It is a year today since Fusilier Lee Rigby was brutally murdered by two Islamic extremists on the streets of Woolwich in South East London. That year thankfully has brought justice for Rigby, with both attackers serving long jail sentences, but as someone who lives in Woolwich, I wanted to look back on the year.
I was at work when the event happened. I work in a control room for one of the emergency services. It came in as many different things – “man hit by car” followed by “car drivers now appear to be stabbing male. ?road rage”. There were many different reports of what was going on, and a lot of us thought that it what probably gang related. My break came about when it was all happening, and while I was on break Amy called me. She said I should make sure all of our crews were out of the area as there was some “nutter” with guns and knives. I asked if she was ok. She said she was just evacuating the buses then she would be getting out of the area. Amy works for a transport company in revenue and is based on the buses. Her control centre had told her to get out of the area, but she evacuated the buses and made sure the passengers were safe first.
It became apparent during the day that this was a murder. A terrorist attack. Amy ended up sitting with a lady in labour on one of the buses, and once the lady had been taken to hospital (by the police as there were clearly no ambulances!) I finally got the text telling me that Amy was safe at home. I was allowed to leave early that night as I wear a uniform, and there were fears that the attack would be repeated but on someone in a different uniform. I arrived home safe also. We talked about what had happened just ten minutes from our house. We lost sleep because of he news helicopters hovering above Woolwich all night. We heard reports that the English Defence League (a thuggish, racist party) were rioting in Woolwich in response to the attacks.
One thing that struck me, was the amount of people who were saying things like “typical Woolwich”. This saddened me, because as much as Woolwich is an “up and coming area” that certainly does have its bad patches, this sort of thing is not typical of anywhere. This could have happened anywhere that there was an army barracks, and I found myself very upset that people were talking about the place I live like this.
The next day, both of us were on rostered days off from work. We headed down into Woolwich with the intention of buying some flowers from Tesco to add to the rapidly growing memorial that was appearing on the site of the murder. When we went into Tesco, the shelves were empty. Not a bloom in sight. So we headed over to Woolwich Market, where there is a flower stall. Even there it was slim pickings for flowers, but we managed to get some and they had kindly stocked up in memorial cards to attach to flowers and were giving these out for free. We wrote some words on the card and headed up to the site.
We noticed on the way that there were a LOT of people heading up there. I mean a LOT. Once we arrived we saw that the dedications were stretching all along the barracks fence. There were flags, flowers, teddies for as far as the eye could see. This is typical Woolwich. This is what people from Woolwich do best. Someone had left a bunch of marker pens up there for anyone to use, and someone else had brought cable ties to help attach flowers to the gates. It was really something to behold. There were members of the Muslim community there handing out white roses.
This is what Woolwich does. This is what my community is about. Not hate. Not murders. Not any of that stuff. On this day I saw so much love and respect for someone that, let’s face it, hardly anyone there had met, but it was what he meant to the community. My father was in the army, so I have the greatest respect for anyone who risks their life for their country. The love and compassion showed by people in Woolwich that day really made me proud to be a member of the community.
In the following weeks things deteriorated for Amy and she was signed off work. I don’t doubt in hindsight that she was suffering from a form of PTSD. Although she had not seen what had happened thankfully, she was close enough to experience the terror that went with the situation. The fear and the upset was apparent in central London where I was at work, so I cannot imagine how awful the atmosphere was where it happened. Weeks off work followed with intensive counselling, which seemed to help. It was a hard few weeks. Very hard, but things started to get better and Amy went back to work. On her return, she was awarded a “Gold Award” for her help and given vouchers. We had a lovely meal at TGI Fridays and went to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the theatre. She was amazed to have got this, and saw it as more than enough recognition for what she had done. Imagine how surprised she was when she discovered she had been nominated for Transport Employee of the Year. We went to a lovely awards evening, had a lovely dinner and then this happened…
So, needless to say, although sometimes things are still hard and what happens has affected our relationship. A few good things have come out of this. Amy met the baby who was desperate to come into the world when this all happened. His name is jack and he is happy and healthy. The counselling has made her stronger and us stronger as a couple. It made me aware of how much I love the community in which I live. It made me aware of how much an absolutely dreadful, tragic situation can unite a community against hatred. And it made me sure that justice can be done.
So, a year on. I hope all of those involved are healing. Family and friends, anyone who was in the area and anyone who was linked in any way to what happened. Emergency service workers and even the teachers in the nearby primary school who shut all of the children in the school hall and kept the children blissfully unaware of what happened.
RIP Lee Rigby. You are and always will be a hero.