by Jonathan Cash
Friday April 30th, 1999. It was a Bank Holiday weekend and the sun was shining….it felt like this was going to be the start of a great weekend. I lived in London and I had arranged to meet a couple of friends in our usual place, The Admiral Duncan pub in Soho. I was aware of two nail bombs exploding during the previous fortnight in Brixton and Brick Lane aimed at black and Bangladeshi communities and a few dozen people were injured so London was on high alert. Nobody knew who was doing this and the police had started a manhunt but, daft as this may seem, the previous bombs exploded on Saturday afternoons and this was a Friday night.
I arrived at the pub at about 6.25pm and when I went to the bar, my foot actually touched a large sports bag which was on the floor, right in the middle of the bar counter. I ordered a drink and, thinking about the bag, assumed it belonged to someone. I can remember weighing up the possibility that it might be a bomb, then thinking, “But these things only ever happen to other people.”
I walked to a small table four or five feet away and put down my drink, staring out of the open doors which had been pulled back, sipping my beer and waiting for my friends to arrive.
A few minutes later, the bomb exploded about five feet away from me. I can’t remember the impact but I remember hearing the loudest sound I’d ever heard and waking up, laying flat on my back on the floor with my head slumped against the wall. The table I put my drink on, once bolted to the floor, had gone. I couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of my face because of the thick yellow smoke.
I immediately knew a bomb had gone off. So, after two bombs meant to kill black and Bangladeshi people, whoever it was had turned their attentions to killing gay people as this was a gay pub. Unlike in Hollywood films, there wasn’t any screaming or panic. It was silent. I saw shapes whizzing past me and I didn’t know where the exit or daylight were. I saw a figure of a man walking past me and I grabbed onto the back of his jeans but fell to the floor. I decided to follow him and crawled, on my hands and knees, over rubble, debris and goodness knows what, just hoping I was going the right way.
The next thing I knew, I was on my hands and knees in front of a shop window. I stared at my reflection, unable to recognise myself. My hair was thick with yellow dirt and my clothes were torn. I noticed I had left a trail of blood behind me but I wasn’t aware of any injuries.
A white girl in her early 20s appeared from a neighbouring pub, grinning with a pint in her hand. She pushed me out of the way, laughing, as she said she wanted “to get a better view of the puffs”, laying in the street with all sorts of terrible injuries.
In shock, I wandered aimlessly along the street. A police woman shouted and said we should all move away as there might be another bomb.
I eventually found myself in a bar called The Yard. I wandered in, holes in my clothes, bleeding, and a barman approached and bandaged up my thumb as it looked like flesh was missing.
I saw my two friends, wandering in, looking for me. They took me to A&E at the UCH hospital by cab.
I was given a number to attach to my wrist – 42. I remember thinking that there were 41 others before me.
A man in reception was told to stop using his mobile phone as it was a hospital. He screamed, “You’re telling me to stop using my phone when I am calling my boyfriend’s mum to tell her that the man we both love has 70% burns! How dare you!”
I was examined and discovered that I had a big hole in my back, a chunk of flesh was missing from my right thumb and my legs were black/purple from top to bottom with severe bruising from the impact. On the left side of my head, hair was fried and kept coming out in clumps. Apart from that, I was in a daze but ok to be sent home.
On the wall of the reception area, a TV played. In between programmes, there was a newsflash to say that a third bomb had exploded in Soho, London and that two people were pronounced dead at the scene including a pregnant woman (a third died the next day) and dozens of people had been injured, many seriously including those who suffered amputations.
My friends took me home in a taxi and when I arrived, there were over a dozen messages on my answerphone. I phoned everyone who had called, my friends looked after me and throughout the night til daylight, more friends arrived with food and drink, offering their support.
I thought I would run a bath to get rid of the smell of burning but I couldn’t do it. Every time I put my head under water I just smelled burning and death. My friend ended up washing my hair over the sink and made sure that I got rid of all the sulphurous dust from my hair and body. My shoes and jeans were in tatters and I spent the next few hours until morning, crying and talking about it with my amazing friends. One friend produced a bottle of Champagne, which, he said, he was keeping for a special occasion. I asked what the special occasion was. He said, “You’re alive.”
Several years later, I did a Master’s degree in Dramatic Writing at Sussex Uni and I developed a play called The First Domino about right-wing beliefs and terrorism. It was performed at Brighton Fringe Festival in 2009 and won the Best Theatrical Performance Award that year. A while later, I rewrote it for broadcast on Radio 4 and the production, starring Hollywood actor Toby Jones, was nominated for the BBC Best Audio Drama Award 2012. A doctor in a top-security prison hospital is carrying out research and he takes an interest in a convicted bomber. But is all what it seems?
As part of the 20th anniversary commemorations, the BBC will broadcast The First Domino on Radio 4 Extra, their web-based station, on Thursday 2nd May at 9pm and available on I-Player (now called Sounds) for a week afterwards. To listen, visit https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4extra
If you want to read more about The First Domino, please visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_First_Domino