11-M: 10 YEARS ON

“The clock stopped that day. Every day is March 11”

The March 11 terrorist attacks changed the lives of more than 3,000 people The psychological effects remain, with one victim, Laura, still in a coma

Juan Benito, father of Rodolfo, who was 27 at the time of the attacks.
Juan Benito, father of Rodolfo, who was 27 at the time of the attacks.Samuel Sánchez

“I used to travel in the last carriage on the El Pozo train. As soon as the doors closed, the second-to-last carriage exploded. Everyone rushed for the door. I managed to get out; there was a lot of smoke. You couldn’t see anything. Someone shouted out, ‘It’s a bomb!’”

Those are the words of Silviu Jarnea, a survivor of the March 11 attacks. “People went running for the stairs. I said to my friend Julián, ‘We’re going to go and help,’ and we ran toward the smoke. He asked me not to go, saying there could be more bombs, but I didn’t hear him, he told me later. I entered the carriage that had exploded. No one was moving. I could see silhouettes. I didn’t know if they were men or women. I could see a young boy, face down, with his head on fire. I put out the flames, thinking they would be able to better identify him that way. And then I saw a woman who was looking at me. She was almost naked. She had some rubber bands around her ankles. Later I realized that it was all that was left of her tights. She put her arm around my neck and I took her out of the train. She didn’t speak. I sat her down on a bench on the platform and I returned to the train. I wanted to help more people, but I didn’t know who to go for first. Later I saw the boy whose hair was on fire, he had a cellphone next to his head, having tried to call someone. I thought that he was dead. I called the emergency services, and said ‘El Pozo!’ They already knew about it. I carried on helping until the police arrived. They had their weapons drawn. I didn’t have papers at the time. I ran away…”

Silviu Jarnea tells his story of 11-M all at once, as if it had happened yesterday. He was 29 at the time. A decade later he is still tortured by what happened. “I always think about the boy who I thought was dead and who tried to make a call, and that girl who I left half-naked on a bench on the platform, at 8am. After the attacks I read a lot about how to act in these situations. I learned that the important thing is to talk with the injured so that they don’t pass out, and to keep them warm. Back then I didn’t know anything. I felt very guilty. When I got out I saw some terrible things. An injured man was covering the eyes of a child. I saw my jacket and shoes, covered with blood. And I felt like I had lost all my strength. At that moment I wouldn’t have been able to pull that woman out of the carriage. I don’t know if she was rescued…” Silviu points to the marks on the platform where the bench used to be, the one where he left the woman.

Silviu Jarnea, who survived the attacks at El Pozo.
Silviu Jarnea, who survived the attacks at El Pozo.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

He returned home after the worst attack in Spanish history with just a few cuts on his hands. Or at least that’s what he thought. Because just a few days later, he realized that he was having a lot of trouble. He was suffering from nightmares. He was having panic attacks every time he got on the train. Sometimes he would jump off as the doors closed. Other times he would manage to make it as far as a few stations. Just like hundreds of other people caught up in the attacks, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The passing of time does not reduce the chances of suffering from PTSD. “A lot of psychological and physical effects are being felt now that didn’t appear to start with,” explains Sonia Ramos, the head of the Terrorism Victims Support group. “Many who lost some of their hearing are now completely deaf.” The number of people who saw their lives changed by the 11-M attacks is as high as 3,000, she explains, given the families of the 192 dead (191 in the trains and one police officer who was killed when the terrorists blew themselves up in Leganés), and the 2,084 injured and their relatives.

Ramos’s predecessor, José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes, had only praise for the victims. “Despite having been an Islamist attack, there were no xenophobic reactions, as happened in other countries.”

A lot of psychological and physical effects are being felt now that didn’t appear to start with”

Silviu is still having regular therapy. “In the first sessions, which were in a group, a woman explained how she constantly heard her cellphone ring, and that she would pick it up thinking it was her husband. But the phone wasn’t ringing, and her husband had died.” His therapist recommended that he returned to El Pozo. “I went with my three-year-old daughter,” he explains. “She asked me, ‘Dad, why are we here?’ And I told her, ‘A lot of people died here.’ And she asked me, ‘Did you die here?’ I couldn’t hold back the tears.”

Many of the survivors of 11-M feel guilty – for having survived, for not having helped more people… Like Silviu, like Araceli Cambronero, who was traveling on the trains in Atocha. “The psychiatrist asked me if I felt alive and I said that I didn’t. Among other things because I felt guilty for being alive and for not having done any more that day but run away,” she explains. Araceli called her husband from the station after the explosion. “I told him to say goodbye to the children for me. I didn’t think I was going to get out of there, that the whole city was going to explode.”

Meanwhile, families who called the cellphones that were ringing in the improvised morgue in the Ifema exhibition center all say the same thing: that their lives somehow ended too on March 11. Some have converted empty bedrooms into altars. Others have hidden away all the photographs. Some have turned the job of remembering their loved ones, and supporting the other victims, into a mission that takes up every minute of their lives. Others, like the parents of Laura, who has been in a permanent vegetative state since that March morning, have asked the Interior Ministry specialists who follow up their cases not to call them any more. They still go to the hospital to visit their daughter every day. The last time they heard her speak was 10 years ago. She was 26 at the time.

Despite having been an Islamist attack, there were no xenophobic reactions"

José Luis Sánchez, who is the widower of Marion, regrets not having had a chance to say goodbye. “She got up early that morning,” he explains. “I was in the shower and I asked her to wait until I got out, but she never did.” Before he didn’t believe in this kind of thing, he explains, but he is now convinced that his wife is no longer with him “because of fate.” Because of fate, and also because a group of terrorists wanted to “emulate” 9/11 in Madrid. He doesn’t want to give it any more thought. “If not, you couldn’t carry on living.”

“It’s been 10 years since the attacks, but for us the clock stopped that day. Every day is March 11,” explains Juan Benito, father of Rodolfo, who was 27 when he died in the trains. “The anniversaries are just as hard as any other day,” he says. “Just as hard as the birthdays, Christmas, vacations… Everything brings back memories of what could have been but never was.”

Benito has converted the memory of his son, who was an industrial engineer, into a beautiful idea: the Rodolfo Benito Samaniego Foundation, which, among other activities, hands out an award for technological innovation to the best end-of-course project for outstanding students, as Rodolfo was.

“That morning he was on his way to work on the train,” his father explains. “I can picture him, with his books, his briefcase… studying on the train. He wanting to dedicate his life to teaching.” The foundation also gives an award for the values that Rodolfo stood for: tolerance and coexistence.

Ten years on, many of the victims live each day as if it were a battle. Some of them find it hard to talk about 11-M. Others, like Silviu, talk about it with an abundance of detail, to stop it from eating them up inside. “I know a Romanian girl who was injured in the attacks. She was so pretty, an absolute stunner. Now you see her and she looks ancient. She can hardly talk about the subject. In fact, she hardly talks.”

According to the Interior Ministry, the profile of the victims is as follows. The majority were “middle- or working-class, who were traveling to their place of work. Students.” Seventy-eight percent of them were aged between 36 and 65; 17 percent of them were aged between 21 and 35. Thirty-four percent of them were immigrants from 34 different countries, who had come to Spain seeking a better life. Yolanda survived, but lost her husband, Wieslaw, and her seven-month-old baby, Patricia, in the trains. They were from Poland. Cristina Mora Palomo managed to save two lives that day: her own, and that of her daughter, Arantxa, who will turn 10 on May 24.

Additional reporting by Pablo X. de Sandoval and Daniele Belmiro.

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