Londoners: Rattled and Stranded

At Canary Wharf, workers try to make sense of the unfolding events -- and figure out how they'll get home with the transit system shut

By Beth Carney

On a day that should have been filled with jubilation the day after London had unexpectedly won the global competition to host the 2012 Olympics, the mood in the city turned grim as news spread that a series of terrorist explosions had hit the public transportation network at the end of the morning rush hour.

"It's no longer a matter of if something happens, it has happened," said Steven Barker, 30, who works in information-technology security. At midday, he and others were standing outside at Canary Wharf, watching a billboard that featured a news scroll for information on the attacks. The Wharf is about 3.5 miles from the nearest blast site, about a 30- to 40-minute subway ride from Central London. It houses thousands of office workers, most of whom had taken the subway -- or Tube as it's known in London -- to work.

The subway was shut down after the blasts, leaving workers stranded at their offfices, trying to reach loved ones on the phone and surfing the Web and watching TV for news updates. Trying to reach family and friends was at times difficult, as jammed networks meant many mobile phones weren't working.


  "It's fairly calm on the whole, but absolutely everyone is glued to the Internet. I don't think there's very much work taking place," said Belinda Watsford, 29, an administrative worker at a bank, who left the Underground this morning just as it was closing.

"It's quite a shock, especially after yesterday, when everyone was so excited," said Lisa Gregory, 31, a personal assistant at a bank in Canary Wharf, who arrived at work on the subway before the attack. "It just feels surreal."

Around the city, news of the explosions emerged gradually yesterday morning, with the first reports attributing a single underground blast to a power surge. As it became clear that there had been several explosions, on the subway and on a bus, the reality set in that the city had been hit by a coordinated, terrorist attack.


  Immediately, security measures were stepped up. In Canary Wharf, people entering even public buildings were required to show identification and to allow security guards to inspect their bags. Adding to the anxiety fueled by actual news reports of the blasts in central London were unsubstantiated rumors. Tales of bombs intercepted and suicide bombers detained spread through office buildings, even before the extent of casualties and the seriousness of the attack was known.

"People are confused about what's going on. There are a lot of stories going around," said Ragnvald Kavli, 26, who works at a London bank.

For every person in London, even those nowhere near the blasts, a key problem was transportation. The entire subway system was closed for the day, and for much of the day, buses and taxis weren't traveling to Central London. Even outside the city center, certain streets were closed, and major train stations leading out of the city were also shut until late afternoon, creating severe delays during the evening commute. Among the few options for commuters was to take a ferry along the Thames River, find a ride with co-workers who drove, or walk.

"I have no idea what I'm going to do to get home. Everyone's in the same position," said Manik Navain, 19, a university student working as an intern for a bank in Canary Wharf.


  Whether the attacks will have a lasting effect on Londoners' sense of security was a matter of debate. And at least near Canary Wharf, few people were ready to immediately blame the policies of the British government.

Invoking the city's past experience with the Irish Republican Army, some longtime residents said the city would likely shrug off the event. "Having lived in London, you know it can happen. London has always been the target of terrorists. Everyone is used to this happening," said Clayton Richards, 29, a broker.

But others were less sure. Several commuters acknowledged that even if the subway were open, they would be reluctant to ride home on it immediately after such an event.

Over the long term, however, most people said they would not have a choice. In a sprawling city like London, where cabs are expensive, people have to use public transportation, noted Robert Wickes, 28, a trade-processing coordinator at a bank. "People have to use the Tube, though I don't doubt that people will be thinking about it now," he said. "It will be on people's minds." With the latest terrorist assault, minds are reeling

Carney is a correspondent for BusinessWeek Online in the London bureau

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