A British student lost his sister and his brother in Sri Lanka’s multiple bombings on Easter Sunday last year. A British lawyer lost his wife and two young children in the same explosion. Both of them have been back there. And, separately, they’re raising funds for Sri Lanka’s recovery. By doing so, they’re also helping their own.11 April 2020
By Paul Cainer.
Here’s a tale of two men who are rebuilding lives shattered by a bomb that killed their loved ones.
David Linsey, 21, whose teenage sister and brother died in a bomb explosion in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday one year ago, is determined to raise £5 million to build and equip a complete trauma centre on the island.
In the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the charity he set up in his brother’s and sister’s memory has already donated more than 100 emergency trolley beds to the same hospital where his siblings had been pronounced dead.
“We got the trolleys built in Sri Lanka and they cost only 250 pounds each, miles cheaper than doing it in Britain,” enthused Linsey, who until the bombings ripped his family apart, had been about to write exams in his final year at Oxford University.
His charity, the Amelie and Daniel Linsey Foundation, paid the 25,000 pounds total cost of the first 100 trolley-beds – its largest expenditure to date.
He has taken a year off university to “make a difference”.
Linsey is confident he can raise between £5m and £10m to build and equip a cutting-edge trauma centre on the island.
“Doctors here told me they simply could not cope with all the bomb victims and had to treat many of them by propping them up against walls and carried them by hand to operating theatres and wards.”
He was told that on the day of the atrocity his siblings were rushed to hospital where there were chaotic scenes as the injured and dying were brought in.
“People are often well-trained on an individual level,” he said, “but they may not work together as a team, and the hospitals may not communicate with each other.”
He added: “The people of this wonderful island face many potential future threats and the next time – if there is a next time – I want to help them be much better able to save life and limb.”
Around 260 people, many of them children, died in six virtually simultaneous bomb explosions, set off by hardline pro-ISIS Islamists in three hotels and three churches during Easter Sunday morning services.
Linsey says no matter what care and equipment had been available, nothing would have saved his brother and sister. But his distraught father had witnessed “chaos” in the main hospital that day.
Daniel, 19, and Amelie, 14, were having breakfast in the smart seaside Shangri La Hotel when a suicide bomber set off his explosives. David had not traveled to Sri Lanka as he was studying for his exams.
His father survived the blast virtually unscathed – saved, says his son, by “a matter of inches”. Twelve other people died in the breakfast room, plus the bomber.
Linsey’s fund has also supported psychological trauma care for families of the victims and people injured in the blasts. It intends to help also in their ongoing education.
“I think what I’m doing does help me personally recover from the shock and trauma of this tragedy,” Linsey said. “How you respond to a disaster is what really counts. This is my way of coping, though I doubt I will ever be quite the same again.”
He has also addressed groups in the USA and at parliament.
With his feelings still raw, Linsey declined offers,while in Sri Lanka, to stay for free at the Shangri La hotel where his siblings died. At a nearby hotel he told correspondent.world:
“In my mind, Amelie and Daniel will never die. Daniel was the most selfless person — he would never do anything purely for himself. Amelie was the glue that brought the entire family together.
“I want them to be remembered — at least through the name and work of the foundation I’ve set up.
“I now have a new focus: not on death but on life. I really feel driven to unite everyone as we all share the pain, and move forward — to channel our pain into a productive mission.”
Linsey rejects the natural reflex of seeking retaliation or revenge. “There is no point in being caught in a cycle of violence, so that every attack leads to a retaliatory attack and things get worse and worse.
“At some point things have to change and to be part of that change is something very special.”
His most moving moments, he said, have been when coming face-to face with very young survivors. “We’ve met children in Colombo affected by the bombings. Seeing these families makes me emotional. It reinforces in me why I am doing this and why I’m here.
“My family in London is relatively so fortunate, with a house to live in, employment, and education for my [surviving] younger brother. But here in Sri Lanka, so many have lost their only breadwinner. And also communities that depend on tourism have lost everything.”
Linsey said many people have been left with horrific injuries – and deep psychological damage.
Asked how his visits to Sri Lanka have affected him personally, he responded: “All this is absolutely reducing my pain – though I am not sure I will ever fully recover.”
The worst shock he endured during his first trip was when a doorman at his hotel thrust a mobile phone at him.”Is this your dad?” the doorman had asked. On the screen was a searing image of his own father, who had been moved to the hotel very soon after the blast at the nearby Shangri-La.
Linsey is determined not to let any of the money he has collected be squandered, so he is allocating much of it in small chunks to specific private charities.
During his visit he also met the country’s Catholic cardinal, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, who told correspondent.world he was deeply impressed with Linsey and his projects. Two of the three churches bombed were Catholic.
“I was very moved when the Cardinal blessed me and blessed our mission,” said Linsey.
On Easter Sunday 2019 in the same breakfast-room, Ben Nicholson and his family were also enjoying breakfast when disaster struck.
Mother, son and daughter all died on Easter Sunday 2019.
Ben, 44, was ordering pancakes from the breakfast buffet when the bomb killed his family.
He, Anita, 42, Alex, 14, and Annabel, 11, had enjoyed an “amazing” week-long holiday in Sri Lanka, seeing elephants and blue whales and messing around in the hotel pool.
They had packed their cases ready to go home and wandered around the capital, Colombo, sweeping the gift shops for souvenirs. Now they sat in the second-floor restaurant of the Shangri-La hotel, feasting on local dishes and pastries before their flight home. Their transfer to the airport was booked for 9.30am.
“We were sitting at a table by the window that the kids had picked and we weren’t far from done,” Ben recalls. “Everyone had eaten loads, and we were just chit-chatting about going home. I didn’t need any more food, but the food was great and I just decided I wanted something else, so I got up and left the table. There were some Sri Lankan flatbread-pancake-type things being cooked, so I was chatting with the guy who was making them about what they were.”
It was 8.45am — Easter Sunday. Without realising it, Ben was standing a few feet away from a suicide bomber.
As the pancake-maker dropped the batter on the hot plate, the bomb went off. A second blast followed moments later. “That decision, to get some pancakes, was the difference between all four of us going at once and me surviving,” he says. “How do you rationalise that?
Ben, an insurance lawyer from Grays in Essex, was knocked sideways by the explosion and fell to the floor. A concrete pillar shielded him from the worst of the impact.
A photograph of him with a haunted expression and his T-shirt soaked red with blood would be printed in newspapers and flashed on TV screens. “Really it was just scratches,” he says. “At one point they did sit me down and take a few bits of glass out of my midriff. But it was very incongruous; there was virtually nothing wrong with me.”
Annabel adored big brother Alex
There had been no concrete pillar to protect his family. “The dust settled fairly quickly and it was a bright day,” Ben says.
He saw Anita and Annabel straight away, but Alex was not there. “I knew Anita and Annabel were gone. I knew it as soon as I saw them. But nonetheless we took them out and moved them outside and put them in an ambulance.”
Ben spent the next seven hours looking for Alex, checking evacuation centres and hospitals. It was only as he was going ward to ward that he saw the newsflash on the TV screens and realised the explosion was part of a co-ordinated terrorist attack.
Before seeing the news, he had thought it was a gas explosion. “I was just confused. It didn’t remotely occur to me that it might be a bombing. I was in a massive state of shock and my mind was obsessively focused on Alex. I was thinking, ‘Maybe he went to get a drink and took himself away from the situation by some chance,’ and he’s just been evacuated somewhere.
“And then I had to think about, ‘If I do find him, what state is he going to be in?’ It definitely crossed my mind a lot of times. And, ‘If he is alive, how am I going to tell him about his mum and his sister?’”
The bomb destroyed the second-floor restaurant at the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo. C. CHAMILA KARUNARATHNE
He found Alex at 4pm, after being “gently persuaded” to check the mortuary. Like his mother and sister, Alex is believed to have died instantly in the blast. “The reason I couldn’t find him at the hospital was that he didn’t go to hospital.” Ben remembers lots of paperwork that night. He went before a makeshift magistrates’ court to have Anita, Alex and Annabel’s bodies signed into his custody. “Each time they would give me a form, I’d need to say, ‘Well, no, I need three.’”
One year on, his eyes fill with tears as he tells his story for the first time. Speaking by video call from his home in Singapore, where he, Anita and the children emigrated in 2011, he says the tragedy is “still incredibly new and raw”, but that he is, somehow, coping.
“A year ago today I had a wife and two children,” he says. “Anita and I had a life planned out together and we were watching our two children grow up, and enjoying it, and enjoying what we were doing. That all just stopped.”
Alex and Annabel on the day before they died
A few weeks after the attack, he set up the Anita, Alex and Annabel Nicholson Memorial Fund, which has raised almost half a million pounds. Last month, he was part of a team that circumnavigated Singapore in an outrigger boat, a challenge that took 17 hours and raised more than £100,000. He plans to use the money to “create a legacy” for Anita, Alex and Annabel. One project is the launch of a scheme to support disadvantaged children in Sri Lanka through rugby.
A partner at the law firm Kennedys, Nicholson says he feels “incredibly lucky” to have shared a joyous two decades with Anita, whom he met at sixth-form college and fell in love with after university. They bought their first house together, renovated it, supported each other through their early careers and shared in the joy of becoming parents.
The couple would have celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary this summer. Anita, who worked most recently as in-house counsel for Anglo-American, a mining company, and was previously a legal adviser to the Treasury, was “extremely kind and loving,” Ben says.
“She was completely devoted to the family, but equally there’s no doubt she had an absolutely ferocious intellect as well. She was wonderful.
“I had 22 amazing years with Anita. People spend their whole lives trying to get what we had. You have to be happy about that, to have had that time. But, equally, there are moments you just look at it and think, we had everything and we lost it all.”
Their daughter, Annabel, was the “younger, funny sister, bouncing around and being mischievous”. Alex could also be a “cheeky chappie”.
“His teachers all said to me that he’d often go past the line but then he’d always be able to charm you with his big smile.” Alex also adopted the role of caring big brother. Annabel “doted” on him, Ben says. “She knew she always had him to rely on.”
He thinks about them all the time. “The whole world around you is just going on and you see other things happening and you just think of yourself in that situation,” he says. “There are prompts everywhere; there’s nothing to stop you thinking about them. Not that I want to stop.
“At the beginning, you wake up every morning and you’re in that phase where you’ve forgotten, and then you remember what has happened all over again. That is hard. But I think that maybe because I drive myself quite hard, I just get up and go.”
Nicholson returned to work shortly after the attack to give him back a “sense of normality”, and still coaches at Tanglin Rugby Club, where Alex and Annabel played and Anita volunteered.
However, he could not bear to return to the old family home, and has moved to a new apartment. He finds comfort in the photographs that adorn the walls alongside art he and Anita chose together. He is having counselling and has thrown himself into sport and charity work.
On this year’s Easter Sunday he allowed The Times to tell his story and placed it on his fund-raising website.
Alex, 3 and Annabel, 18 months
In December, he went back to Sri Lanka for the first time to meet organisations he hopes the charity can go into partnership with. While there, he returned to the Shangri-La hotel to visit a memorial garden opened for the victims, and stood in the restaurant that was destroyed in the attack.
“It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it was but there was definitely a feeling that I wanted to go back and be there. It was surreal, inevitably. But it felt like that was the right thing to do. It did feel, somehow, that they were part of the place.”
He says he does not hold any anger towards those responsible for the attack. “I don’t think about [the bombers]. I just literally don’t think about them. I just give them nothing.”
And he does not regret taking his family to Sri Lanka. “You can’t regret going because it’s part of our lives and what we were,” he says. “We were just ridiculously unlucky.”