Friday, July 22, 2011

Norway's Tragedy

It had been raining off and on all day, so when a loud rumble resonated through the Embassy just before 3:30 in the afternoon, many people wondered if it had been a thunderclap. I assumed that it was not thunder, however, for two reasons. First, I have never observed a thunder storm in Oslo before. And second, the blast was too isolated. Plus, at that particular moment, it was no longer raining.

Many people were walking around the Embassy talking about the blast, but no one knew what had happened. People speculated that a gas line had ruptured, but there was palpable nervousness in the air. Work continued. Memos were passed, and meetings were scheduled.

In the minutes after the explosion, I peered out the windows of my office suite several times. I couldn't see anything in the direction of the blast, and everything looked completely normal in all other directions. Trams and buses were passing by; there were plenty of cars on the roads, and people were strolling down Henrik Ibsens Street in front of the Palace grounds, seemingly without a care in the world.

After 10 or 15 minutes, we started getting information. The initial reporting was jumbled and spotty, and I was first told that a bomb had exploded at City Hall. Next I heard that one had exploded at the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament building. In fact, neither structure had been bombed. The blast had been at the Government Office Building, where the Prime Minister's Office is housed, approximately one kilometer from the Embassy as the crow flies.

Initial reports also said that two bombs had exploded and that more were spread around the city. The U.S. Embassy is considered a prime target in most countries, so the thought of other bombs gave me a chill.

When my spidey sense activated, it reminded me of 9/11, when I had the same feeling. At the time, I had been working in Washington in an office on Dupont Circle. My colleagues and I watched the two planes crashing into the Twin Towers on television, and then it was announced that another plane was heading toward DC. People were justifiably frightened, and some hid under their desks. Like most other offices in the city, however, we quickly evacuated the building instead of hunkering down.

At the Embassy in Oslo, I feel pretty confident in our security measures. Still, as on that day in Washington, I wondered to myself, “Is my day about to get a whole lot worse?”

By now, the Embassy was in full response mode. The security officer addressed the Embassy employees on the intercom system and confirmed the reports of the bombing. The officer-in-charge activated the emergency telephone tree, in which every member of the Embassy community was contacted and accounted for. Then, once it was determined that we were not facing an imminent threat, the Embassy was closed and staff dismissed early.

I was not permitted to leave, however, since I had work to do. The Ambassador was traveling in a remote area in the northern part of the country when the explosion happened, so I was repeatedly on the phone with him, connecting him to different officers at the Embassy, to officials at the State Department in Washington, to Norwegian Government officials, and to reporters seeking comment. E-mails were flying back and forth as media updates poured in, and everything was transmitted to Washington.

As reports of the rampage at Utøya started coming in, everyone began to wonder what was coming next. Thankfully no further plots materilized.

The fact that the Ambassador was traveling complicated matters and meant that I had to work at getting him back to Oslo as soon as possible. Our travel agent was very helpful, especially considering that her office was quite close to the epicenter, and the Ambassador's return was coordinated after several hours.

In the midst of all the activity in the office, I received a flurry of phone calls, e-mails, text messages, facebook postings, and IMs from my family and friends all around the world. The outpouring of concern was amazing and much appreciated.

It was after 8:00 PM when I finally left the office.

As I walked home, there were still some people around, but the streets were really emptying out. Many businesses were shuttered. Some like McDonald's offered an explanation, taping a paper on the door that read, “Closed due to the happening of today”. Most offered no explanation, however, as the reason for the closure was quite obvious.

The restaurants that were open had only a few diners.

Meanwhile, the weather had taken a turn, and the skies once again wept. Every face was solemn and a silence permeated the city.

Even though I went home, work did not stop, and between the travel agent, the Ambassador, the State Department Operations Center, and the Ambassador's driver, the phone calls did not end until 1:30 AM. It had been a long day, but of course it was nothing in comparison to the day those terrorized in the attacks on the Government Office Building and Utøya had suffered.

May the survivors, the friends and families of the victims, and a shaken community find solace.

And may the fallen rest in peace.


Hillary said...

I'm so glad you are okay!

Reynolds said...

Hey Chris, glad to hear u are safe, sometimes I wonder what is the world coming to and why are peoples mind so screwed up. Well we wish u all the best take care and be aware. Cynthia & Walter

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, Chris. So glad you and the Emb. community are all right. Nonetheless, also so sorry for Norway. Take care.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, thanks for sharing your experience. Very tragic. Glad you are safe. Take care. Goretti

Kylie Hollis said...

Glad you're well Chris I hope those affected can recover quickly. Kylie.

Steve Bennett said...

Chris, so good to hear that you are okay! Take care my friend.

Anonymous said...

Hey...I have missed you on facebook..where have you gone?? Aunt Angela