By Paul Radford
One minute, one hour, one day.
Small units of time that make the difference between life and death when random acts of terror take place. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is what we dread. Being lucky is all we can hope for.
The atrocities in Paris, a city I know and love having worked the better part of a decade there, were cruelly aimed at innocent people enjoying leisure time in ways many of us do — having a drink with friends at a café, listening to live music in a theater, attending a football match in a stadium.
After digesting the horrors of what went on in eastern Paris, my attention focused on the three merchants of death who went to the Stade de France to blow themselves up while nearly 80,000 people, including France’s president, were watching France play Germany.
For most of my life I have been a sports journalist, and I have covered matches in this glorious stadium. The accounts of what happened left a puzzle.
One hour was all it took.
The fact that three of those wearing suicide vests went to the stadium meant this was a prime target. Yet they succeeded in killing just one other person when they blew themselves up outside the stadium during the first half of the game and at halftime.
Something clearly had not gone to plan. Had they intended to get into the stadium and blow themselves up there, killing and maiming several hundred people? If so, they underestimated the security that sports stadiums have adopted to counter such a threat.
If they were intending to set off the explosives outside the stadium, they bungled their timing. There is barely a soul outside a stadium during a match. Had they set off the first explosion one hour earlier, it would have wreaked havoc among those thronging to get into the arena. If the third explosion had gone off an hour later, it would have reaped casualties among those pouring out of the exits.
The spectators got lucky. And one hour was all it took.
The Paris killing spree took my thoughts back to 2005 when London was a target of those spreading terror.
At the time, I was in Singapore where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was selecting the venue for the 2012 Summer Games. To general surprise, London was chosen, narrowly defeating Paris, which had been the clear favorite.
The day after the vote, news came through of four bombs on the London transport system, killing 52 people.
There was no serious move to go back on the decision to award London the Games. But conversations in the corridors made it clear that had the bombs gone off one day earlier, Paris would probably have got the nod.
Years later, a theory emerged that the bombers had meant to sew carnage on the previous day, although it was never clear if they were trying to coincide with the IOC vote.
Either way, one day was all it took to change the lives of the victims and the course of sporting history.
When the bombs went off in London, where I was based at the time, I did what everyone does in that situation — I contacted my nearest and dearest to make sure they were safe.
My wife was at home, but I was unable to reach my elder son. At the time he was living in north London and had a fairly lengthy underground journey to south London where he worked.
His office phone rang without answer. His mobile phone did not respond. I could not find anyone who had heard from him.
I kept telling myself the chances of him being a victim among millions of London workers were minute. But as I texted “Are you OK?”, I was suppressing near panic.
Three long hours later, I had a text back: “I was on the train but I’m OK.”
It transpired he had been on the underground train hit by a suicide bomber between King’s Cross and Russell Square stations. It was the train with the highest casualty toll.
The bomb had gone off in the front carriage. He was in the last carriage. When the bomb went off, he heard the explosion and the screams of the victims. The lights went out, the train jolted to a halt and the carriage filled with smoke.
He and another man managed to force the door ajar to let air in, but they had to wait in the dark and the smoke for half an hour before a rescue team arrived. After being checked for smoke inhalation, he was allowed to go home.
The time between life and an awful fate.
Years later, I discovered something he had kept from me at the time — that normally he walked up the platform to travel in the front carriage but on the day of the bombs, the train arrived as he reached the platform. So he boarded at the rear.
Sometimes in the early hours, when I am half half asleep and half awake, I imagine myself walking with him down that platform. When we get halfway down, my mind refuses to take another step and I jolt myself into consciousness.
Then I think — what if he had arrived one minute earlier that day, or the train had come in one minute later? He would have reached the end of the platform, the place where my mind will not let me go, and he would have boarded the front carriage.
One minute. The time between life and an awful fate.
When I think of the Paris victims, I think of the families and friends going through those inevitable “What ifs?”.
What if their loved ones had gone somewhere else that night? What if they had arrived a minute or an hour later — or left a minute or an hour earlier?
After the ultimately pointless “What ifs?”, there is one we have almost stopped asking: “What if peace prevailed and acts of terror stopped?”
Until then, all we can do is be lucky.