You read about these things, you see them on TV and hear of them on the news so often now days that it's become just another component of the world's background noise, yet you never expect to experience it first hand. And then you do. Someone's misplaced sense of moral outrage and perverted sense of justice finds the tiny pocket of planet Earth you happen to be occupying at the moment and is made manifest.
It was another terrorist bombing. I had no way of knowing that at the time, but it's what the rescue crew confirmed when they found us about twenty-four hours later.
I was in Mumbai, India, a twenty-four year old doctoral candidate in history doing some research for my dissertation on the British Raj that stretched from 1858 to 1947. I'd heard of some archived materials from that era in one of their libraries that I suspected would be valuable to my research. My dad insisted I combine my work with a much needed vacation to go find it. I tried to beg off because of the expense, but he and Mom made a big deal of it and insisted on footing the bill because no one in our family had ever managed to attend college, let alone go for a post grad degree, so they tapped into their hard-earned savings and sent me on a month-long stay on the subcontinent.
When I arrived at the front desk of the library three weeks later, it took a lot of begging and pleading to convince the head librarian to allow me into the archives located three floors underground. In fact, he wouldn't be convinced until he spoke to the history department at the University of Pennsylvania (on my cell phone) to verify that I was indeed one of theirs before leading me down several flights of stairs and unlocking a steel door to grant me access to their sanctum sanctorum.
At the bottom of the stairs he insisted I hand over my cell phone because photographing documents was prohibited, and the look of distrust on his face told me it was his considered opinion that foreigners like me were highly suspect and not to be taken at their word. He showed me to an old fashioned card catalogue that would tell me where I'd find what I was looking for and left me there with instructions to call him from the phone hanging on the wall by the door when I was ready to leave. As he locked me in, I wondered if the contents of the room truly warranted such tight security measures but, hey, it was their library so I'd play by their rules. I also wondered if I was going to be strip-searched when I left.
It was perhaps an hour later that I was back in a far corner of the cavernous, neon-lit room, meticulously wading through boxes of old documents and scribbling notes on a legal pad when three things happened in quick succession. First, I thought I heard a door open and close, then I heard a dull rumble and the room suddenly heaved and shook violently, toppling tables, chairs and bookshelves. Then the lights went out.
I found myself on my back, lying on the floor among and under boxes, books and loose papers, totally confused but apparently none the worse for the wear physically. My first though was an earthquake because I knew Mumbai sat on a seismically active zone. My next thought was that, whatever happened, the building must have withstood it fairly well because it didn't come crashing down on me.
"Fuck!" I thought, trying to overpower the feeling of panic welling up in my chest, "I need to get to that phone and get somebody to come and let me the hell out of here!"
I sat up, pushing papers and boxes off of me. It was pitch black and I literally couldn't see my hand in front of my face. There wasn't so much as a safety light burning anywhere that I could see. Since I had no idea which way I was facing, I had no idea in which direction the door lay. I sat there thinking about it for a few moments and decided to pick a direction at random and crawl until I bumped into a wall, then follow it around the room until I came to the door and the phone.
Good idea but not all that easy. There were toppled bookshelves, piles of books and cartons and overturned furniture everywhere, and I couldn't even find a wall for all the obstructions. I tried to stand, and discovered that I'd crawled under a table when I banged my head on it.
Then, from somewhere across the room, "Hello! Is someone there?"
I felt a little wave of relief wash over me. Not that I wished anyone the ill fortune to be in the same predicament I was in, but it was some comfort knowing I wasn't alone. I turned toward where I thought the voice was coming from and shouted, "Yeah, over here! Are you OK?"
There were distant sounds of things being moved and some grunts as if someone were struggling. Then, "I think I'm OK but there's something on top of me and I can't seem to get loose." It was a woman and she was speaking with a polished British accent.
"Well, uh, keep talking and I'll try to make my way over to you. Are you saying you're not hurt?"
"I may be, just a bit. My leg hurts where it seems to be pinned to the floor, and I've taken a few knocks but nothing seems at all life-threatening. Are you uninjured?"
I crawled out from under the table and stood. I'd only taken three steps before cracking my knee against something else. "Shit! Sorry, I just banged my knee. I'm fine, but I can't see a damned thing, so just try to be patient while I feel my way along. I don't suppose you have a flashlight or a lighter or anything, do you?"
"Sorry, I've no torch and I don't smoke. I'm afraid we're out of luck."
"Just thought I'd ask. Well, hang on and I'll work my way over to you."
I cursed the librarian for taking my cell phone. I knew there'd be no signal this far underground, but at least I'd have the light from the screen to help me find my way through the debris. You know how, when it suddenly gets dark, after a minute or so, your eyes adjust and you begin to make out dim, shadowy shapes? Well, that didn't happen because there was absolutely no light in the room! Nothing! Zilch! Not even a little spark!
It took me a few minutes to find her. I moved by shuffling my feet along the floor and waving my hands in front of me in horizontal and vertical arcs so I wouldn't trip or bump into anything. I'd take three or four steps until I ran up against some obstruction, try to figure out what it was with my hands and then move around it or over it. Of course, every time I turned one direction or another, it would get me completely disoriented and I'd have to ask the woman to give a shout to turn me back in the right direction.
Finally, when the sound of her voice told me she was only a few feet away. I got down on my hands and knees so I wouldn't accidentally kick her or step on her.
I bumped against something large and leaned my shoulder into it to try to move it out of the way. That elicited an "Oh my lord, that hurt! Please stop moving whatever you're moving!"
"Sorry. I think it's a book case. Is this what's got you pinned?"
"It must be." She was taking short, gasping breaths so I was pretty sure she was in quite a bit of pain, probably more than she was admitting to. Must be that stiff upper lip attitude coming through.
"OK, I'm going to have to feel around to find out how it's got you pinned. I apologize in advance if I touch you where I shouldn't. I'm not really that kind of guy."
She laughed at that. "Then I forgive you in advance. Given the circumstances, I suppose some liberties might be allowed. Just try not to move my leg in any way if you can avoid it."
I shuffled toward her voice with my hands on the floor until I pushed against something soft.
"That's my hip." she said before I could even ask. I caught a hint of some very nice perfume.
"OK. Is it only your leg that's pinned?"
"Yes, I can move everything else. This thing is lying across my upper right leg and my ankle. It's my ankle that hurts so much."
"Right! Well, here I go feeling around to figure out what's what."
I ran my hand along the bottom edge of the bookcase until I found her leg. She seemed to be wearing pants made of coarse cloth like denim, probably jeans. All the weight of the corner of the bookcase seemed to be on her right thigh and ankle, and there was a large book under her foot. I guessed the foot and ankle must have taken the bulk of the weight and I suspected it might be broken pretty badly.
I sat up thinking about it for a minute and came up with a plan. "Can I ask your name?"
"You may," she answered, emphasizing the appropriate form. It made me wonder if she was a school teacher. "I'm Anika. What's your's?" The name sounded Swedish or Norwegian.
"Matt, as in Matthew. It's nice to meet you Anika, although I wish it were under more pleasant circumstances. Look, here's what I have in mind. I'm going to crawl around you to get to the top of the bookcase and try to lift it up. When I do that, you need to scoot yourself out of the way. Can you do that?"
"I'll do my best." I heard her moving and she said, "Help me sit up so I can push myself back with my hands."
I ran my hand up her side to her shoulder and pushed under her. I lifted as she grabbed around my neck, groaning with either the effort or from the pain or both.
She took a deep breath and said, "All right, I'm ready when you are."
I moved around her body, pushing through piles of books to find the top center of the bookcase maybe three or four feet past her ankle. I stood, squatted like I was lifting weights and gripped with both hands. I took three deep breaths and pushed with my legs. "OK, I'm lifting now! Scoot back!"
.... There is more of this story ...