In memory of Charlotte Lund Andersen

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.

Order of service for Charlotte Lund Andersen

Order of service from Charlotte’s memorial

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17 thoughts on “In memory of Charlotte Lund Andersen

  1. That is so awful for you and all her other friends and family. We never get used to losing people, especially when it seems so wrong for them to go so young. I’m sure she is happy that she is held in such high regard in your memory, I really believe that it’s things like that which are the best things we can leave behind.
    I also agree about the media’s approach. It’s right that the story has been reported but I hate the way they get carried away, especially as it is very personal and private to those affected. I’ve seen this happen before when I knew a family through my sister who had lost a child and the media actually changed the facts to make it more ‘dramatic’. I’m still angry about that.

    • Hi Jennie, yes it was awful at the time, although as I said in the blog, it must have been so much harder for Charlotte’s family. Still, time softens things, in my case at least. While I may still be prompted to think of Charlotte when something like this happens, what I actually think of is how kind she was, or the fact she knew all the words to REM’s “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” or her mock outrage at something I said, going bright red and covering her mouth with her hand before bursting out laughing. That’s what I was hoping to get across.

  2. The daily news is often shocking as well as sensationalised, and it’s easy for us to become de-sensitised to the loss of life as part of a coping strategy.
    But it’s important to humanise what would otherwise be a statistic, as you have done, so that we recognise that there are real persons involved, with hopes and fears, family and friends, who deserve to be remembered.
    This is a good thing you have done. I’m grateful for the reminder.

  3. This was such a sad story but one I think has helped both you (in a cathartic way) and we readers/watchers of news events understand that these terrible events have a shocking and lasting impact on those left behind. Thanks for sharing such a personal account.

  4. Hi Dylan – I came across this website by accident and was very touched by your tribute. I knew Charlotte – we went to graduate school together and were good friends. I knew her sister well but could never bring myself to tell Tina, Charlotte’s sister, how truly sorry I was for her loss, my loss, your loss. Charlotte was a wonderful person and I wish I had said something back then and can relate to your being quiet at the memorial. Sometimes, the greatest tribute is in our hearts which only the heavens and angels hear. Thank you and God bless and the sincerest gratitude for posting this wonderful letter – it gave me a chance to say I’m sorry but so very grateful that she touched us all.

    • Dear Jay, thank you so much for taking the time to comment, it really means a lot to me. Yes, Charlotte was a wonderful person, which is probably why a number of us still think of her despite the many years that have passed since she died. Knowing her, she would probably be a little embarrassed by the attention. One thing I’m sure of is that she wouldn’t have wanted any of us worrying about what we did, or did not do, or say, at the time. We all handle grief in different ways, and many of us run away rather than face up to what has happened. It is a natural thing to do. Still, it doesn’t stop us regretting our behaviour.
      I’m so glad of the happy accident that brought you here and that you felt moved enough to comment. I hope the act of writing brought you a little peace as it did me.
      Dylan

  5. It’s lovely to know that others keep Charlotte in their memories. This post brings back many painful memories but many warm ones as well – thank you for writing it. I too flash back to 1999 whenever I hear about a train crash. Grief is like a river, moving on yet bringing us back to the same places.

  6. Hi Dylan. This is Charlotte’s sister. Someone in my husband’s family just stumbled on your beautiful piece of writing. I’m bowled over by this tribute, not to mention the way you captured Charlotte’s personality and the days that surrounded the disaster. You meant a lot to Charlotte. Please send me an email if you see this comment. Thank you.

    • Tina – I am so very sorry and wish I could have told you then what you both meant to me. My father just passed away, about two months ago, and his passing brought back many memories of friends long gone but who still remain alive in our memories. Hope you are well and please excuse this clumsy way of saying I’m sorry. Jay

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