On July 6, 2005, I broke away from a feature story I was doing on Manchester United to take a train to London, sure of the scene I would witness. The International Olympic Committee was ready to announce the site of the 2012 Olympic Games, and everyone but everyone knew the winner would be Paris. I was working for the New York Daily News and thought maybe I could write a reaction story on the dejected Brits.
But when the word "London" hit the assembled ears in Trafalgar Square, it was as if Lord Nelson, perched on his pedestal stories above the crowd, had defeated Napoleon all over again. I reported on the jubilant scene, spoke to the triumphant, the drunk and the delirious, then rented a room for the night in London. The next morning, I was up early, took the Tube to King's Cross station and boarded an 8:30 a.m. train back to Manchester.
About a half-hour into the trip, news started to spread that something was wrong with the Underground back in London. Everything was shut down; perhaps an electronic malfunction. About five minutes later, a new story took its place: There had been a bomb, maybe more than one. By the time we pulled into Manchester, the full story of the July 7 bombings had unfolded. Four bombs: three in the Underground, one on a bus. I rented a car and drove back to London, where I spent the next four days reporting, writing in my hotel room while the names of the dead scrolled across the BBC.
For a New York newspaper, the obvious angle was to compare the scene to 9/11, but other than the surprise of the attack and the religious affiliation of the attackers, there was little to compare. There was not ground zero. The carnage took place beneath the city streets, and the bus that was attacked in Tavistock Square was soon blocked from public view by large tarps. The video images were shaky, muddled scenes of fleeing commuters in smoke-filled darkness, not a crystalline sky ripped by the lurid colors of an explosion.
English men and women also reminded me that they do not react to events the way Americans do; they have been accustomed to terror since the nights of the Blitz, they said, through the bombs of the IRA and into the modern world of Islamic fundamentalism, and they do not panic. Yet I saw the collective flinch in the days after the attacks as the culture of "Keep Calm and Carry On" grappled with the existence of young men of Middle Eastern appearance wearing backpacks.
Terror is always a topic of discussion at major events, and it is overwhelming at these Games. The apartment building where we ESPN folks are staying is maybe a mile from Olympic Stadium, but because of the security perimeters it takes two stops on a train and a 10-minute bus ride to get there. We see soldiers everywhere and we know there are rockets on some of the rooftops nearby, but we also see the crowds growing in size and are reminded that all the stoicism and preparation in the world do not make a country invulnerable.
We don't know what the scene will be, but we go and hope for the best and promise our mothers we'll be very, very careful.