a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Sunday, 29 April 2012

An irregular Friday afternoon: The Tottenham Court Road siege

Friday afternoons in the office usually go one of two ways I find.  They are either a frantic flurry of task-finishing before the week ends or a desperately dull drag until the start of the weekend.  Last Friday, 27th April, in my office was a little bit unusual however.  Shortly before lunch, just before the standard lunchtime exodus began, I glanced at Twitter to see a number of reports of some sort of disturbance on Tottenham Court Road.  I work two streets west of Tottenham Court Road and it's the standard lunching destination of choice for most of my firm.  This 'disturbance' was likely to make several hundred trips to Pret and Eat a little tricky.  

Keen to see what was going on, I headed out with a couple of colleagues, but before we made it to Tottenham Court Road we were halted by a police cordon, manned by a uniformed officer, who politely told us we couldn't access the road, but should use the side streets to move through the area.  Over his shoulder, the road was uncharacteristically stationary, littered with parked police vehicles and the odd ambulance.  A couple of waiters were sat smoking outside their deserted cafe, a plastic 'Do Not Cross' cordon fluttering in front of them.  'What's going on?' I asked the officer, who was not looking particularly concerned about the roadblock.  'We've got someone threatening a gas explosion in an office down the road.' he said, 'We're evacuating all the nearby buildings as a safety precaution.'  His details were vague but freely offered up, and given his calm demeanour, I didn't feel particularly alarmed by the situation.  Making the most of my lunch-break I headed down towards Oxford Street to run some errands, and hoped by the time I returned to Fitzrovia I would still be able to get into the office.  

Keeping a close eye on Twitter as I left the area I began to piece together what was happening.  As has become usual in dramatic situations these days, the mainstream news media (the BBC, SkyNews etc.) took a while to carry the story, despite the action unfolding over the previous hour.  Twitter however was abuzz with people on the scene reporting on the Tottenham Court Road terming it a siege, a hostage situation, a bomb scare or - the Metropolitan Police playing it casual - a disturbance.  From a series of 140 character messages I pieced the situation together.  A disgruntled man, who had formerly paid an HGV training company a large amount of money in an attempt to obtain an HGV licence, had stormed into the company's office, brandishing a blow-torch and strapped with numerous gas canisters.  He had taken a handful of people hostage and threatened to blow up the entire building.  The police were sending in armed units and a negotiator to try and defuse the situation without any casualties.  In a rather nice stroke of irony the besieged office (Shropshire House, above a busy branch of Starbucks) was next door to the Huffington Post's UK HQ.  The Huffington Post has been criticised in the past for its lack of original reporting, however on Friday afternoon their journalists were the first on the scene, live-tweeting their evacuation, and the eye-witness accounts of those who had fled the stormed office.

My errands complete I started to make my way back to my office.  Camera crews overtook me on the pavements, headed on foot for Tottenham Court Road as the police cordon made travel by vehicles impossible.  Traffic jams spidered out through adjoining streets as much of the West End slowed to a halt.  Reports on Twitter claimed that the cordon had now been moved back, further from the incident, shutting off another row of side streets.  One of my company's buildings was now partly within the cordon, and when I gained entry to my own building I was informed by security that it too was likely to be cordoned off.  'We'll be shut in shortly, so if you want to leave I'd go now.' I was advised.  I rode the lift up to my office, mentally recalling the training I had received when coerced into becoming a safety marshall; if there was a bomb scare...'oh, but that's so rare we don't really train you for it.  Same as a fire, just get everyone off the floor and outside.  Don't leave the floor until it's clear or you've cautioned those refusing to leave that they are acting against safety advisors' recommendations.'  Great.  Back on my floor I did a quick headcount so I knew how many people would need evacuating before I could flee myself, should it come to that.  I hoped it wouldn't.

The afternoon was rather unproductive.  Many of us were gripped by Twitter and SkyNews who had finally shown up and were broadcasting live from outside our building; although much of their live-feed showed only a couple of pigeons stalking around the deserted cafe tables, picking at fallen crumbs from hastily-discarded sandwiches.  Colleagues in our other office building, partly inside the cordon, had a clear view of police snipers stationed atop the building opposite, guns trained on Shropshire House.  Despite our security advising us all to stay away from the windows on the Tottenham Court Road-side of the building they were unable to tear themselves from their vantage point overlooking the deserted street, filled with smashed computers and paperwork that people had been seen hurling out of the besieged office's windows.
The view from the office, with papers hurled from the HGV licensing office visible in the street behind the police van 
(photo courtesy of an Accidental colleague)

As we struggled to refocus our attention on work, reports from the street filtered up to us that three men,  held as hostages (who had been forced by the aggrieved individual with the gas canisters to toss the paper and computers from the office windows) had emerged from the building, hands above their heads before what must have looked to them like a firing squad.  Shortly after 3pm Metropolitan Police confirmed that they had made an arrest, and the perpetrator, stripped to the waist and handcuffed, soon left Shropshire House too.  The incident ended satisfactorily, and with far less drama than it began.  Fortunately no one was hurt, although many staff from the HGV licensing office were understandably shaken.  As incidents go 'well-contained' was an accurate description of 'the siege of Tottenham Court Road'.  The perpetrator was apprehended, no one was hurt and the thousands of people in the vicinity were kept informed of what was happening in a way which prevented widespread panic and fear.    

The next morning the Daily Mail's front page featured a photo of a balaclava-clad sniper, with a couple of Glock pistols strapped to his person, under the heading 'Chilling New Face of Police'.  The newspaper's article seemed to suggest that the response to the incident on Friday was a terrifying indicator of the future of life in Britain. With increased policing measures in place to deal with the upcoming Olympics and the Queen's Jubilee celebrations, we have probably not seen the last of these officers.  But as a Londoner actually on the scene on Friday, I did not find such images scary or a dread prophecy of things to come.  Honestly, I found them immensely reassuring.  If you know that there is someone threatening to detonate a device they believe could bring down a building, two blocks from where you are, you want to feel that something is being done about it, and that the potentially dangerous situation is being treated with the seriousness it deserves.  (The Daily Mail offices, by the way, are a safe distance from Friday's dramas, in Kensington.)  If this is the face of modern policing in Britain it is because the threats that present themselves to even the most average of office-workers (i.e. me!) merit it.  Whilst one aggrieved individual with a home-made explosive device may not seem like a significant terrorist threat, the impact that his actions could have had were far less easy to ignore.  And the fact that the situation ended with the optimal, hoped for outcome should be a matter of satisfaction for the Metropolitan Police and for us Londoners.  If this is what it takes to live and work safely in modern cities, such responses and measures are what we must all learn to accept.  And with Friday's incident fresh in my mind, I've made my peace with that. 

5 comments:

  1. I also walked down a lunchtime to see what all the rumours amounted to, although my office is well outside the blast zone. According to Fitzrovia News "Police had apparently responded with every piece of equipment they had and were only out-gunned by the army and RAF who also turned up. Glocks, Tasers, stun grenades, spare ammunition, special forces, the Army’s bomb disposal unit, and the RAF’s nuclear, biological and chemical warfare equipment were all hurried to the scene according to one report." i got turfed out of a cafe at the top end of Tottenham Court Road with a doggie bag to go. It all seemed just a little out of proportion.

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  2. It should have been an uneventful Friday...but it wasn't meant to be! I suppose that there isn't much the police can do to prevent one man from behaving like this.The police was criticised a lot during the student riots. I suspect that they are taking things a lot more seriously now. Just like you, I think that it is a good thing.

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  3. So this seems to be the debate that's come out of Friday's incident: was the police response over the top or appropriate to the threat posed? I didn't see any of the Army or RAF presence that you reported, Duncan, but I do agree that calling in the Armed Forces seems a bit over-dramatic for one guy with a blow-torch and a grievance.

    The police don't seem to be able to get it right eh, Muriel? They didn't do enough during the riots but they did too much on Friday. Will we ever be happy with the way they respond to threats in the city?

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  4. How fascinating, and what a good description of what happened. I would have been reassured too. I am sure the police are used to the sensationalism of papers, but a slight pity that many people will have been misled. Perhaps as ever more people get connected with social media, they'll start realising for themselves when newspapers distort.

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    1. You're right, Jenny. There's definitely a fine balance in media reporting of incidents like that, I think. During both the riots last year and the incident last Friday both the most reliable and the most unfounded information seem to originate in social media. Both social media and traditional print media are capable of distortion. The challenge for those of us who need to know that information is working out who is presenting the most accurate description of events.

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