They were moments I would never forget, but not for the reasons one might expect from a dream vacation in Spain.
I threw open the hotel room’s double windows so I could look upon the street below. It had been raining all evening and the sepia glow from the streetlamps reflected upon the damp street, making it sparkle like a sea of amber diamonds. A cool breeze blew the gauzy curtains as I leaned over the narrow wrought-iron balcony to gaze upon the somber procession making its way down one of central Madrid’s busiest streets. Calle Alcalá—a street normally pulsating with a frenzy of traffic—was now completely emptied of vehicles. In their place was a massive procession of mourners holding candles and umbrellas.
The previous day, bombs went off at 7:39 in the morning. At the time, my husband and I were sound asleep between the crisp clean sheets of our bed, oblivious to what was happening at Atocha train station just a mile away. We awoke not to the sound of sirens, but to the ringing of the phone on the nightstand. It was the hotel concierge calling to check on us and to tell us to avoid the train station and the Metro. There had been a bomb. That was all we knew.
Without clear details, we tentatively continued with our plans for the day, moving slowly within a city that had been engulfed in a fog of apprehension and disbelief. At the Reina Sofia museum, I contemplated Picasso’s Guernica—a scene depicting the horror of the bombing of the town Guernica during the Spanish Civil War—when I heard a nearly inhuman wail of grief from a floor below us. The full horror of what had happened had begun to slowly reveal itself to the people. A series of bombs had gone off in four commuter trains during the morning rush hour. In all, 191 people died and 1,800 were wounded. The papers reported that the din of the wreckage was accompanied by the surreal sounds of cell phones ringing—calls from loved ones who, after hearing the news, tried in vain to make sure the victims were safe. It was the largest terrorist attack ever to happen on Spanish soil.
I stood before the open windows and looked upon the mournful crowd in the street below me as they continued with their candlelight vigil. I longed to be with them and glanced behind me at my husband. The warm light from a lamp revealed the concern in his face—there were still many unanswered questions and in that moment, the entire world felt unstable. I returned my gaze to the haunting procession. Each person moved slowly, shoulders sagging and faces lit only by the glow of their candles. A few errant drops of rain dotted my skin. I thought of the morning commuters on those trains—men and women reading the paper, students mulling over the day’s assignments, parents holding their children closely—and my heart ached for them and their families. My eyes welled, and the heavy night sky released its sorrow.