Rob Webb’s sister, Laura, was murdered in the July 7 bombings. As he grieved Rob, a well-known PR officer in Wales, found himself at the centre of the biggest news story in the world.
Rob is in London today, remembering Laura and the other victims. I found this interview with him in my archive. In it, he discusses Laura, the bombers and how his PR skills helped him deal with the media in the aftermath of the terror attack.
WHEN PRIVATE GRIEF IS WORLD NEWS
First published in The Big Issue September 12-18 2005
After the London bombings Rob Webb spent days doing media interviews in a desperate search for his sister. He tells Greg Lewis how it felt to mourn her death under the glare of the media spotlight.
MOHAMMAD Sidique Khan made his horrific mark on the world at 8.51am on Thursday, July 7.
That morning he got up to kill as many people as he could and to change the lives of hundreds more. Among them, Rob Webb and his family.
Rob arrived at work that day at the usual time, around 8.30am. He spent the first hour going through emails at his office in Cardiff’s County Hall.
At 9.30am he attended a daily briefing and got back to his desk by 10am.
On the internet he read the first reports about a ‘power surge’ on the London Underground. Trains were being stopped and stations evacuated. Like many others Rob thought of friends and family in the city.
He wondered about his sister, Laura, a personal assistant in central London.
He rang her mobile phone but it went to voicemail. “There was no way I could know it but Laura was already dead,” he says now.
As the full horror of what was really happening became clear, Laura’s family began their desperate search for their loving sister, daughter, girlfriend.
Thinking she could be lying unidentified in a hospital or walking around the city in a daze, they began a massive media campaign – and public relations man Rob found himself at the uncomfortable heart of an international news story.
The family’s fears were already growing by lunchtime on the day of the bombing. Laura had neither got to work nor returned to her home in Islington. She was not the kind of person to forget to call: she knew people would be worried.
Rob – who lives in Cardiff – contacted the missing person’s bureau and then, after a discussion with brother David, decided to make an appeal through the press. Over the next week, the 39-year-old, who writes press releases everyday, had to write the two most heartbreaking of his life.
“At 6am on the Friday I wrote a press release saying Laura was missing and sent it out with a photograph taken at Christmas,” he says. “It showed her smiling, a happy beautiful woman. It would be used on television and on the front of a national newspaper.
“We just wanted to get it out there because we knew she could be in a hospital somewhere. We knew there were injured people who weren’t identified. We had everything to play for. We had to do something.”
Rob distributed the picture through his contacts in the Welsh media and then, through a friend, to the newsdesks of newspapers and television stations in London.
On the Friday, as well as featuring on the front of the South Wales Echo, he began to do interviews for the London press.
“In these situations you look at what you can do,” says Rob. “Often when it comes to helping your family PR comes fairly low down the list of skills – it’s not like I’m a plumber or something.
“David and I wanted to do as many interviews as possible. We would never give up on Laura. Never. The police were giving us no indication either way as to whether they thought she was alive or dead. We would do her a disservice if we didn’t do everything we possibly could.”
The brothers spent an hour-and-half outside King’s Cross – the unofficial meeting place for desperate relatives and journalists – on the Saturday, speaking to UK and then foreign crews.
“It started off alright but some of the overseas crews became too much,” he says. “I’m used to doing photocalls and organising other people to be interviewed. David and I were on our own. In the end my partner Bethan jumped in to help us. It was just a scrum.”
Some British crews drove David around from hospital to hospital. “We would hear rumour after rumour and we followed them all up,” he explains.
In the meantime Rob’s family – including his parents and Laura’s partner Chris Driver – were appointed family liaison officers by the police. Rob says the officers are amazing and he remains in contact with them now.
“However, the longer time went on, when the police would call, we felt it was more and more likely they would be bringing bad news,” he says.
It was at 6pm on the following Wednesday that the police arrived at the family home in Kingston-on-Thames, where they have lived since the early 1970s, to bring the news they had dreaded.
Using a DNA swab from her parents, the police had identified Laura. The bomb at Edgware Road carried by Khan – the ‘quiet terrorist’ who worked with special needs pupils and deprived teenagers in his home community of Leeds – had killed the 29-year-old instantly.
Rob says of that meeting: “It was horrible.”
The police then drove Rob to break the news to Chris.
“It was heartbreaking,” he says. “I will never forget that day and never want to go through it again.”
Rob then had to sit down and write his second press release of the week, confirming the death of a “kind, loving and beautiful” young person – their Laura.
Fifty-two innocent people died in the four explosions on July 7 in London. Seven hundred were injured, with many left with horrific wounds.
In the weeks since there has been much debate about what caused the first suicide attack on British soil. The invasion of Iraq – which Rob now reveals Laura marched against – has been blamed.
Rob, though, is emphatic: “The only people responsible were the people who carried the bombs and the ones who supported them.
“It’s too simplistic to say the bombings are about Iraq. The bombers aren’t showing any interest in innocent Iraqis that are dying. A million people marched against the war on Iraq but a million people aren’t going out suicide bombing.
“Laura cared about moral rights and wrongs. She actually went on the march against the Iraq war. I’ve never spoken about this because I knew the news angle would be: ‘the tragic irony’.
“Well, no, it’s not irony. The bombings were indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter if Laura was in favour or against the Iraq war. The fact is she got up in the morning, went to work and got killed on the way there by a maniac.
“These people got up in the morning with the intention of killing people. Anybody.”
Rob – who had announced his engagement to Bethan only weeks before Laura’s death – knows there are still tough times ahead for the family. A National Memorial service in November. Christmas, Laura’s favourite time of year. The anniversary of her death and of her private funeral on July 22 (which 500 people attended).
But they have been sustained by a faith in God and in humanity.
“It was an act of evil by four bombers that killed Laura and the other innocent people,” he states. “But hundreds of people took the time to text our family, to ring us, to send us cards – they filled our home with flowers. That shows me the world isn’t a bad place. Good outweighs evil.”
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