In 1992, I got held up in a store robbery. I was with my daughter, Caitlin, then age 3, and we were in a north London health store, of all places. The health store had a little café in the back, where we’d often take time from a shopping trip to go to have a tea and a biscuit.
We’d gone to the ladies’ room, and as soon as we came out, a guy in his 30s in a khaki jacket flashed a handgun at us and a few others in the store and said, “You – get in here now.”
At first I thought it was a joke – so completely surreal is it to see anyone in the UK holding a gun.
Behind a locked door
I was not quiet and I did not stay calm. I was a gelatinous wreck. I am from America where it invariably ends badly, when the people with the guns in the stores and the banks shoot the hostages.
I was with my darling, precious and, at the time, only child. A hundred scenarios raced through my head. What if she started crying, he got pissed off and he shot her? What if he shot me? What would happen to her? This was before the days of mobile phones – there was no way to reach my husband or the police.
I hugged Caitlin behind me and tried to reassure her, while trying to turn myself into some sort of human shield, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“What is going to happen to us?” I cried to the young shop assistant, a fellow of about 20, who was closest to the door. It was an attempt at forward planning. I remember thinking, at that deranged moment, that if I had some idea of what the guy with the gun was going to do, I – we – could come up with a contingency plan.
The shop assistant could only have been about 20, and he said to me as well as everyone else in the room, “This is what’s going to happen. In a few minutes, I’m going to kick the shit out of this door, and we’re going to get out of here.”
I don’t remember much about the guy with the gun. He got caught within minutes of cleaning out the cash register of the paltry sum contained inside (the owners had just been to the bank earlier), and the gun was found to be unloaded. Professionals, after all, when considering their target options, are unlikely to choose a health food store.
What I do remember very vividly was the young kid who was going to kick the shit out of the door. He had been one of those extraordinary characters who displays for all the rest of us how the very best of humanity behaves in a crisis.
The next day, when I brought Caitlin back to the store (largely so she wouldn’t be forever traumatized by health food) I thanked that young kid for helping me so much – for helping us all.
The heroes of Manchester
We saw a parade of them this week after the bombing at Manchester arena. There was A. J. Singh, a taxi driver, and others like him, who raced to the scene of the explosion and potential future terrorist bombs, so that he could offer people a free ride. And Rachel Ellis, like thousands of others, who tweeted on #RoomForManchester: “If you need a bed, a cup of tea, a charged phone etc, - I’m 15 mins from Manchester Arena.”
There was Chris Parker, a homeless man who regularly begs for food around the arena, who rushed toward the injured after the white flash of the bomb blast, tending to a little girl whose legs had been blown off, before cradling a dying 60-year-old woman in his arms.
There were hotels offering free beds, food companies handing out free food, and so many people lining up to donate blood that they had to be turned away.
The extraordinary courage and humanity of the Manchester people in response to a terrorist attack reminds me of an Air France airbus, which, when attempting to land at Pearson International Airport in Toronto during a ferocious downpour in August 2005, overshot the runway and crashlanded.
Notified that most of the people aboard had died, the Canadian governor general began issuing condolences to relatives of the three hundred and nine passengers on board.
Soon he had to issue a retraction. Once the smoke and rain had cleared, it became clear that although more than 40 people had sustained injuries, every single passenger had in fact survived.
Pulling over to help
The plane had crashed near Highway 401, Ontario’s main motorway. Hundreds of passing motorists had pulled over, rushed to the plane, entered inside and begun pulling out the survivors.
Although two of the eight emergency exits had been unsafe and the emergency slides did not work, the strangers smoothly coordinated efforts to get everyone out safely within a few minutes before the plane burst into flames. Many of the evacuated passengers were picked up by drivers on the highway and driven to the Air France terminal.
Hundreds of strangers interrupted their busy routine and risked their lives rushing into a crashed airplane to help a group of other strangers they would never see again. Many even offered to drive them to the airport when any one of them might have been a terrorist who had deliberately caused the crash
There are a number of twisted, pathological individuals out there like Salman Abedi, but tragedies like Manchester continue to remind us that there are millions more like my young man, whose connection with humanity is so strong and so true that in any sort of crisis, he will kick the door down, rush toward a terrorist bomb or enter a burning plane without thinking.