• YMCA staff member’s visit to London unexpectedly eventful

By Tony Pennington

Transcript Staff Writer

It was an exciting time to be in London.

In the span of five days, the city threw its support behind Live 8’s call to end poverty, and a fervor ran through the streets as it was announced the English capital would host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

And for Heather Cook, marketing and public relations director for Cleveland County Family YMCA, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“That’s all they were talking about, Live 8 and the Olympics,” she recalled about her first few days in London as a participant in the Association of YMCA Professionals United Kingdom Exchange program July 2-16. Even the conference she was attending got swept up in the enthusiasm.

“They actually scheduled the sessions around the Olympic announcement,” she said of her English hosts. And there they were, crowded around a TV in a tiny room in the house converted into a conference center, waiting.

When word came down that London had won the summer games, Cook couldn’t help but join in with her British counterparts.

“It was party central that night,” she said. “There were plenty of reasons to celebrate.”

But the elation induced by the IOC selection would soon be replaced by despair as the following morning during rush hour four bombs rattled London’s public transportation system. Three explosions on the underground trains and one on a bus left more than 50 dead and 700 injured in a span of an hour.

“We heard about it right when it happened,” Cook said. “Somebody got a call and told me the terrorists had bombed the underground in London.”

As the July 7 events unfolded and reports surfaced, the TV room once again became the hub of information. Conference attendees lined the hallway with cell phones to their ears or in hand with thumbs feverishly pounding out text messages to loved ones.

“There were so many people in that room, and it was silent, so silent you could hear a pin drop,” she said. “A few left crying.”

Images and emotions began to race through Cook. She had been a passenger on the trains for days while in England.

“The only reason we got around in London was the underground,” she said illustrating the importance of public transportation in England. “We had to take it everywhere.”

The shock and disbelief reminded her of the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

“It was like déjà vu from Oklahoma City,” she said about the emotions that hung in her stomach. “It was almost the same feeling. I was stunned.”

The conference was briefly suspended as many needed to collect their thoughts and check in with family members. When they finally convened, the Christian organization spent about 45 minutes in prayer and discussion before pressing forward.

“We tried to go on the best we could,” Cook said.

It would be hours before Cook could get to a computer and e-mail her family, and by then, things began to settle down.

“They weren’t surprised,” she said of the general reaction of the English at the conference. According to Cook, many stated they knew England was a target, and it was just a matter of time before something happened. So it didn’t surprise her when the British showed some of their mettle. “All they wanted was to get back to normal as soon as possible,” she said.

In the days following the terrorist attacks, Cook extended her travels into Scotland. She said security measures were stepped up around historical landmarks and flags were placed at half-staff, but that was the only indicator anything had happened.

“Security was much tighter, as it should have been, but it was pretty much business as usual,” she said.

By the end of her trip, Cook had logged two weeks in the United Kingdom. And while she has some reservations about riding the underground, Cook would like to go back and visit the many friends she made there.

“I didn’t feel like an outsider,” she said. “I never thought about geographical boundaries. I felt very welcomed.”

Tony Pennington366-3541schools@normantranscript.com

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