What It Was Like Working In The Temporary Mortuary During 7/7
Inside the big white tents in the gardens of the Honourable Artillery Company with the people who cared for the 52 victims.
Carla Valentine wasn’t in London when the explosions happened, but she can tell you exactly what she was doing at the time. She was in a postmortem room in Liverpool, hosing down the recently dead. She was cleaning autopsy tools and listening to the radio as news reports changed by the minute: It was a collision between two trains, it was a power surge. By 11:10am it was confirmed as a coordinated terror attack and police commissioner Sir Ian Blair was appealing for calm. The underground shut down. The buses stopped running. Our mobile phones stopped working.
Twenty-four hours after the first explosion took place, a temporary mortuary was ready to receive the 52 victims. As giant white tents were unrolled in the gardens of the Honourable Artillery Company on City Road, hospitals across London readied 1,200 beds and waited.
Valentine can’t believe all this happened 10 years ago. At the time, she was training as an “anatomical pathology technologist" (APT) – or, in plainer terms, a mortuary assistant. It was her job to assist the pathologist (whose work is largely elsewhere) by running the mortuary: assisting in autopsies and viewings, releasing bodies to the families, just regular day-to-day mortuary life. In the summer of 2005, Valentine had just completed her second-year final exams in London, and was more or less qualified. On the Thursday morning the explosions happened, she was at work at the coroner’s mortuary, and had been since 7:30am. By Saturday she was in London’s fully functioning Resilience Mortuary.
Over the years, Western countries have got better at the idea of standby disaster response teams. Valentine says wars in eastern European zones, where forensic pathologists flew in after the fact to exhume and examine bodies, highlighted the need for APTs to be included in that initial wave of disaster response. “The UN realised it’s not just enough to have pathologists and police, because there’s no one to logistically run anything,” she says. “So there was a drive to get APTs involved, and to get us to put our names on a register.” A lot of people were flown out to Thailand for the tsunami in 2004. Others would go to New Orleans in August, after Hurricane Katrina. Valentine’s assigned disaster was closer to home.
What began as a wedding-style marquee with a porta-potty outside quickly grew into a massive complex of tents. It had four separate tunnels leading into it, each catering to a different explosion, each crime scene kept painstakingly separate. Corridors led from the mortuary to the coroner’s department, local council offices, etc. There was even a canteen by the end of the first week, so staff were no longer dining in the barracks’ mess hall. Valentine was there for two and a half weeks (as long as her job in Liverpool could spare her) and the operation wrapped in three. She was glad she left when she did, she says; a job like that is dependent on adrenaline pumping.
They were up at 6:00am every day, and wouldn't leave the mortuary until 8:00pm every night. They would head back to their hotel – the Thistle Barbican, right around the corner – get changed, and eat dinner together. “There was nothing else to do. We would call it a debriefing session – we’d all get pissed and that was how we’d deal with the day. We’d go to bed at 2:00am, then be up again at 6:00am to go through it all again. It was probably a bad way of coping, but at the time it seemed like a good way to deal with things. We used to call it Big Brother Mortuary.”
Valentine shows me a photo of the APT crew. They’re standing in the July sun, on their break in the gardens near the big white tent. There are 15 of them, leaning on two stationary cannon wheels, wearing T-shirts, jeans, tank tops. Two guys at the front are kneeling, like any other group photo. They’re smiling, regular people – their identical lanyards are the only indication that they aren’t just some friends on a tour.
The process was the same with each victim of the blasts: The APTs received bodies in separate bags and x-rayed them two or three times for hidden debris so that no avoidable injuries were sustained when they later put their hands inside during the standard postmortem. They went through the pockets and clothes with staff from SO13 (the anti-terrorist branch of the Metropolitan police) and Interpol’s disaster victim identification (DVI) members, looking for evidence that would later corroborate with DNA. There were an average of 10 people around each body, along with two APTs and a pathologist. The bodies were checked for trace evidence, washed, autopsied to record any incidental findings (such as cancer), reconstructed, and released back to their families. The mortuary was organised but chaotic, a buzz of crime scene investigators, coroners’ officers, and helpline staff talking to family members. In the chaos, Valentine received the bodies, and waited for more bodies.
Valentine is emotional about the experience, but also scientific and detached, as her job requires. This is why, when you ask, she will tell you the things you don’t want to know and that no press officer will ever tell you. The details you don’t overhear on the radio in a cab, the ones that make you feel very instantly mortal. Like the chicken bones. “The remains were from human-sized – pretty much complete, or without a head or a leg – to going down to just a torso. Then we got to the point where we had to identify tiny fragments. The coroner said that we were wanted to identify every fragment that was over two inches square. But the problem was, there were lots of things like chicken bones down there, because people might eat fried chicken and just throw the bones down. Or there were rats that had died, and pigeons that had got stuck. So there were a few anthropologists in the mortuary as well, boiling the flesh off tiny bones to figure out if they were human.”
It was a shock to the system, both in terms of the level of injury and the scale of the media. Training in a coroner’s mortuary, as Valentine did, exposes staff to a higher level of injury than a hospital mortuary – at the coroner’s you’ll find people who have jumped in front of trains, or off buildings – but the only thing that had come close in Valentine’s experience of dealing with the media was a couple of guys who had been shot and made the local Liverpool Echo twice. There were new rules and strictures put in place to present a softer, more palatable front for the media.
“We weren’t supposed to do things like come out of the mortuary and walk across the grass in our scrubs, because the TV cameras were always filming,” she said. “It was somehow offensive if they saw us in them, even though doctors wear them.” On top of the scrubs, APTs wear surgical gowns and plastic aprons, so it wasn’t blood they were worried about – it was the reality of death that people didn’t want in the papers. Even doctors outside in their scrubs is an indication that they’ve done all they can do.
Outside the tent was a media frenzy; inside, people were ferrying other people through the final admin of their human existence. And Valentine remembers the victims she met vividly. “I remember the distinctive things on them, like tattoos, because I’ve got loads of tattoos. The detectives came to us with pictures of the deceased that they still hadn’t been able to account for and put them all up on the wall. We’d tick them as we identified them, and I remember looking at one of the pictures – it was a girl in a bikini, and she had this really specific belly-button piercing. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s over there. We’ve just opened her up.’ Then there was a photo of a guy wearing glasses, and he was wearing the exact same glasses when he came in.” The same pictures were in the papers and on the TV. Inside and outside the mortuary, the pictures were everywhere.
And yes, she remembers the bombers' bodies. “None of them were intact from what I can remember. They just looked like I thought they would look – young guys, T-shirts. There was nothing that separated them from anyone else.” Valentine says that particular day in the mortuary was quiet, with lots of whispering, because everyone knew the bombers were coming in. But once they arrived, nobody treated them any differently to anyone else who entered the tent in a body bag.
“Ultimately, everyone’s equal in death,” she says. “They all have to be treated with exactly the same analytical skill and the same staff. There was an outcry at the time – but what were we supposed to do, build a completely separate mortuary for these people?”
Ordinarily, the life of a mortuary is predictable and quiet – it’s when the living come in that things get difficult. Valentine jokes that there’s a reason she became a mortician: She’s no good around live people. Doing viewings and dealing with family members is one of the hardest parts of a job that most people couldn’t stomach. It shatters the focus, makes the job more difficult.
The temporary mortuary, with its on-site viewing suite big enough for two or three bodies at a time, was more difficult than others. In mortuaries Valentine has worked in, staff have a hard time explaining to family members what they’re about to see, and it doesn’t help that our modern, Western relationship with death means that we don’t see it close up until we’re in no emotional state to handle it subjectively. Sometimes it’s best to talk them out of it entirely. “We would have to say to the family members that they won’t recognise their family member and it really isn’t worth it, and we’ll do as much as we can to put them off having the viewing," she says. "If they insist on it, we have to make them sign a waiver that basically says please don’t sue us if you’re traumatised.” It’s hard for people to get their heads around what they are about to see, even with the tricks that APTs have to make our dead less dead: the cotton balls under the eyelids to make them fuller, the ways to make a mouth stay closed.
In the case of 7/7, grief counsellors had a meeting and decided that it all happened so quickly that for the sake of closure, family members needed to see their dead. APTs don’t normally put make-up on the deceased before a viewing – that’s more of a funeral home thing – but they had to in this situation, because some of the bodies were more heavily decomposed than most of us realised. “The King’s Cross explosion on the Piccadilly line was the worst hit, and it was boiling down there," Valentine says. "It took them longer to get in there because they couldn’t tunnel their way in as easily as they could with some of the others.” Other APTs became viewing counsellors, and grief-stricken family members responded as anyone would: with horror, with disbelief, with denial. The APT who was doing the make-up had a nervous breakdown and had to leave.
Valentine says she’s not a grief counsellor, and in her work and writing she deliberately stays away from anything to do with end-of-life care or grief. She has no idea how beneficial it would have been to the families. All she knows is that people were screaming “no, this isn’t him”, that they were knocking bodies over in the viewing suite.
Today she works as a curator at Barts Pathology Museum, preserving Victorian body parts in jars of formaldehyde and assisting television shows in autopsy accuracy. Her experience didn't change the way she travels around the city – it actually gave her the impetus to move from Liverpool to London a year later, having met a lot of people in the trade – except for her first day off from the mortuary, on 21 July. She was on the Central line into Oxford Circus with a plan to go shopping, when what would later turn out to be failed bomb detonations caused the service to stall at the platform. At the first hint of something being wrong – a held train, a vague announcement – she ran up the escalator into the open air. No one followed her lead.
But she knew what she was getting into at the temporary mortuary. “I just wanted to feel useful. I didn’t just want to be one of those people who’s just watching TV and going, 'Isn’t this terrible, I’m now afraid to go on the tube.' I wanted to actually do something and help. It was good to feel part of something that was really important. I’d do it again, if I had to.”