`Today, all of Spain cries'

Madrid Train Bombings

March 12, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MADRID, Spain - Fernando Gonzalez was apologetic yesterday, partly for his struggle to speak English but mostly for his tears, which he could not stop.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," said the 37-year-old truck driver, who lives in the capital's Atocha neighborhood, less than a mile from the train station of the same name, which took the brunt of 10 bombs that exploded here yesterday.

"I'm sorry," he said again, "but today all of Spain cries."

Yesterday was a day of tears in a city known for its bright gaiety, a day of trepidation in a city known for its optimism. Everywhere - in the city's cafes and restaurants where red-eyed women and red-eyed men sat silently or talked in low voices, on the roads eerily missing the usual cacophony of car horns, in the neighborhood of Atocha, where people walking dogs stood and gazed at the station hit so hard - there was an unmistakable deflation of people usually pumped so full of pride in their country.

"This is not like Spain," Gonzalez said, standing next to a bouquet of flowers left at the station. "What happened is more like Baghdad or, I'm sorry to say, like what happened to New York."

That comparison - to continuing attacks by militants in Baghdad and the events of Sept. 11, 2001 - was made over and again by people here. Spain has had its battles with home-grown militants, but nothing that could compare with yesterday's carnage.

This is not a Middle Eastern country with factions battling for power. It is not known to be anyone's Great Satan.

Mercedes Molina Hernandez is 61. She lived in New York for 32 years, working as a seamstress, before returning to Madrid and the Atocha neighborhood in 1997 to care for her sick mother. She was out for a stroll last night - "I needed a breath," she said - and had finally stopped crying when she was asked to talk about her morning.

"I heard all these ambulances and could hear fire trucks - I knew them from the horns - and so I turned on my television," she said, and this woman's tears returned, just like the truck driver's, just like those of the people standing silently outside the train station holding flowers, placing them gently on the ground.

"You know," she continued with a dab at her eyes, "when this happened to New York, I was so sad for America. Now it has happened to Madrid, and I am so sad for Spain."

More tears rolled, but she smiled as if to apologize again and excused herself and said she had to get home, and she turned and walked away.

Spain has thrived as one of Europe's most successful economies, posting eight straight years of growth as the historic powerhouse sputtered along, a fact not lost on the people here who are proud of having shed the stereotype of a country long on siestas and short on diligence.

About 90 percent of the Spanish opposed the war in Iraq but polls consistently show it proud of being considered a friend of the United States and the decision of its prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, to support President Bush caused him no substantial political harm.

Madrid is one of the great cities of the world by almost any measure. Its museums are top, its pace is busy but not overwhelming, its streets are clean and safe and its nightlife bustles with more energy than that of Paris, with more sophistication than that of London.

"We are proud to be Spanish, and I'm proud of Madrid," said Diego Aragon, 34, a technical engineer who had walked a mile from his home to see the wreckage of Atocha station and was returning home. "Because we are sad doesn't mean that we're still not proud. We're just not used to this. This is new for us."

He hadn't cried since the morning, he said, and there was good reason for the tears.

"On the television," he explained, "they had doctors talking about the children who were hurt, and that was what really hurt my heart."

The city's Atocha neighborhood is decidedly upscale, with few houses but many apartments, the Prado Museum and a post office more grand than the capitols in most U.S. states. On the main strip are cafes and restaurants, a BMW dealership, a vegetarian restaurant, a shop that sells nothing but beds, another that deals only in couches. The train station is as long as two football fields, serving as a hub for the city's subway system and its trains, both commuter and long-distance.

The bombers, whoever they were, had to know this.

"If they wanted to kill a lot of people, that is why they picked this place," said Washington Silva, 33, who heard the news of the bombings and tried to phone his uncle, who worked at the station, and his sister, who passed through it daily on her way to work.

"I couldn't get through to them because all the phones were engaged," he said. "I heard that happened on Sept. 11. All of this is like Sept. 11."

His sister, Teresa, is OK, he said, and so is his uncle, Christen. And so, he said, will Spain be OK. "I love Spain," he said. "In Spain, we are close to each other. When something bad happens, we are even closer to each other."

He, too, excused himself and returned to stand with about 50 others who had brought flowers, a Spanish flag and some tears to the station.

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