When Sarah Jenkins saw pictures of distraught mothers appealing for information about missing children after the Manchester bombing, it reminded her of her own experience 12 years ago. After the 7/7 attacks in London she had to wait 11 awful days for confirmation that her daughter Emily had died. She now campaigns for victims’ relatives to be kept better informed.
“Emily was my fourth child, so the baby of the family. She could be naughty sometimes, but a great joy. All children are,” says Sarah.
On the morning of 7 July 2005, Emily, aged 24, was on her way to work in London.
“She was staying in North London with a new boyfriend and I had no idea she was there so I didn’t really prick up my ears or alert to the fact she was missing until my older daughter rang and said, ‘We’re all absolutely fine, Emily’s late for work.’ But there was nothing new in that, she was very often late for work,” Sarah says.
But when she still hadn’t heard from Emily by lunchtime, she began to suspect that something might be terribly wrong.
Sarah had spent the morning drawing in Clapham, south London, and walked with an awful sickness in her stomach towards the station, where she met one of her sons. The two of them went into a bar to watch live coverage of the bombing on a large TV screen.
“The first thing you do is ring helplines,” she says.
“They give you very little information because they have no information.”
Every time they rang they spoke to a different person, and were asked the same questions.
Sarah was also constantly ringing Emily’s mobile phone and leaving messages.
Find out more
- Sarah Jenkins spoke to Eddie Mair on PM, on BBC Radio 4 – click here to listen online
- Click here to listen to John Ramsbottom on the iPM podcast
By late afternoon she and all three of her other children had gathered together, but were not quite sure what to do. They called the police, who told them to call the helpline, which they did, constantly.
“I remember phoning all through that first night – of course one didn’t sleep – so I was constantly phoning the helpline to get the same, ‘Have you contacted her friends?’
“I could scream,” Sarah says.
Her son James came up with the idea of going to the hospitals to look for Emily, but hospital staff just showed them into a room and asked to wait.
“The last thing they wanted was relatives there,” Sarah says.
They also knew that Emily would have been travelling south on the Piccadilly line, so they visited King’s Cross and Russell Square stations in the hope of picking up information. Again, without success.
One of the things Sarah remembers most clearly about this period, as the family waited together, was how her son Barnaby would go to buy pizza in the evening, which no-one could eat. Every day they threw away boxes of uneaten pizza. Sarah wondered what the rubbish collectors would think.
Although she knew that the helpline staff were taking her concerns seriously, she says it wasn’t made clear to the family that they had been logged as a priority case. So they kept ringing back to check for information, not knowing that they would in fact have been contacted as soon there was something to report.
All this time, Sarah hoped that Emily might still be alive.
“As a mother you have that absolute thing of (a) it should have been me and (b) I should have protected her and so she must be still alive. It can’t be my child who’s died,” she says.
After three days, Sarah’s family was finally put in touch with a Family Liaison Officer. This was progress, but Sarah could still not understand why her daughter could not be identified. Emily had been carrying credit cards with her that day and a tube pass. She had been wearing a distinctive ring, and had a tattoo on her back, both of which Sarah carefully described.
“The other victims were identified slowly but not as slowly as us,” she says. “Emily was the last to be identified.”
Later Sarah found out that her daughter had been one of the first victims to be taken out of the tube carriage.
“The only thing that it (the bomb) had done was it had blown her legs off. She was absolutely fine apart from that,” Sarah says.
Finally, a full 11 days after the bombing, the Family Liaison Officer visited the family to give them the bad news about Emily’s death.
Sarah later campaigned to improve the information given to victim’s families after a major incident, and worked with a government department on plans for an official website that would tell families which hospitals were treating victims, and provide help to arrange funerals and claim compensation.
She says she received a promise that the website would be launched, but after the Manchester bombing it was clear to her that little or nothing had changed.
“People were still visiting hospitals with no results. Mothers were still crying in the streets with photographs of their daughters, saying frantically, ‘Has anyone seen this child?’
“I don’t think anybody in the day and age of fast communication should be out on the street with a photograph of their daughter or son.”
John Ramsbottom, a retired police inspector, says the length of time it takes to identify a body after a bombing has to do with the complexity of the police operation.
“Two people are key at the scene,” he says.
“The first one is the Senior Investigating Officer. This person is concerned with investigating the crime and extracting from the scene all the evidence that will enable us to come to the conclusion of what happened that day. The second person at the scene is the Senior Identification Manager. They are responsible with the recovery of the dead and the identification of the dead.”
Each time a body part is removed from the scene it must be properly bagged and logged, generating large amounts of paperwork.
“A large number of them are going to have fragments of the bomb in them, so we’ve got to gather from them forensic evidence as well as identification evidence,” he says.
In many cases the body parts will be moved to a temporary mortuary, where work will be done to reassemble the bodies of the dead.
The goal is to ensure that no parts are wrongly allocated, and that “the body we give back to the family is absolutely as pure as that body as we can possibly make it”.
There are only four ways to definitively identify a body, Ramsbottom says – through fingerprints, DNA, dental records and surgical implants, such as a hip joint or a pace-maker with a unique serial number.
Wallets and ID documents are not considered strong enough evidence. And “if we don’t know, we say nothing,” he says.
“Do the police say to somebody, ‘We are 90% sure we found them’? But then we leave them with 10% hope. Is it worse later if we destroy that 10% hope or not?
“That’s not a legal or police question, it’s a human-being question and I don’t have the answer to it.”
He adds: “The only thing we console ourselves with is that when we’ve done what we’ve done, we’ve got absolutely the right body, and that the dead person there has told their story to the police and coroner, and that story becomes part of the narrative of the incident.”
Sarah understands that information can be given out only when it is confirmed to be true, and that “wrong information is worse than anything else”.
But she says she is angry that families are still going through the enormous stress that she endured 12 years ago.
She would like a central co-ordinating body to be created, to provide families with information after a major incident. “But if they cannot do that, or nobody thinks it’s a good idea, then I will compromise with a website.”
Until that website exists, she is not going to let it lie, she says. “I expect letters back from the Home Office.”