Gdansk 1781

Writing about your personal demons for the public is seldom a good idea, and it is a particularly bad idea when you are starting at 3.40am as they are haunting you. We are spending Hogmanay in the beautiful city of Gdansk. It is my first time here for over twenty years, but the city has remarkable memories for me.

In November 1994 I was newly arrived as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Warsaw when a fatal fire occurred at the famous shipyard, in a hall being used for a rock concert tied in to a MTV transmission. The fire doors were all padlocked shut, and the heat had reached such intensity that a flash fire had occurred right across the hall. Miraculously only five people had died immediately, but hundreds had been horrifically burnt or suffered fume inhalation and the hospitals were completely overwhelmed.

Within hours of the fire I was dispatched to Gdansk by our dynamic Ambassador and found myself on a train heading North with only a Motorola mobile phone the size of a large brick (1994) and a phone number for DFID, in those days a part of the FCO and known as ODA. I roused from his London bed the official in charge of emergency assistance, Mukesh Kapila, and he instructed me to get a list from the medical authorities of all the supplies required. He explained that major burns required large volumes of consumables by way of ointments and special gauzes and bandages.

Arriving in Gdansk I very soon discovered that the victims were dispersed round several hospitals and there was no central authority able to produce a list of requirements. Poland was still in the early stages of a shock transition from communism and elements of administration were shaky at the best of times, let alone in a large scale emergency. The only way to make any progress was for me physically to go to every hospital and every concerned ward, buttonhole the doctors there and ask them what they needed.

To say they were swamped would be ridiculous understatement. Victims were everywhere, very many critical, and in some places bleary-eyed doctors literally had nothing – creams, bandages, painkillers, saline drips all exhausted. Meeting many doctors, when I told them I could get anything sent out instantly, the reaction ranged from angrily incredulous to massive bear hugs.

It was of course difficult. In 1994 Polish medical practice differed quite sharply from British. There were language barriers; my as yet basic Polish lacked medical vocabulary. And I had to keep interrupting incredibly busy people. But after the first couple of hospitals I was able to extrapolate and phone through to Mukesh the most obviously urgent items, and by the end of the day I was clutching 16 handwritten lists and could sit down to consolidate them.

But I have not described to you what it was like to go round those wards. I really cannot – it was indescribable. Horribly disfigured people screaming and writhing in pain, begging and pleading for any relief, even asking to die. And the worst thing is, they were all teenagers – the average age seemed about 16. One image I shall never forget was of a girl sitting bolt upright in bed, looking calm, and I recall thinking that at least this one is OK. But I had seen her right profile and as I passed her, the left side of her face was literally skeletal, with a yellow blob for an eye, no skin and just the odd sinew attached to the bone. Her calm was catatonic.

But in a way still worse were two girls who looked perfectly healthy, lying on top of their beds apparently in an untroubled sleep. The doctor told me that they were already brain dead, having inhaled cyanide gas from the combustion of plastic seating. The mother of one of them was there and she pleaded with me to tell the doctor not to turn off the ventilator; the poor woman was crazed with grief and pulling at her hair, which was dyed red. I can still recall every detail of the faces of both mother and her still daughter.

I called in every day for a week or so and sat with the mother a few minutes, in silence. Then one day they were gone; the doctors had switched off the ventilator.

Andrze Kanthak, our Honorary Consul, was a fantastic support and worked extremely hard throughout this period – but as we walked together into the first ward, Andrze simply fainted straight out at the sight of it all. That evening we had hardly finished consolidating my 16 lists and sending them off to Mukesh when news arrived that the first shipment of most urgent supplies was arriving at Gdansk airport, and we dashed off there with a lorry from the City Council.

It was a bitter disappointment. Customs refused to release the medicines until duty had been paid and, still worse, everything would need to be checked and certified by the food and drug administration, which could take weeks. All my fury at the self-satisfied officials was of no avail, and we returned temporarily baffled.

A phone call now came that DFID had chartered a flight to arrive the next day with 20 tons of medical supplies, so the situation was now critical. Walesa was now President and I suggested we contact his office, but Andrze advised we should rather recruit Father Jankowski.

Jankowski was the parish priest in Gdansk who had been integral to the Solidarnosc movement, and at that time he wielded enormous political influence. His home was extraordinary for a parish priest – literally palatial – and when I met him there the next day he readily agreed to help. He came to the airport with us as the chartered cargo flight arrived, and supervised the loading into the council lorries which I dispatched to the various hospitals. A tall imposing figure in a flowing black cassock, the customs officials who had blocked us obeyed him without question.

Things calmed down over the next few days, Mukesh Kapila himself came out, and the hospitals once supplied performed brilliantly. Astonishingly, from hundreds of cases of severe and extensive burns, with scores in intensive care, we lost nobody except the two girls who were already brain dead, bringing the final death toll to seven. The incredible survival rate was viewed as a miracle, and perhaps it was, but it was a miracle assisted by some fantastic doctors, by Mukesh Kapila and his staff, by Father Jankowski, by Andrze Kanthak and by the Secretary of Gdansk Council whose name (Janowski?) has slipped my mind, embarrassingly as the experience made us firm friends for a long while.

But I am afraid to say the personal impact on me was quite severe. It is no secret that I struggle against bipolar disorder, and the sheer horror of those days in the wards undoubtedly triggered me for quite a while. I also suffered recurrent nightmares for more than a decade, about the horrific burns but also about the brain dead child and the mother tearing her hair. Worse than the nightmares were the waking flashbacks, not so much visual as emotional, experiencing the feeling of it happening again.

When I got back to the Embassy nobody was very interested in what I had been doing. I was ticked off for returning a day late and also for not obtaining much media publicity for the UK’s role. I have written before that one of my frequent duties in Poland was to conduct high profile visitors around the concentration camps, a visit all British politicians wish to make. Those places filled me with horror, which resonated on the same emotional frequency as the Gdansk trauma. Those frequent visits made my time in Poland difficult to me, which is a shame as it is a delightful country and people.

Back here now as a tourist, with my family and at a festive time, no troubling memories are assailing me. I find I can now be proud of what we did, rather than ashamed at my emotional reaction afterwards. And I can’t quite tell you why, but I felt it should be recorded.

Finally, it is worth noting that this Gdansk experience was one of a number which led me immediately to understand that the famous BBC report on “Saving Syria’s Children” was faked. The alleged footage of burns victims in hospital following a napalm attack bears no resemblance whatsoever to how victims, doctors and relatives actually behave in these circumstances.


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1,781 thoughts on “Gdansk

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  • Fred

    Thanks for writing this.
    Could do without the trendy word “triggered” though. Whenever I’ve seen it before it’s been an excuse for censorship and using it here lends support to that sort of thing. Isn’t there a less trendy way of expressing your idea?

    • Kula

      No. Triggering is the right word here. Trauma literally acts as a trigger. Don’t let the word-nazis distort your language.

    • bj

      I don’t see any problem with the word ‘trigger’; that’s an accurate description of the phenomenon.

  • David

    I’ll raise a glass for you Craig at Polish midnight CET, if the raising for the family & friends in Wellington, Osaka, Taipei, Semipalatinsk, Krim etc New Years’ leave me still sober.

    Keep sharing your stories with us, thanks for sharing. David

  • Ron

    Thanks, Craig. Remembering events like that is very important to our mental health. The Syria reference is also important in these days of seemingly universal fakery in the media.
    Please disregard petty comments from your would-be editors. Yes, Fred I’m looking at you.

  • Sharp Ears

    A tragic story and amazing recall over 24 years. Commend the FCO and the earlier version of DfID for their actions then. A question arises. If a similar event happened now would Theresa and Penny (Mordaunt) spring into action? I doubt it. It would be left to charities to step up.

    I believe Major was PM in 1994.

    Sir Michael Llewellyn Smith was the Ambassador to Poland. Seems to be a good egg. Shame about the Coca Cola job though.

    Happy Hogmanay to all you Scots. Will the new year be better than what has gone before.

  • Kula

    Thanks for all your hard work this year, Craig. The standard of articles and comments makes for many a return visit.

    • Jay

      Silly, based on your own firsthand experiences of scenes of trauma? Or silly because you cannot countenance the BBC being an arm of government propaganda?

    • Clark

      I think Saving Syria’s Children was made by a private-sector production company; there’s an “internal market” at the BBC these days.

      • Robert Stuart

        Yes, it was made by October Films, in association with IFA (in Focus Asia), the production company of the programme’s cameraman, producer and director Darren Conway, who was made an OBE a few months after the programme was broadcast. The full documentary is here

        • Clark

          OBE – Order of the British Empire.

          So whatever Darren Conway may or may not have done for “Syria’s Children”, he most certainly did something for the British Empire, and his profession is media production, including direction.

    • Douglas

      Craig’s final paragraph is not silly.
      I watched the ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ documentary again.
      I guess that Assad May have done some terrible things to his people; dramatisation is a valid documentary format but should be clearly stated when used. Dramatisation is not proof.
      There might have been some real casualties in this film but almost all were implausible.
      I’ve seen many casualties in my career such that I find medical TV dramas hard to enjoy; they either set my eyes rolling with disbelief or my pulse racing when convincing enough to trigger work mode.
      The sights and sounds (and smells) of reality are very distinctive.
      This film did not set my pulse racing.
      Propaganda needs to be called out.

      Craig, thanks for all your work and for sharing your Gdansk experience. Reliving trauma is difficult.
      Best wishes for the coming year to you and your family

    • Ort

      Yes, we can’t have a trenchant and relevant concluding thought that disturbs your fantastic geopolitical perspective, now, can we?

  • RogerDodger

    A powerful account. The pain and horror visited on those unsuspecting children and their families must have been unimaginable. I say unimaginable – that’s my privilege having not been involved with the event or any like it. To have a professional responsibility to respond to such misfortune would undoubtedly take a toll on even the hardiest soul. The only thing I guess I could add is that for all we disparage ‘Elf and Safety culture, it exists precisely to forestall unexpected but preventable tragedies such as these.

    • Paul Greenwood

      I think you might find your “Health & Safety Culture” is inspired by the Anglo-Saxon Tort lawyers since I have not observed the same levels of attention to H&S in Mainland Europe in either commercial enterprises (outside Chemical Industry) or everyday life sadly. I think the Anglo-American approach is better but not quite so oppressive that Grenfell Tower does not slip through or the toxic water supplies near 3M plants in Minnesota or Flint, MI and elsewhere.

      Hydrogen cyanide gas is produced by plastic combustion but also wool and nylon and paper and silk.

      Locking fire-escapes is how the gate-keepers collect their tolls – and the price for the paying guests is exceptionally high

  • Conjunction

    I was hoping we were going to get a book out of you about Poland.

    Thanks for this and for all your work, which lasers through the years, and best wishes for 2019

  • Alyson

    The world is a better place thanks to you. Thank you for sharing this. It shows how much difference good people can make. And it shows how people following rules can sometimes lack empathy and fail as citizens

  • Lea

    Thank you for sharing that, Craig. That being said, I don’t think your bipolar disorder has anything to do with your reaction. What has to do with it is being a real human being.

  • Colin Alexander

    You helped to make a difference, ease the suffering and probably helped save lives. That your compassion and humanity for others caused you emotional and mental suffering too is nothing to be ashamed of. You are a human being same as the rest of us. If only the UK and other countries always exported bandages instead of bombs, the world might be a better place.

    Thanks for all your good work for Scottish independence and democracy for Scotland and for daring to tell the truth about the SNP’s failures to lead the fight for independence.

    Take heart that Poland became free of the Soviet Empire’s rule and let’s look forward to when Scotland can escape the EVEL British Empire’s rule.

    Enjoy your festive break, Craig. You’ve seen the worst of Poland, now enjoy the best of Poland. All the best for 2019 when it comes.

    • Paul Greenwood

      Poland “became free of Soviet empire’s rule” ????

      Craig arrived in Nov 1994 ! The last Soviet forces left Poland in 1992.

      The Poles created their own mess and men like Jakub Berman made it the kind of place it was. Even today you could find locked fire escapes in a Polish party venue. It is not suddenly golden and as for Customs Officials being obstructive it is the same everywhere – NGOs pay bribes to get relief supplies into countries and everywhere “levies” are imposed on aid and kickbacks are demanded

  • Ross Stanford

    Happy New Year to you Craig. I was not aware of any of this. Your blog is an inspiration to me. You appear to be a truly good and honest person. Something of a rarity in public life these days.

    Thanks. I wish you and your family well.

  • Sarah Hayes

    Happy New Year, Craig. Thank you for your courage, in writing this piece and in all else you do.

  • Mist001

    Well, we have a new year coming up, let’s see if we can make it a better one.

    Thanks for writing, and all the best to Craig and everyone else here.

  • Alasdair Macdonald.

    Thank you for this moving account. Its humanity shines like a beacon.

    I know that it is easy for me to say, but, you have nothing to reproach yourself for and, indeed, much to be satisfied with. You tried to do something to help your fellow human beings. Although the word has become somewhat distorted, the Stoics had a valid approach to dealing with such matters. It is not that they failed to show emotion – emotions are natural things and important for our survival. What they did was to identify things over which they had control and, therefore could do something, and those things over which they had none. The latter is what you were faced with when you went to Gdansk. It had happened and you played no part in the creation of the circumstances that led to the disaster. So, you have no grounds for blaming yourself.

    Of course, what you saw was harrowing and your response is a natural human one.

    As others have said, I should like to thank you for your informed and nuanced commentaries. All the best for the New Year.

  • John2o2o

    Horrific, Craig. I would hope that this visit may be in some measure cathartic.

    Your personal experience of the true horror of such matters serves only to make the cynical “Saving Syria’s Children” faking all the more scandalous. Propagandising the British people via the state broadcaster into supporting a regime change war of the United States and into supporting jihadi terrorists. I hope that one day this evil is fully exposed and those in the government and BBC responsible for it are brought to justice.

    I was unaware of your mental illness. I have had issues myself, though no major problems for over a decade now. I am a private person. I can only say that my life is not what it could or should be. I am perhaps prone to depression and living alone sometimes reach out for support. I currently have problems with some new neighbours, but it is perhaps well to be reminded that I am at least fit and in good health on the whole for a man in his early fifties. A close friend of my sister is in hospital with pancreatitis and has long term severe health issues with rheumatoid arthritis.

    I have often been a critic of your pieces, but I hope you haven’t been too upset by that. If I were simply a fan you may not gain perspective. Perhaps I should thank you for riling me into comment at times!

    Anyway, all the best for 2019. I look forward to reading more of your writing next year.

    • lysias

      The first coup for which the CIA was responsible was in 1949 in Syria. I learn from James Barr’s new book “Lords of the Desert” that the reason for the coup was that Syria’s elected president was not pushing approval of a pipeline through the assembly.

  • MaryPau!

    Thank you for your heartfelt reminiscences.

    Can I take this opportunity to remind readers here that, despite a petition with over 100,000 signatures, which should mean a debate in Parliament, to date there has been no response at all from the Government to the campaign over the killings at Gosport Hospital.The relatives of the over 650 people unlawfully killed await a response, any response from the Government. This callousness shames all right thinking people.

      • N_

        The Catholic church is also as close as THAT with GlaxoSmithKline, a fact which relates to megabucks in hospitals across Poland, Croatia, Hungary, and many other countries. It’s all about money, @Philip.

  • N_

    Speaking of Big Pharma, I come back to Seaborne Freight, the mysterious company that has no ships but got handed an untendered government contract to run some ferries across the English Channel when Brexitmageddon hits. They are registered at the Whitechapel HQ of the Royal Society for Public Health, a “health education charity”.

    I strongly suspect the RSPH is one of the filthy organisations that pushes eugenics. What is extremely clear is that they are a propaganda organ for both Big Pharma and the food sector.

    Now why are the bosses of those two sectors involved in supplying ships for Brexitmageddon?

    • N_

      If someone has got time to look more into this, I would be very interested in any Steiner-loon (“anthroposophy”) links at the RSPH.

      These might exist for example at EU level (advice, lobbying, consultancy, call it what you want) or in connection with “training” (assisting promotion of cult-owned personnel).

      • N_

        See also Campbell Johnston Clark, an international law firm active in shipping and insurance that is registered at the same address.

        (I was amused by how all seven men in their 10-strong London team wear plain-coloured shirts with open necks in their photos. “Today we are all informal”, said the robot.)

        • Alison B

          Mark Bamford also has something to do with Campbell Johnston Clark, director or something but interestingly, his brother JCB is one of the largest donors to the Tory party

          • giyane

            Seaborne Freight, Centennial House Building 100, Derby DE74 2SA

            Not so far from JCB HQ on the A50 , 23 miles on a straight road. Very newly built Industrial ERastates adjacent to east Midlands Airport
            I would have thought if the roads were congested in NW France, lorries would be heading to more northern ports and sail to ports like Felixtowe and Hull.

            I don’t know any connection to eugenics, but the Tory party is pretty scary in its own right.
            Get a grip on this: Grace Blakely MP, who was in the Westminster hour slot of radio 4 last night, in this sensationally articulate trashing of the Tory Alt right plans for Brexit. I agree with every word she said:

    • giyane

      John Major is universally hated by the Thatcher spawn , perhaps for the same reason as they detest Craig and all his works viz because of his humanity in all its manifestations.

      Churchill was being eulogised on radio 4 this morning even though he was the man who trashed the Muslim Caliphate to eat the oil to trash the planet to rule a new world order.
      I don’t know why he ate the Caliph. Perhaps one day his ridiculous high reputation will die.

    • Casual Observer

      Look through the directors positions,and history, on the companies registrations sites, and you’ll see there is some sort of a medical thread running.

      I doubt its a plot, rather it’ll be some bright boys who have identified the potential for a shortage of medicinal resources in the event of a no deal Brexit, which is something that may occur even if undesired.

  • pete

    Thank you for this very moving account of what must have been horrific to experience, I can only hope that time has dimmed the vividness of it all and I wish you only good things for the coming year.

  • Jack

    I had no idea you suffered from these psychic hardships, I am sad to hear that, at the same time – in this crazy world, who can really take the toll from all stupid, dangerous, irritating unjust stuff that keep happening as we speak? You are not alone..
    Take care during the holidays, be with your loved ones, try to do relaxing things, keep your internet activity, media readings to a minimum – there is no reason to engage in stressful activities when the body tells you “no”.

    Happy new years Craig and all commentators!

  • Clark

    I wonder if phage therapy contributed to the high survival rate.

    There was a BBC Horizon programme about phage therapy practised in Gdansk, using cultures of viruses called bacteriophage against bacterial infections, as an alternative to antibiotics. It sounded like a breakthrough technology, but I have barely heard of it since.

    • michael norton

      Good suggestion Clark.

      Craig, very sad but also inspiring.
      It seems it has done you good to go back to Poland, I guess that is what you hoped.
      Happy New Year.

    • David

      I remember a similar BBC world service report on a Georgian phage centre, not sure if it was this one – so just giving as an example.

      There are a few other ‘eastern’ crossover medical products, my home medicine cabinet has ентеросгел (which is now selling widely in UK for IBS sufferers, it’s a nearly passive colon sieve, possibly better than the ‘lethal’ doses of loperamide that some people are on?) and small bottles of unknown green stain, used as a first line wound antiseptic. Consult a doctor before looking in puddles for your own phages or changing your meds

      • Clark

        David, thank you very much. I’m glad to see that the techniques are still in use and have not been forgotten.

        Cannabis ruderalis is another eastern cross-over.

  • Tom F

    A fascinating, but haunting read. Much love to you and your family Craig, and have a very happy new year!

  • Tony Kevin

    Enjoyed this. I was Australian Ambassador to Poland – we were a very small embassy – from January 1991 to June 1994, just before your time and the tragedy you recall. But I visited Gdańsk often enough and always enjoyed it. I remember meeting the remarkable Father Jankowski too. A man of massive ego and charisma. Good to read your positive memories of him. You write about this event beautifully and I love the sting in the tail. Tony Kevin.

  • Sharp Ears

    How very terrible that the fire was started deliberately. In Gdansk and Danzig before.

    ‘Monument to the shipyard tragedy of 1994
    Jana z Kolna, Gdańsk
    05 May 2018
    On November 24, 1994 tragedy struck the shipyard when seven people died while attending a concert in one of the halls.

    The popular band Golden Life had played a sell-out concert when a fire broke out. Investigations later discovered that the fire had not been an accident but had been set deliberately. The resulting panic was made worse when the audience, most of whom were young people, found escape routes blocked and five emergency exits padlocked closed. As well as the seven fatalities it is estimated nearly 300 people suffered burns, many severe, and the trauma affected more still.

    The arsonist was never caught and it took fourteen years for anyone at all to be charged with responsibility for the tragedy. Eventually the person in charge of the hall was given a two-year sentence, suspended for four years, while the fire officer and two of the event organisers were controversially acquitted.

    A memorial was raised to the victims in the shipyard wall near to where the hall, now demolished, once stood. The words ‘Life is so beautiful but so fragile’ are an accurate reflection of the tragedy but the inability to find the person or people who set the fire and the leniency with which those responsible for safety escaped any punishment continue to mark this as an appalling tragedy.’

    Gdansk was known as Danzig before. It’s own earlier history is even more terrible.

    • Paul Greenwood

      Spies have to be apprehended – they picked up a Norwegian too. After all US is arresting Chinese and Russian agents.

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