I woke up this morning to hear of the rail crash in northwest Spain. As I write this (on Thursday) the numbers of dead and injured are large and rising. It is a terrible tragedy. I can’t imagine how the families of those affected must be feeling, but I have an idea of the friends. You see, whenever I hear of a tragedy like this, especially a train crash, I’m immediately taken back to the beginning of October 1999.
It is the 6th October, me and my girlfriend (soon to be wife) are on a flight back from holiday. As we board the plane we are offered a selection of newspapers. On the front of each paper is a photograph of train carriages scattered across a busy rail junction, some ripped apart, others still smoking from the fire that had raged through them. I take one and read that the day before, on the 5th October at 8:09 am, the shuttle service to Bedwyn leaving London Paddington railway station crashed head on with the Cheltenham to Paddington intercity train. I turned to my girlfriend and said “Oh Christ! That’s the train Charlotte takes.”
Charlotte Lund Andersen had moved to my company’s Slough office from the US and we’d hit it off immediately. A proud Danish American (she would often go to visit family in Denmark and tell us all about it), tall, slightly gawky as if she had never become used to how much her limbs had grown (watching Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon years later reminded me so much Charlotte) – Charlotte was both fiercely intelligent and very, very funny. It took her a few months to get used to the British sense of humour (she was coordinated enough to pack a hefty punch to the shoulder if she had thought you had gone too far) but before long she became a surrogate big sister to me and I became her unofficial cultural ambassador to those weird Brits. She had thrown herself into her new life in London and despite the danger of becoming anonymous in such a large city, had formed a good group of friends, both in the Danish ex-pat community and, more surprisingly, at a salsa class.
I called my manager as soon as I arrived home, even though I wasn’t due in until the next day.
“I’ve read about the crash in the Newspapers. Is Charlotte OK?”
There was a moment’s silence. “I was hoping we’d have this conversation face to face. Charlotte left home yesterday morning and never made it into work. We’ve tried contacting her but there is no answer. She’s officially missing at the moment but it’s not looking good.”
It took a few days before the worst was confirmed. Charlotte was in the front carriage of the shuttle train, which bore the brunt of the impact before being engulfed in flames. She was eventually identified by her jewellery and some items of clothing. My memories of that time are pretty vague, a cycle of shock and grief. The one thing that I do remember clearly was being taken to an office on my first day back to be updated on what had happened and what was known, though not much had changed from the day before. Afterwards I went back to my desk and sat staring at my computer, wondering what to do. I eventually realised I couldn’t do anything other than wait, so to pass the time I decided to catch up with my work that had built up after my holiday. The red, blinking light from my voicemail caught my eye so I picked up the phone.
“Hi Dylan, I know you’re on holiday but I’d really like to speak to you as soon as you’re back. Something has come up and I’d like you to hear from me before anyone else. Hope you had a great time!”
It was Charlotte’s voice. I can still feel the echoes of the shock I’d felt then, the confusion as at first I thought she was OK, followed by the slow realisation that it had been left days before. I found out later that Charlotte had been told she was being made redundant, part of a cost rationalisation following our takeover by another corporation. I never deleted that message.
A memorial service was held and a number of people spoke about Charlotte and what she meant to them. To my regret, I didn’t speak. I don’t know why, though I was probably still trying to hide from what had happened. It didn’t work. I cried through the whole service and I can still feel the tears pressuring my eyes, looking to well up again as I think back to it now.
In the weeks following the accident, those of us that knew Charlotte dealt with our grief in different ways. I chose to suppress it, to avoid thinking about it, to hide away. Charlotte’s then manager, Simon Walters, was the complete opposite. He not only took it on himself to find out what had happened, but worked as the family liaison to Charlotte’s parents and sister, both before and after they arrived from the US. He had always been my friend, but I have nothing but respect and admiration for what Simon did, off his own back and in his own time, to help support Charlotte’s parents and sister in what was a horrendous time.
So why now? Why write this blog now when the events took place nearly 14 years ago? Part of it is anger; anger with the news broadcasters that whenever there is a disaster they depersonalise the event by concentrating on statistics. I know that in these cases it is impossible to show the full cost to every individual affected, but reducing the story to numbers and images of people crying – or even worse jumping with glee on increasing death tolls as if desiring to see the numbers increase so that it will be a bigger story – is both a betrayal of those affected and a betrayal of those watching. Those who have died and their families and friends deserve more. Much more. Part of it is through guilt; guilt that I didn’t do more for my friend’s family at the time, that I never said anything at her memorial service, that I shut myself away.
Mostly, though, it is to right the wrong that this beautiful, wonderful, awkward, hilarious, and above all compassionate soul, with her quirky lopsided smile and a handy punch to the shoulder, had an online memorial, talking about who Charlotte Lund Andersen was as a person, at least from this friend’s point of view, so that if you google her name you will find more of her than just a footnote on a list of those killed on the 5th October.
We’ll never know what would have happened if Charlotte hadn’t have died that day. Given that she was going back to the US, we could have lost contact as our lives took us in different directions. I like to think that we would have stayed in touch, though. As it is, I’m 42 years old now, ten years older than Charlotte was when she died and not the callow 28 year old I was then. While I don’t think of Charlotte daily like I used to, I still think of her often. I’d agreed with my wife that if we’d had a baby girl, to name them Charlotte after my friend, and one day tell them about their namesake. Instead we had two beautiful boys, though I wouldn’t change that for the world. I just wish they could have known her.
So this is it, my memorial to Charlotte, which will be here on the internet as long as the internet exists.