Monday, June 18
(With updated copy in lower half regarding newspaper cuttings and sentencing)
There was no stain or mark on the road. The door at No 15 was unmarked and long since painted over. The ambience of Stanhope Gardens was tranquil.
A couple sat on a ledge backing on to the park; a woman talked on a mobile phone. The weather was cool for a summer’s day, unlike that hot and sticky summer of 1976.
It was the hottest on record and followed a particularly nasty hot summer of 1975, itself a record breaker of sorts.
I was flatting in a formerly plush set of grand, colonnaded buildings facing Cromwell Road in West Kensington. We were on the second floor and had large bay windows overlooking the verdant gardens for which the square was named.
The building rose four storeys but we had a large space and a Queenslander and I shared what was a huge living room at the back of the house.
On that summer’s night, I was cooking dinner of spaghetti mixed with tomato soup. It was a staple diet. I was bare-chested and needed to put on a shirt so went to my room and stooped over to get the shirt off the floor, as that was my wardrobe, just centimetres from my bed — a mattress on the floor.
Then my world was shattered as the whole building shook on its foundations and I was tipped off my axis as a loud boom followed.
This was the bombing season and there was no doubt in my mind that it had arrived at my doorstep. Just a little more than 30 years before it was German bombs raining down but in 1975 the city was gripped by another aggressor — the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
As I regained my senses, I scanned the park and off to my left I saw paper fluttering in the air amidst a coarse, billowing smoke.
Shirtless, I took the stairs three at a time and out on to Cromwell Road and ran the 30m to the corner. I careered into Stanhope Gardens and to the source of the paper and smoke, now dissipating or making a landing on the road and surrounding cars.
There, between two cars, lay a crumpled mess of a man, distorted like a discarded rag doll, part on the road and part on the footpath, or should I say, parts everywhere.
It took little intelligence for my journalistic mind, even as a 22 year-old, to figure out the circumstances of this man’s predicament.
I stooped to offer support and placed my head close to his as I lifted it off the rough surface. Did I need to use my surf lifesaving skills to revive this person? It seemed not as I knew where his future lay. It was not long on this earth.
He looked wanly at me and uttered his name and where he lived. This was all he could mutter as he slipped into unconsciousness. I took in the surroundings. Neither car was damaged. The front door at No 15 was blown in. The windows either side were shattered. My man’s body was in ruins. It was clear to me that he was carrying a bomb and it went off prematurely, assigning him to the martyrs for the IRA cause. It obviously was not what he planned for that evening. His target was elsewhere so many people were unknowingly saved.
The impact of the explosion was in his lower torso. It had torn off his right leg, discarded to one side like a surgeon would in wartime. His innards were ripped from his stomach; his manhood pulped. His right hand had disappeared (only to be found later by my Queensland flatmate several houses away and with the glove intact).
As the first person on the scene, I heard little around me until a man, apparently a policemen in plain clothes, gripped my shoulder and dragged me backward. “Get out of here.”
“But he gave me some information…”
“Get out of here. Everybody run!”
“But he gave….”
I got the hint and ran home, retracing my frantic footsteps of minutes earlier. The spaghetti was on the stove. Had I turned off the gas?
It was time for dinner and I returned to my culinary ministrations.
The Queenslander wobbled into the room.
“How can you eat food at a time like this?”
“It’s dinner time, mate!”
With this reply, he proceeded to project his lunch onto the kitchen floor. Sick and bending over, he told me of finding the hand. Apparently he had followed me from the flat.
The spaghetti looked a lot like what I had just witnessed but then, I had a season in a slaughter works in New Zealand and it was the norm to see such carnage.
I took my dinner and opened the huge window and followed the mayhem in the street below and to my left. Police were evacuating the four terraces to our left but felt we must have been safe halfway down the square.
Police were rushing everywhere by now. Television cameras had turned up but they were kept at bay on Cromwell Road outside the cordon that now crippled the main arterial route. I checked my small television and watched the updates. One reporter even interviewed “the first man on the scene”. What he said was total rubbish and obviously grabbing at a chance for his 15 minutes of fame. He said he was dining in a restaurant around the corner and managed to get to the scene first. The nearest restaurant is hundreds of metres away.
The police were cautious, and rightfully so, but I knew that it was unnecessary.
This was the time that that the IRA had “invented” a cruel twist to bombings — the secondary bomb. A bomb would explode but when the rescuers moved in the main bomb would ignite and tear asunder a greater number than the original bomb. This is why the copper had urged us to piss off.
A nurse who lived above told us of the bomber’s agonising death in her hospital days later. A week after the event, the newspaper screamed “Bomb factory” and the name of the victim and what they found in his quarters.
Not news to me as he told me his name and where he lived and where he was going. He was off the beaten path in a suburban square with no obvious target.
He hadn’t set the timer or poorly made the bomb. He died by his own hand.
Today, our flat has been turned into a group of luxury apartments, still commanding it over the park. The house at No 15 is still standing tall, testament to good British workmanship, despite what an IRA bomber unwittingly did all those years ago.
The couple is still chatting animatedly and I wander off around the corner to reacquaint myself with some more history from my time living in London in the mid-70s.
Here is what The Sun reported in its Tuesday, March 2, 1976 issue under the heading “VICTIM! — Man injured in London bomb blast:”
“A bomb victim lies critically injured in a London street, tended by ambulancemen.
The man was so close to the explosion in Stanhope Gardens, Kensington, last night that his hand was blown off.
A senior police officer said: “The theory that he could have been carrying an explosive devide is obviously being considered.
Bombs squad chief, Commander Roy Habershon later went to the man’s bedside in St Stephen’s Hospital to interview him.
He was identified early today as 26-year-old James Hennessey from Ulster.
Late last night the man was critically ill.”
On page seven the story continued under the heading: Bomb squad chief sees blast victim — Hospital dash to quiz a mystery man who lost hand in explosion”:
“Bomb squad chief Roy Habershon waited last night at the bedside of a man seriously injured in a London bomb blast.
The man’s hand was blown off in the explosion as he stood between two parked cars in Stanhope Gardens, Kensington.
Commander Habershon said: “The man was close to the seat of the explosion and suffered serious blast injuries.
“We have not been able to talk to him, but he gave us a name which we are now checking.
The injured man had an emergency operation at St Stephen’s Hospital.
Detective Chief Supt Jim Nevill said: “I can’t say whether he was handling the bomb at the time.”
Residents in Stanhope Gardens gave police descriptions of three men running away.
Mr Nevill said: “We would like to interview them but they may be perfectly innocent.
“People do automatically run away when there is an explosion.”
A senior officer said: “There is no possible target of any kind in Stanhope Gardens. The bomb might have been in the process of being carried when it exploded.
It was 7pm when the explosion shook Stanhope Gardens. Windows fell in and two cars were damaged.
Mr Ian Craig ran from his ground-floor flat in Derwent House. He said: “The man was lying groaning in the road.
“One hand was blown off and he was covered in blood.”
Police closed the road and searched cars in case there was another bomb.
The blast was the seventh in London since IRA hunger striker Frank Stagg died on February 12.
It is the first involving serious injury.
Stanhope Gardens is a quiet residential road with several expensive Regency houses.
It is less than 50 yards from the busy Gloucester Road underground station.
Several of the recent bomb explosions have been close to underground stations, which Scotland Yard believe the bombers use for a quick getaway.”
The Evening News followed up with “Find London’s new bomb factory, remarkably by reporter Peter O’Kill!
“Police are hoping for a major breakthrough today in their search for the IRA’s latest bomb factory in London.
Detectives were at the bedside of the victim of last night’s London street bomb as he fought for his life in St Stephen’s Hospital, Fulham.
It was still unclear whether the man, named in one report as a 26-year-old James Hennessey from Ulster, was a terrorist blown up by his own bomb.”
After appealing to those who fled the scene (was that me?) it quoted the following person:
“Mr Danny O’Leary, of Queen’s Gate Place Mews, said: “After the blast I ran out and almost fell over a man lying in the gutter between two cars.
“I have never seen anything so horrifying. There was blood everywhere and the man had lost a hand. I couldn’t make out if he was alive or dead.
“A policeman quickly arrived and I helped him more (sic) people back. If another bomb had gone off, there could have been a major disaster. (I never saw this guy).”
The story went on to interview a local who appeared to be “the first person on the scene”, which was rubbish.
Another man, who arrived moments after the blast, was 19-year-old salesman Nick Richardson, whose flat overlooks Stanhope Gardens (as mine did).
“I thought the man was dead, He must have been standing right beside the bomb when it went off. Debris and paper were scattered all about him.”
I have kept these newspapers to this day, allowing this exact reporting, as such it was.
Subsequent searches on the internet regarding the bombing reveal that Patrick Joseph Hackett (27) of Clapham Common North Side was convicted and sentenced to concurrent 20-year jail terms for having explosions in his house (as he told me) and for the bomb, which proved to be one pound in weight. This from the Glasgow Herald of July 1, 1977.
Blogs show that he was injured trying to blow up a tube and people wondered how he would escape a station with horrific injuries. He can’t have lost an arm and a leg from two different bombs and still have at least one arm, according to a photograph since seen.