On March 11, 2004, bombs on four trains in Madrid left hundreds dead and wounded
The attacks took place near the home of CNN's Al Goodman, who recalls the incident
Father of Vera de Benito, aged nine at the time, had boarded one of the ill-fated trains
This week the main victim groups are expected to unite at a mass for the first time in years
It was just before 8am on March 11, 2004 and I was making breakfast at home, listening to Spain’s leading radio network. Suddenly there was a report of explosions at the Atocha train station downtown.
The terrifying damage, we would later learn, had occurred about 20 minutes earlier: coordinated bomb explosions on four rush-hour trains that would leave 191 people dead and more than 1,800 wounded.
But those initial hours were filled with confusion. I called CNN’s main news desk in Atlanta – it was just before 2am there – and said that a major tragedy appeared to be unfolding in Madrid. Soon after I was on air, and very quickly our camera crew was outside Atocha station, close to my home.
Across town, in a neighborhood by the Santa Eugenia station – where one of the trains exploded – nine-year-old Vera de Benito watched her mother behaving as never before. Her father, a telephone installer, had boarded a train for Atocha station that day.
He never returned home.
“The first image was my mother, hysterical, trying to call on the phone. I imagine she was trying to locate my father,” says De Benito, who’s now 19 and studying journalism.
“I miss him so much. He’s the first person I think of in the morning and the last person I think of at night.”
The Madrid train bombings were the deadliest terror attack in western Europe since the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 which killed 270 people.
The terrorists in Madrid, the authorities later determined, carried bombs in sports bags and backpacks onto four commuter trains serving the east of the Spanish capital. And then they got off, leaving their deadly devices to explode onboard.
De Benito says that she always tried to think of her father and look to the future when she was growing up. “I’d rather focus on him being proud, seeing me achieve my goals,” she says. “That’s why I am always setting higher targets.” She’s already an intern in the newsroom of SER radio, the same station I was listening to on that fateful morning.
The attacks proved highly political in Spain. General elections had already been scheduled for just three days later and, in a surprise result, the ruling conservatives lost to the opposition socialists.
The Spanish courts later convicted 14 Islamic militants for their roles in the bombings, along with four Spaniards for trafficking in explosives used in the attacks. A further seven key Islamic suspects blew themselves up three weeks after the train attacks as police closed in on their hideout in a Madrid suburb.
Initial theories that the Basque terrorist group ETA had carried out the attack were later discredited by the police and international terrorism experts who blamed Islamic militants. But the alleged ETA role in the bombings has become an ongoing conspiracy theory still heard in some quarters in Spain, adding to the polarization seen on the anniversaries of the attacks.
This week the main victim groups are expected to take part at the same event for the first time in years. In the past political differences have sometimes divided the organizations – but they will unite for a Roman Catholic mass at Almudena Cathedral, to be attended by King Juan Carlos and prime minister Mariano Rajoy. As usual the victim groups will also observe their own, separate commemorations.
Vera de Benito didn’t ride public transportation for years after her father’s death – until she got fed up.
“Why is a terrorist group going to keep me from riding a train, after they’ve already taken away a fundamental pillar of my life?” she asks. “All the bad things already happened to me. Nothing worse could occur. And if it does, I will get through it,” she added. “I have to look happily toward the future, because if not, I’d go crazy.”