Fate never checks your diary. But to be honest, if it did and had asked me when I’d have been happy to be caught up in a terrorist attack, I think we’d have struggled to fix a date. For a period on Wednesday, I wondered if I was moments from being killed.
Melodramatic, you may think, but after terrorist attacks across Europe in recent years, I doubt I was the only one.
It was an ordinary sort of day, they always are. I was in Parliament having had a tour in the morning, lunch in the lords with a friend and was preparing for an afternoon in the company of political journalists from across Westminster. All our days were about to take a very sudden turn.
I, with friends had returned from lunch with another friend from the Lords, and we stood and passed the time of day stood in the corner of Portcullis House’s lobby, talking about various bits of political gossip, and spotting various MPs (Jess Phillips), and journalists (Laura Kuenssberg, more on her later).
Up we went, outside the room our afternoon sessions were due to take place. People started filing back, and my foremost thoughts were how I was going to leave and meet a Times journalist halfway through our session, and later meet my other half for her to get a tour around Parliament.
All of a sudden, people rushed forwards towards the glass panels overlooking the atrium. I went over, thinking that someone may have collapsed, an altercation could be taking place, or someone had been spotted. Instead, a clutch of armed officers were bustling outside through the doors of Portcullis House, while a few remained behind, before telling people to move away.
Seconds later it turned up to 11. They began shouting at anybody in sight to get to the back of the atrium. “Go! Run! Get away now!” Not the language armed police use if a handbag’s been stolen. You quickly realise that this was not a drill. In amongst this, BBC’s Kuenssberg was stood on the phone, reporting while people fled past her. The type of steel you can only envy.
A friend checked Twitter and found Kevin Schofield’s tweet that someone had been shot outside. Parliament was under attack.
In this fight or flight scenario, mine was clear. Flight the fuck out of there.
My first thoughts were logical. Where had this taken place? How many people attacking were there? Was this the first wave of a few? Were armed police prepared? Was there anybody inside? Was Portcullis House about to be overwhelmed? Well, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibilities.
After watching this unfold from our vantage point, a security staff member came up and told us to move to the back of the floor. I passed the message onto others that it may be best to pre-emptively ring home and tell family we were okay, and safe for now.
“Mom, this is going to come onto the news in about 30 seconds…” I began.
I relayed the information to her. The most difficult part was when she asked how I was. Not that I am devoid of emotion, but I very rarely shed a tear (although watching Up is always a risk). However when I told her I loved her before I ended the call, my tear ducts nudged the rest of my face, reminding it they were there. Only a staccato “Yes, fine.” I went.
Worse was when I text my girlfriend, Tasha, and it took me four attempts to finish a text telling her I loved her and couldn’t wait to see her later. By now we had been moved to a large room in Portcullis House, with around 60 others. All I could think was that if an attacker found us, we’d be mown down in seconds.
Any time I thought of my family, Tasha, my friends or our own mortality, my tear ducts were starting to hold the rest of my face to ransom. I’m not against crying. It’s just that 1) I look dreadful on the rare occasion I do cry, and 2) in a situation that’s bad enough already, it’s an absolute priority not to panic anybody else.
Pathetic, you may think. Melodramatic too. That may be, but you never know until you’re faced with that very real situation. You never know when you’ll be making that last call to your loved ones.
Once those calls were made, I decided to mill around asking others if they were okay. It’s easier to take attention off yourself that way, and in any situation, there’s always people in a worse position than yourself.
I looked around room for possible escape options if someone was to burst in. Two inch thick Perspex covered the windows, and there doors opened out onto the same corridor. If anything was to happen, it was unlikely I’d be doing a John McClane impression.
The time in that room was otherwise spent running my phone battery down checking Twitter for updates. I’m a big advocate of the idea that people give too much attention to their phones, but what people did that situation pre-mobile I have no idea, and it would have been far spookier without it.
Eventually we were moved to a building adjacent to Portcullis and put into a Tory MP’s office, with their staff and told to lock the door. Conversation was exchanged, and it’s always easy to feel slightly better when you know that by chance there’s someone with counter-terrorism training in the room. Firm advice was given not to reopen a door once it’s been locked. It was followed.
Yards away, out of the window was Westminster Bridge, and on the TV was Westminster Bridge. Surreal does not begin to cut it.
We were eventually put into the lobby of that building, and found ourselves in the same area as the BBC’s Kneussberg, and the Telegraph and former Labour MP Tom Harris. To kill boredom, I took to wandering the corridor and popping my head into the offices of MPs whose staff was there watching TV. A flat phone battery and an information vacuum meant it was the only way to keep up-to-date. That, and idle chatter is a great way to pass time, especially when you’re united by a shared experience. Happily I bumped into a staffer of Tory MP Justin Tomlinson, a fellow Harrier in the House as it were.
By now, hours after the incident and the lockdown was put into place, fear, had given way to tedium and everybody just wanted to get home. We heard that they were clearing Parliament room by room, searching along the way. Rumours circulated that we would be in there until 10pm, thankfully we were out at 8pm in one massive snake along with various MPs. I briefly mused to John McDonnell on the way out on how strange a day it had been. I wonder if he still believes in the power of the bullet and the bomb.
Walking out of Black Rod’s entrance was a bizarre feeling. Freedom. We were safe, and it was over.
Freedom: The view down Millbank at the end of the day
As I write this a day later, staring out of the coach window into the pitch black M1, my only thoughts are how lucky I am. It’s true, we were never facing down a gun barrel. Yet we weren’t to know that the armed police had it under control. Just like those on Westminster Bridge, or PC Keith Palmer, who weren’t to know they wouldn’t be returning home that night.
It wasn’t so much a taste of one’s mortality, as the faint scent of it carried in the wind. Enough to make you worry that that phone call to your Mom may be the last one. Or that you might not be in the arms of your girlfriend that night. As the IRA pointed out, terrorists only have to be lucky once.
To look back, it’s endlessly surreal to think that we were caught up in it; probably one of the biggest events of the 2010s. We weren’t the story, neither were we eyewitnesses nor causalities but we were involved. The sad part is, it’ll no doubt be used to justify increasing anti-immigration feeling and more intrusive surveillance powers by those seeking to exploit the opportunity to fulfil their pre-existing narrative.
There but for the grace of god, and our magnificent emergency services, go we. Never was that truer than Wednesday in Westminster.