Surviving London: A veterinary student recovers from the crossfire of an al-qaeda bomb


Shards of metal and glass rifled through the air as she and her sister fell to floor. The intense heat from the explosion crippled them in the fetal position while everything went black, and she reached out with her left hand to grab hold of her sister.

Shards of metal and glass rifled through the air as she and her sister fell to floor. The intense heat from the explosion crippled them in the fetal position while everything went black, and she reached out with her left hand to grab hold of her sister.

"There was debris in the air. The same air that carries the debris carries a heat that caused the sensation like we were being electrocuted," says Katie Benton, who began veterinary school at the University of Tennessee in August. "We caught a lot of glass in our face, so our faces were really bloody and we were remarkably dirty. That was the first thing I noticed with Emily."

More than 700 people were injured in four blasts July 7 that tore through three London Underground subway cars and one double-decker bus; 52 died in the initial explosions, and the death toll hit 55 July 16 as those critically wounded succumbed to injuries sustained that day, according to the Scotland Yard.

Katie, 21, and her sister, Emily, 20, were the only Americans severely injured in what Downing Street immediately labeled terrorist attacks. The sisters met in London July 6 to explore the city. It was a graduation gift for them; Katie had finished her bachelor's degree in animal science and was starting veterinary school in the fall. She arrived in London after a month-long wildlife management and conservation study in southwest Kenya.

"They really need vet work there, especially with parasite control," she says. "I definitely will pay attention (in school) when they talk about goats. It sounds ridiculous, but every time you turn around in Third-World countries, you meet another goat. I think that's under-rated."

Though her delegation was only in the volatile city of Nairobi for about five hours during the trip, she says she could still appreciate irony of leaving a place where you had to be wary of everything — from strangers to mosquito bites — only to encounter a bombing in a perceptibly stable country.

She left Africa without incident and flew to London to meet up with Emily.

They settled in at a youth hostel and woke early July 7 with plans to see the Tower of London. They ate breakfast at the hostel, then ventured around the corner for some coffee.

"I refused to go to Starbucks outside the United States because I was like, 'Whatever, we have that all the time.' We went to this cute little corner coffee store that had really good coffee," she says.

They proceeded to Paddington Station just north of Hyde Park in the Bayswater neighborhood of London. Then there was a bit of uncertainty about which train to take. When DVM Newsmagazine spoke with Katie at her Knoxville, Tenn., home more than two weeks after the incident, she still wasn't convinced that she was on the right train.

"We knew where we wanted to go, but that does not necessarily mean we were on the right train to get there. I think what you had to do was get on the district line and then get off at Edgware to get on the Circle Line. So we went to Edgware, got off the District Line and got on the Circle Line."

She guessed right. The eastbound Circle Line would have brought them to the Tower Hill Station — about four tube stops away. But fate halted the train well before its next stop. It was 8:50 a.m.

"It happened right as it pulled out of the (Edgware Road) station. A bomb blast is not a fireball; it doesn't feel anything like it looks in the movies. Everything went black, and it was intensely painful from the heat that emanated from the bomb. Once that feeling stopped and we could open our eyes and look around, the debris had already been blown to where it was going to be blown. When we could open our eyes and look around, we had already sustained all the injuries that we were going to."

Katie suffered lacerations on her face, right hand and right leg. Emily broke her left foot and right hand, and she was riddled with glass, too. The explosion blew out their eardrums and caused permanent damage in Katie's right ear, which hadn't stopped ringing more than two weeks later. They were incapacitated.

So were riders on three other subway cars as three explosions on The Underground erupted simultaneously at 8:50 a.m. — two on Circle Line trains close to Aldgate and Edgware Road stations and another on a Piccadilly Line train near King's Cross Station. At 9:47 in Tavistock Square, a fourth explosion tore through a No. 30 double-decker bus bound for Hackney Wick.

"Once that actual explosion settled down, it was fairly horrific; there were a lot of injured people. There were several people around us in very bad shape. Some people were fairly hysterical, especially those who were uninjured enough to get out of the train. It was very confusing; we weren't exactly sure what had happened, and even after I figured out that it was a bomb, it was still very confusing."

Katie and Emily were treated initially at a London hospital then flown to Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., where they underwent several surgeries and were kept for observation for two weeks. Two other Americans were treated and released in London.

The Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades, considered al-Qaeda's cell in Europe, took credit for the bombings July 7 as well as the second round of eerily similar blasts July 21 that exploded on three tubes and a bus; no injuries were reported from those explosions.

Out of adversity

It would be easy to lament the experience, perhaps even detest the attackers, but Katie does neither of those things. On the contrary, she says she is blessed; her heart has been warmed by the outpouring of support and encouragement she has received from her community and church, as well as perfect strangers who remind her of her good fortune in spite of the incident.

"Some of the most encouraging notes I've gotten have been from complete strangers that I may never meet, but they have just known what to say," she says. "I got one letter from a lady — and I've read it every day so far — who sent me a thank you note with some introduction and encouragement, then she said: 'I sent you a thank you because I wanted to remind you to start thanking the Lord every day for opportunity he has given you and the platform he has given you to witness, and it's something that most people will never have.'

"It's a little bizarre; I feel like we are two of 700, and why should the two of us be singled out? But at the same time I understand that being the only Americans seriously injured, that's who America cares about, and I understand that a lot of people were reminded of 9/11 by these attacks," she says. "But it still seems a little bizarre that people we don't know care about our recovery."

Their recovery is going well. Despite their physician's initial skepticism about Katie beginning veterinary school in August, he had given her the green light at presstime. She says she is eager, and cabin fever is bogging down an otherwise active, adventurous lifestyle, but she won't let her injuries keep her down too long.

"Last weekend, I was supposed to be rock climbing, and that obviously didn't happen. It's really hard for me to be dependent and sedentary, but I'm learning. I'm getting to read a lot. My goal is to be back on the rock wall by Christmas," she says, adding that her doctor responds with a cautiously optimistic "We'll see."

The incident won't keep her from traveling overseas, either. She plans to return to Kenya to do more relief work, perhaps for a week or two a year or perhaps longer. Though she's not sure how it might play out, she says she is as enthusiastic as ever to see the world and return to the city she never got to see.

"I'm still as eager to travel and to be as many places as I ever have been, and I'm going back to London in 2012 for the Olympics," she says. "My family has seen a lot of positive outcomes from this really horrible situation; what man meant for evil, God uses for good."

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