Mail On Sunday man speaks out on Parsons Green attack

Have you ever run for your life? I have, writes Ben Felsenburg

Have you ever run for your life? I have. I didn’t know what or who I was running from on Friday morning, but one glance at the wide-eyed horror on the faces of the well-heeled City workers fleeing the train at Parsons Green was enough to send me racing out the doors.

They were running for their lives and for that reason alone so was I. There was no adrenaline, just the sickening possibility that this might be it, the moment it all ends on an ordinary day out of the blue. This was terror, of some unknown event in the end carriage.

An entire packed commuter train had been suddenly transformed into a stampeding mini-tsunami of humanity surging along the platform.

Hardly anyone was screaming or shouting, but for one terrible moment it was each man for himself, and something awful and primal had kicked in that made me push forward mindlessly in the rush for the stairs that had become impassably crowded in seconds.

I didn’t have a clue what had happened, but just 15 minutes after I had counted myself lucky to get on the train just before the doors had closed a few stops up the line, I was bracing myself for a marauding attacker armed with a knife or a gun, or a bomb blast.

My nostrils began to fill with an acrid, burning smell. Then one man had the presence of mind to cry out ‘Calm down’ to all of us crammed on to a short, narrow platform leading to steps that were suddenly woefully inadequate as an escape exit.

I snapped out of my panic, collected myself and echoed his call in the hope of stopping the pushing and shoving down the steps that were so crammed it was all too easy to imagine people could soon be crushed to death. Around me terror had given way to shock.

There was no adrenaline, just the sickening possibility that this might be it, the moment it all ends on an ordinary day out of the blu

There was no adrenaline, just the sickening possibility that this might be it, the moment it all ends on an ordinary day out of the blu

One young woman was in tears, shaking. Another woman repeatedly insisted ‘I’m fine, I’m all right’, and laughed over how she had lost her shoes in the rush.

By now the melee had calmed down into a very British well-behaved queue waiting to file down the steps and out of the station, and amid the chatter of the crowd, a few facts began to emerge.

There had been a bang – somehow not loud enough for me to hear halfway down the train – and there was talk of a flash of flames that had filled a section of the train.

Was it a terror attack or some kind of unlikely freak accident? Whatever we suspected it was impossible to know, but regardless of what had happened I began to wonder how bad the damage was for those left in the train.

I made my way down with everyone else to the ticket gates, where a young Eastern European mother with a toddler in a pushchair stood shaking with horror over the thought of what could so easily have happened to her child, mercifully unharmed. 

Another woman – a smartly dressed office worker – stood alongside her, holding her arm in comfort.

There had been a bang ¿ somehow not loud enough for me to hear halfway down the train ¿ and there was talk of a flash of flames that had filled a section of the train

There had been a bang – somehow not loud enough for me to hear halfway down the train – and there was talk of a flash of flames that had filled a section of the train

I was, to be honest, in a bit of a state. I wasn’t alone. I got talking to a young man, Sam Flay, who was teary and shaky but bright and remarkably cogent.

His story came out: he’d been right there, at the ground zero end of the train, and simultaneously heard the blast and saw the fire erupt from what he described as a ‘bag for life’. He felt the heat on his face from the flames that seemed to be everywhere.

He said: ‘There was a kind of thudding noise and the lid of the bucket popped off. The next thing I knew a blinding ball of fire just filled the whole carriage.

‘The heat and light were so intense. There was some kind of thick yellow gel that filled the carriage and had squirted out of the bucket. Luckily I was sitting down and surrounded by people.

‘I turned my head away from the heat and only singed the back of my hair. But there were others whose faces were really badly burned and just looked dazed. People suddenly started screaming and trying to bundle out the train. 

Some had been knocked to the floor by the force of the blast. One woman was just rocking back and forth, frozen to the spot, and had to be carried out.

‘Another collapsed on the platform stairs and was getting trampled underfoot. So many people were crying. I take that train every morning and always see the same people, so in a way you sort of get to know each other.’

Sam went on: ‘Everyone was fighting to get out the station but it was completely jammed. There was just panic and fear in the air. I saw around 50 police officers at the station who arrived within minutes, around half of them armed, and they really took control very quickly.

‘I’d been involved in a terror response training day just the day before and had been in Barcelona not long before the attack there last month. I’ve always wondered how I would respond to this kind of attack but you can never truly be prepared.’

At 21, Sam is part of a generation for whom the constant possibility of a terrorist attack has been an ordinary fact of everyday life since as far back as he could remember.

Now on this fine late-summer morning in London, something had kicked in that enabled him to know just what to do in the seconds after the blast, to find the calm to get up and walk towards safety until he hit the crowd.

With the police cordoning off the danger area around the station and ushering the public away to safety, I wandered up with Sam, past the tidy patch of green that is Parsons Green and up towards the elegant little boutiques and chi-chi eateries on New Kings Road.

Seemingly oblivious to the mayhem of just a few hundred yards away, the yummy mummy brigade were congregating after the school drop-off in an inviting cafe, and leaving Sam there I went off to find out what I could about the blast.

A little media village thick with microphones and cameras had popped up almost instantly by the green, but no one there seemed to know anything much for sure.

Was there a second device? An armed man on the loose?

Someone stuck a mobile phone under my nose and showed me a photo of what was left of the device on the carriage that had caused the blast – little more than a white bucket in a plastic bag. 

Inside the bomb blast tube… in Sam’s own words 

Media analyst Sam Flay, 21, left, was on the Tube on his way to his office in Hammersmith when there was a blast and flames erupted from a bucket in a bag, right, a few feet away from him. 

Sam was sitting down, above, in the packed train when a ‘blinding ball of light filled the whole carriage’. 

He says the fire ‘only singed the back of my hair’, but he saw some whose faces were badly burned and people who were ‘knocked to the floor by the force of the blast’.

My first reaction was to think how laughably pitiful it looked, but look at the results: for almost no cost and with little technical skill, an unknown bomber had injured dozens – thankfully none critically – and left many, many more badly rattled and traumatised.

I was shaken most of all by the memory of that panicked stampede on the platform: that was the moment of greatest danger, when the instinct to survive made us follow the terrorists’ bidding, until civilisation was restored after a few seconds.

It began to dawn on me that I had joined the ranks of all those people caught up in the kind of attacks that The Mail on Sunday and other newspapers have had to report on all too often these past few years. 

This is what terror means: to be terrorised, to be reduced to sheer panic in an instant – one of hundreds of commuters who had nothing more to worry about than the business of the coming working day one moment, and the next were sick with fear for their very survival.

I’d been down at the scene long enough to know it was doubtful I’d find out much more there and started to walk to my office, but I was troubled, wondering how Sam was doing, and stopped at the cafe where I’d left him.

I shouldn’t have worried. I had misjudged the yummy mummies of Parsons Green: they had rallied round and taken this stranger to their hearts. Lindsay, a lovely mother of three, was insistent: Sam had to come back to her family’s house nearby, have something proper to eat and stay as long as he liked until he felt OK.

As a bonus, if he wanted he was welcome to cuddle her children’s dog. Her invitation to Sam was a small but sweet setback for the bucket bomber’s hopes of undoing our way of life.