behind his glasses and baseball cap, was advising the fire crews. After ten years, he has seen more than enough one-unders. “They don’t come out in one piece. Sometimes you pull on an arm or a leg and it just comes away.”

Does it affect him?

“Not really. I don’t know. It’s bad when it’s children. The first couple are a shock. But when you’re in it, you’re not thinking about it. You’re there to help people. Sometimes you have to give a team member a hug, a cup of tea and keep an eye on them.”

It isn’t only suicides or drunks who fall under. “You get completely sane people doing stupid things.” Like going after dropped glasses or mobiles, instead of asking staff to retrieve them at night when the current is off.

When a body is dragged into a tunnel, ERU teams use the doors between carriages then crawl underneath. After all Tom has seen, I couldn’t refuse when he asked if I’d like to crawl under a training carriage.

In fact, it was too low to crawl. Instead you have to squirm between the ballast stones and undercarriage. Reaching the under-hanging traction motor, I had to turn my head in its hard hat sideways to squeeze through. It was dirty and claustrophobic. New tube trains are even lower. Looking back, I could see the rods connecting to the current rails that one-unders often get caught on. But here there was daylight either side – I wasn’t in a deep, narrow tunnel, with the temperature approaching 100°F and a body to untangle. How can they do it?

“You’ve got to go ‘click’ and get it sorted” said Tom.

Back on the night shift the following week, there is little to sort. Most of the ERU’s time is spent waiting for call-outs or handling minor jobs. We went with Lee and Steve to deliver a signal box to Archway tube. Returning, Steve lamented the local absence of late-night shops. “That’s London, great, isn’t it? You can buy drugs, drink, women… but no biscuits.” Back at base, the team doze around the telly, with the lights dimmed.

At 3.10am the phone rings. Four minutes later, the team’s two vans are tearing through the empty capital to Warren Street, to replace a 400 lb wing rail.

We wait by the tunnel mouth of the Victoria Line, southbound, as Brian calls Track Access Control to book the Warren Street-Euston section, then head in. It is a dirty, grey world lit by yellow wall lights. The floor, ribbed-metal tunnel and wall pipes are covered in dust-grease that smears on your hands. Grubby cables poke from holes in the floor. After 150 yards, the tunnel suddenly opens out into a wide cavern 25 feet high, where the north and southbound lines run side-by-side. Tracks branch, criss-crossing confusingly.

A standard maintenance crew led by John, a frantic, burly Irishman, work at the broken wing rail – 400 lb, 15 feet long and curved for a tube train shifting lanes. For the next two hours, Lee, Brian, Steve, Bill and Geoff labour with the crew, always at the exhausting centre of the work: hammering stubborn wedges out, unscrewing fist-sized nuts with three-foot spanners, beating out bolts the length of a forearm; lifting away the broken rail with a “Hup!”; carrying over the new rail with huge tongs; bolting and hammering it in place.

As five o’clock passes it grows tense. Running over means delaying trains. The team work even faster, metal blows echoing off the ceiling, until Brian, Steve and Bill screw the last nuts in place as the tunnel fills with the sound of trains rumbling along the Northern Line.

Back at base at 6.45am, Bill makes tea and coffee for the knackered team.

Lee: You take the rough with the smooth and that was rough. It is the sort of job the public don’t know about, they haven’t got a clue.

The phone rings. It’s another job, at Rotherhithe. But it goes to the Tottenham team.

Steve walks towards the stairs then looks at the photographer, Rogan Macdonald.

Steve:  I don’t know if you want to take a photograph, but I’m going down for a shower.

Brian:  Got a zoom lens, have you?

5 July 2006

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