They were killed in the London Bridge terror attack, seconds apart. So why did their families get wildly different payouts? | London Bridge attack 2017

Sara Zelenak was brutally unlucky. Her parents, Mark and Julie, can reel off all the different reasons why she shouldn’t have been walking down the pavement at the junction of London Bridge and Borough High Street 19 seconds after 10.07pm on 3 June 2017.

“She was never going to be in London,” Mark says, wide-eyed. “She was going to be an au pair in Milan.”

Ten days before she was supposed to leave her home in Brisbane, the job got cancelled. “But she was able to pick up something in London, so that’s where she went.”

Sara loved London: the fashion, the nightlife, even the cold.

She was 21 and the world was her oyster. “She came completely out of her shell,” Julie tells me. “You could see her change in three months. She blossomed.”

On that Saturday in June, Sara was meant to be at home in London’s Victoria, with the kids she au paired, Mark says. “But the grandma said, ‘I’m going to have the children tonight, so you can have the night off.’”

First, Sara planned to go to a rooftop bar in Soho with Priscila Gonçalves, a friend from her au pair WhatsApp group, but they couldn’t find it so they headed to London Grind, a buzzing place close to Borough Market, on London Bridge. Sara had made plans to go on a first date with a guy who was watching the Champions League final nearby; he said he’d call her once the match was over.

“It always plays on my mind,” Julie tells me. “If he had rung one minute later, she would have been one minute behind. She walked out into a terrorist attack.”

“There were so many sliding doors,” Mark says.

Sara stepped out of the bar moments after a white Renault Master van containing Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba made a U-turn at the northern end of London Bridge and sped back towards Borough High Street. Less than 10 minutes later, 11 people were dead and 48 had been seriously injured. The three terrorists had been shot and killed by armed police, at the end of a rampage in which eight people were murdered. Sara was their youngest victim.

I have spent four years investigating the prices put on human lives by criminals, judges, philanthropists, actuaries, policymakers and healthcare providers. I’ve seen how these sums can vary according to nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation and whether taxpayers, businesses or charitable foundations are footing the bill. And I discovered the price of Sara’s life turns out to be a small fraction of others killed in the same atrocity, by the same terrorists, only seconds before they killed her.

The evening of Saturday 3 June 2017 was warm and London Bridge was full of tourists. The white van, hired by Butt for £70 a few hours earlier, was weighed down with bags of gravel, with 13 wine-bottle molotov cocktails and blowtorches also in the back. Zaghba was behind the wheel as it hurtled along the bridge and mounted the pavement three times in 15 seconds. Holly Jones, a BBC journalist, had been crossing from south to north, and could see his face as he ploughed into people. “It was intentional what he was doing. He was angry, demented,” she told the inquest into the attacks.

The first time the van mounted the pavement, it struck and injured three people. The second time, it hit Xavier Thomas, 45, and Christine Delcros, 43, a French couple who had arrived in London that day and were taking a romantic walk before cocktails at the Shard. She was seriously injured but survived; he was knocked over the bridge’s granite balustrade – his body was recovered from the Thames two miles downstream three days later. Ten seconds after hitting Xavier and Christine, the van careened on to the pavement again, striking Chrissy Archibald, a 30-year-old Canadian who was walking with her fiance, Tyler Ferguson. Chrissy became trapped under the van’s chassis as it crossed the central reservation. When she came free, Zaghba ran her over. She died shortly afterwards, in Tyler’s arms.

The van then crashed against wrought-iron railings at the top of Borough High Street, next to the Barrowboy and Banker pub, a few paces from London Grind. It was seconds after Sara and Priscila had left the bar. Priscila later told the inquest they became separated in the chaos as people ran from the crash site. The three terrorists emerged from the wreckage dressed in what turned out to be fake suicide vests, with 12in pink ceramic knives they had bought from Lidl for £4.62 strapped to their wrists. They set upon Sara, stabbing her in the neck several times, from behind. She died at the top of the steps down to Green Dragon Court, her phone buzzing in her hand as Priscila tried to find her.

James McMullan, 32, who had stepped out of the Barrowboy and Banker for a cigarette, was the only British person killed by the terrorists. He was stabbed in the back; a witness told the inquest he may have been trying to help Sara after she slipped and fell in her heels. Alexandre Pigeard was a 26-year-old French waiter at the Boro Bistro in Green Dragon Court, below street level. A shower of rubble had fallen down into the courtyard following the crash and Alexandre had headed towards the stone stairs to see if he could help anyone, only to be stabbed in the neck at their base. Tracing a wall with his fingertips, he managed to make it back to Boro Bistro, but was pursued by the terrorists and stabbed again.

Sébastian Bélanger, a 36-year-old French chef who had been watching the football with friends in Borough Market, was killed in the dark archway close to Boro Bistro, and Kirsty Boden, a 28-year-old Australian nurse who was out with friends at the Bistro, was circled by the attackers and stabbed to death as she tried in vain to save Alexandre’s life.

The attackers then ran back up the steps and on to Borough High Street. Ignacio Echeverría, a 39-year-old banker originally from Spain, had spent the evening skateboarding with friends. They were cycling towards the river when he saw the terrorists attacking a police officer and a woman under the railway bridge. He threw down his bike and swung his skateboard at Redouane. Redouane stabbed him, and when Ignacio fell to the ground, Zaghba joined in the assault. His was the last life taken by the terrorists.

The best and worst of humanity was on display in those frenzied 10 minutes. Ignacio and Kirsty gave their lives trying to save others. British Transport police officer Wayne Marques confronted the attackers armed only with his baton, and was stabbed in the eye, leg and hand. Off-duty Metropolitan police officer Charlie Guenigault ran to help PC Marques, and was also seriously injured. When the terrorists moved into Borough Market, Romanian baker Florin Morariu threw crates at them, then gave shelter to 20 people in his bakery. And when they began stabbing diners at the Black and Blue steakhouse, 47-year-old Roy Larner attacked them with his bare fists, shouting, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall.” He was stabbed in the neck, back and chest, but survived.

Armed officers from the City of London police and the Met fired a total of 46 rounds at Butt, Zaghba and Redouane on Stoney Street. They were shot dead eight minutes after the first emergency call was made.

Perhaps mercifully, there is no CCTV of the attack on Sara. “They assume Sara slipped in her high heels,” Julie frowns. “She could do a backflip on a tightrope in heels.” When her parents heard that at the inquest, they bristled. “It made her out to be a blond bimbo, and that annoyed me. People have no idea what she was like.”

Julie and Mark are speaking to me from K’gari (also known as Fraser Island), off the east coast of Australia, where they moved a few months ago to look after three holiday homes.

“She was very streetwise,” Julie says. “She was always looking after everyone else.” Sara was athletic and adventurous: she loved basketball and had done avalanche survival training in Canada. She left school at 18 and worked alongside Mark for a while as a crane operator, wearing fake nails along with her hard hat. Mark was Sara’s stepfather, but he brought her up from 18 months and calls her his daughter. He worked in drilling and Julie was a personal trainer; they were both self-employed and worked odd hours, so Sara would often look after her older and younger brothers.

Mark and Julie Wallace, parents of Sara Zelenak, one of eight people killed in the attack. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

Sara had been on Westminster Bridge on 21 March 2017, the day before a terrorist drove a hired SUV into pedestrians, killing four people, before stabbing an unarmed policeman to death outside parliament. She had tickets to see Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017, when a terrorist detonated a suicide bomb in the foyer, killing 22 people and injuring more than 1,000, but she wasn’t able to get the night off work, so she didn’t go. “It was two in a row she’d just missed,” Julie says. “I said to her, ‘Sara, be careful with all the killing going on.’ And she goes, ‘Mum, I’m fine.’”

The news of what had happened trickled through agonisingly slowly. The blond woman in St Thomas’s morgue looked nothing like Sara’s passport and driving licence photos, when she had dyed brown hair and a 17-year-old baby face, so the authorities at first refused to classify Sara as anything other than a missing person.

“You know when you lose your toddler in the supermarket and you can’t find them for three seconds? It felt like that for three days,” Julie says. The Australian federal police (AFP) eventually contacted them to say there was a body, and suggested they fly to London. On their stopover in Abu Dhabi, they got a message from Sara’s older brother saying it had been confirmed: Sara had been identified using DNA from hair on her comb.

Then things happened fast. The Met, AFP and Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade all worked together to guide them through the process in baby steps. Before they went to view Sara’s body, they were told exactly what each room would look like, who would be there, what they would see and what would happen. They were briefed about every detail of the inquest in advance: where the judge would sit, when they would be called to give evidence, what the CCTV would show. “It was all meticulously planned,” Mark says.

But when it came to claiming the compensation from the Australian government they were entitled to as parents of someone killed in a terrorist attack, Julie and Mark were left on their own.

A friend of Julie’s happened to read something online, did some Googling and sent them the form. “It was something she found by chance,” Mark says. “Under their guidelines, it’s you that has to apply. And it has an expiry date on it: two years. You’re in grief and you’re just trying to find your feet. I think five years down the track there’s still shit we’ve missed.”

Compensation can’t bring back the dead, but many governments acknowledge that a person should not be left out of pocket if they lose a relative because of terrorism. There will be earnings lost due to bereavement; expenses to pay. Plus it’s arguable that victims of terror belong in a special category: they have been targeted as symbols of a nationality or government. They represent a way of life that’s being attacked: who they are as individuals doesn’t matter to the terrorists.

The victims of the London Bridge attack were all citizens of countries that have compensation schemes for the families of those killed in terrorist attacks. But the sums involved vary enormously from country to country and according to how the compensation is calculated.

In the UK, any victim of a violent crime can claim compensation from the government for physical or mental injury, and if they are killed their families can claim for the loss of their life. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) decides who is eligible and how much they should get. “The scheme is intended to be one of last resort,” CICA guidelines say. “Where the opportunity exists for you to pursue compensation from another source, you should do so.” The guidelines are more than a decade old, and the “Tariff of Injuries” hasn’t been updated or adjusted for inflation since 2012.

The list goes on for 28 pages and is strikingly detailed: £16,500 for a severe burn to the neck; £55,000 for loss of fertility; £33,000 for the loss of a leg below the knee or £44,000 above. Mental injuries qualify for lower tariffs than physical ones. The seriously injured are eligible for far greater compensation than families of the dead. Perhaps that makes sense – they will have life-changing needs – but it’s jarring to see it in black and white.

The CICA payment makes no distinction between a death from terrorism, domestic violence or a random attack on the street. A life lost is valued at only £11,000 – the amount the parents of James McMullan, the only British victim, would have been eligible to claim.

You’re supposed to make a claim as soon as possible – amid grief, or serious injury – and can be turned down for all manner of reasons. “We will consider any evidence available about your character … which makes it inappropriate for us to make a full or reduced payment,” the guidelines read. “This includes evidence of involvement or association in illegal drugs, crime, tax evasion and benefit fraud.” The mental and physical injuries sustained by Roy Larner – the “Fuck you, I’m Millwall” hero dubbed the Lion of London Bridge after he fought the terrorists with his bare fists – should have made him eligible for tens of thousands in compensation. But he had convictions for racially aggravated common assault, drug possession and breaching a restraining order granted to his mother. He got nothing.

Spain, Canada, France and Australia all have specific provisions for the families of victims lost in terror attacks. Chrissy Archibald’s was entitled to C$10,000 (£6,000). Ignacio Echeverría’s would have qualified for up to €250,000 (£220,000) from the Spanish government. France has a special fund that calculates compensation in terms of the impact of losing a specific relation to terrorism. Family members of the Frenchmen killed would be compensated accordingly: any spouses would get €35,000, children up to €25,000, parents up to €35,000, grandparents up to €11,000, siblings up to €15,000. The French system seems to be framed in terms of the price of bereavement, rather than the price of life.

Killed that night were (clockwise from far left) Alexandre Pigeard, Chrissy Archibald, Ignacio Echeverría, Sara Zelenak, Sébastian Bélanger, Xavier Thomas, Kirsty Boden and James McMullan. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Sara Zelenak’s and Kirsty Boden’s families were eligible for the Australian Victim of Terrorism Overseas (AVTO) payment, which is A$75,000 – just over £40,000.

“That’s nothing, for the rest of her life,” Julie says with disdain.

“One year’s work. She was a healthy, vibrant person. She had her whole life ahead of her – no injuries, no illnesses. And they put A$75,000 on that?”

Julie sees the price of Sara’s life in terms of the cost of the years she didn’t get to live. And measured that way, the AVTO does seem pathetic. Insulting, even. It’s hard to see what the figure represents: something to help her kids, if she’d had any? “If she did have them, 75 grand is going to get her kids – what?” Mark replies.

It’s several times as much as they would have got from the government had Sara been British or Canadian, but it’s not citizenship that makes compensation for the 2017 London Bridge attack so incredibly unequal; it’s the manner in which lives were taken. The families of Xavier Thomas and Chrissy Archibald – killed by the van – were able to bring a significant compensation claim against Hertz, one of the largest vehicle rental companies in the world. The families of the six people who were stabbed to death had no one to sue.

“There is no simple compensation for being caught up in a terrorist attack, therefore people will reach around to discover what could be available as an alternative,” says Robert Muir-Wood, the chief research officer at Risk Management Solutions. “The London Bridge attack is the most glaring example of why this is so strange and unfair.”

Muir-Wood analyses risk on behalf of the insurance industry. In an article for the Insurance Day website, entitled Crossing the Terrorism Casualty Protection Gap, he wrote: “Those stabbed and slashed by the London Bridge attackers can expect 5 or 10% of the compensation awarded to those run over by the same terrorists driving the van.” It’s a jaw-dropping detail.

“The rental company has quite deep pockets and significant insurance limits. So the compensation for those hit by the vehicle was, you might say, reasonable, or even generous,” he says. But there were no pockets for the stabbing victims to reach into. “For them, it falls back on other forms of compensation, or the willingness of the public to donate after an attack of this kind.”

The van used in the attack. Photograph: Metropolitan Police/AP

Muir-Wood wrote his article before the settlement with Hertz’s insurer, Probus, was agreed in 2020. “The amount has not been disclosed, but it’s likely to be millions,” he says, pointing to the settlement paid by Zurich, insurer of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car vehicle used to kill four people in the March 2017 Westminster Bridge attack: it’s reported to have been in excess of £150m.

The inconsistency happens on a greater scale in the US. Muir-Wood’s article was inspired by the enormous discrepancy in payouts after mass shootings according to their location.

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Gun-makers are legally protected from being sued in the US if their guns are used in a mass shooting, but nightclub and hotel owners are not. When Stephen Paddock fired into a crowd on the Las Vegas strip in October 2017, killing 58 people, he did it out of the window of the Mandalay Bay casino-hotel, owned by MGM Resorts International. MGM has liability insurance across the whole chain, and compensation was set at the limit of its insurance. Even after legal fees were deducted, the settlement was worth $800m.

Compare that with the 2016 mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, where 49 people died. The club, Pulse, was independently owned; there was no one with deep pockets to sue, so payments were “$140,000 per death, based on charitable contributions,” Muir-Wood says, matter of factly. “It falls back on passing the hat around. That’s how things used to be until insurance was invented in the late 17th century.”

Why isn’t all of this more widely known?

“I don’t know. If all the victims in the London Bridge attack had been British, there might have been more awareness of this, as something needing redress.”

If you’ve got no one to sue, it’s not going to occur to you to think about how others might be able to.

Muir-Wood nods. “And it’s in no one’s interest to tell you.”

Talking to Julie and Mark, I take a deep breath. “You know, when I emailed you, it was about the different levels of compensation for the London Bridge families according to where the victims were from, and also the manner of their deaths,” I say. “Were you aware of it before I told you?”

This is the first time since we started talking nearly 90 minutes ago that neither of them has anything to say.

“I didn’t know,” Julie says eventually.

“We were not aware, and … we’re not in a space where we’re going, ‘What did or didn’t we get?’” Mark says. “With everything, we pretty much take what comes.”

The Hertz payout had been reported at the time, albeit in the British press. I’d assumed they must have known about it.

“It’s not that I would expect you to be comparing notes with other families,” I babble. “It’s more that the system is so extraordinarily unfair.”

“The system fails,” Julie says, stony-faced.

There’s another pause.

“Is the van considered a road accident?” Mark asks.

I’m not sure how to answer this. “I think the families of the people killed by the van were able to get significant compensation from Hertz, whereas those of the people who were stabbed would not have been entitled to that.”

They shake their heads.

“Yeah,” is the only thing Mark can say.

Fieldfisher’s ninth-floor meeting room is as generic and featureless as you’d expect for a city law firm, apart from its breathtaking view: the building is right on the Thames, close to London Bridge, overlooking the spot where Chrissy Archibald was brutally murdered. Jennifer Buchanan, a partner in Fieldfisher’s serious injury team, represented her family. She is explaining how families can be eligible for different compensation levels – “It’s genuinely unfair. It breaks my heart” – and Mark was right: those killed by the van were viewed in the civil courts as killed in a road accident. “Chrissy was hit by a vehicle driven by a known driver, with insurance in place, so we claimed against the insurers.”

There was no allegation that Hertz had been negligent in renting the car to Butt (who had tried to rent a 7.5-tonne lorry and been denied only because his payment method failed). “There was a call for lease hire companies to have stricter checks. Why is there such strict security going through an airport, but to hire a van you just have to show a driving licence?” Buchanan says. The 9/11 terrorists used planes as a weapon in the same way as Butt, Redouane and Zaghba used a vehicle, after all. “Anyone, it seems, can hire any van, so whoever’s insuring it has to be responsible for anything that happens, and have the checks and balances in place.”

London Bridge terrorists (from left) Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba. Photograph: London Metropolitan Police/EPA

Claims take the form of a dizzyingly specific and comprehensive itemised bill, some of which Buchanan shares with me. Chrissy’s parents were able to claim a bereavement award (nearly £13,000, Buchanan says), secondary victim awards to cover any psychiatric help they might need, probate costs, an award for funeral expenses, then the general damages award for every single injury Chrissy received. “You get different awards depending on whether you’re fully conscious at the time of death, or whether you survive for a short while, then die,” Buchanan says. “If you’re fully aware, the award is currently £12,000 to £23,000.”

Her family were able to claim aggravated damages because of the horror Chrissy suffered in her last moments. “It was so horrific, so violent, and she could see it coming.” In addition, they were able to claim for “the loss of love and affection for the sister and the parents. And we tried to recover some charitable expenses paid out to repatriate her back to Canada.” If Chrissy had had dependants (like Xavier Thomas, who had two children he was raising largely on his own), the award would have been much higher, Buchanan says.

“Chrissy had the rest of her life ahead of her,” I say, Julie’s words in my mouth. “Was that taken into account?”

“I think the courts really struggle with putting a price on a life, so they just make it a statutory amount that everyone gets: if you’re a 13-year-old killed crossing the road or if you’re in your 80s.”

Patrick Maguire, had is a solicitor whose clients after the attack included both those who were hit by the van and could sue Hertz, and those who were stabbed and had to make CICA claims. He worked with Xavier Thomas’s family, but none of those bereaved by the knife attack, who had no need for a criminal injury lawyer.

Maguire is now a partner at HCC solicitors, based in Manchester and London, and specialises in the very worst horrors, from the Westminster Bridge attack to the Salisbury novichok poisoning. When we speak, he is in the middle of the inquest into the 2021 Plymouth mass shooting, where a 22-year-old man killed five people and injured two others, before turning the gun on himself.

Maguire doesn’t mince his words about CICA compensation. “The whole point of a civil claim is to, where possible, put the family or injured person back in the position they were in but for the injury or death. The CICA doesn’t go anywhere near reflecting that.”

What’s it for, then? A gesture of sympathy?

“Yeah, basically. It’s a token, better than nothing.”

I wonder if that’s true. Something can be worse than nothing if it means the government can say they’ve dealt with a problem, and it stops them having to do better.

Sara with her mother in 2016 …
… and a public memorial opposite Borough Market after Sara’s death. Photographs: courtesy of Mark and Julie Wallace

The hat gets passed around whenever there’s a mass tragedy and that, too, takes the pressure off governments to make things better for families when compensation schemes are inadequate or unfair. The UK Solidarity Fund established after the 2017 London Bridge attack gave £75,000 to the next of kin of every person killed, regardless of where they were from or what weapon took their life. There were also individual campaigns for the families of victims. When Sara was still a missing person, a friend of Mark and Julie’s set up a GoFundMe that raised nearly A$24,000 (£13,700) in a little over two weeks. Roy Larner may have got nothing from the CICA, but a single JustGiving page raised £55,470 for him.

CICA compensation is still our money, just collected through taxes. Should we allow our donations to let the government off the hook? The UK Ministry of Justice launched a review of criminal injuries compensation in 2020, but nothing has yet come of it. Meanwhile, the people who would benefit most from CICA reform are bereaved, traumatised and have no one else to claim from.

Julie and Mark spent their compensation money setting up a charity in Sara’s name. It offers emotional, spiritual and practical support to people living with traumatic loss, so others won’t have to scramble in the dark like they did after Sara’s death.

Sarz Sanctuary was initially conceived as a live-in healing retreat, but morphed into a digital platform during the pandemic. “We could help more people, and connect as many people as we want around the world,” Julie enthuses. “Our digital platforms cost a few hundred thousand. We’ve sold our house, our car, our boat, to fund it.”

“It gives us purpose to get out of bed each day,” Mark says. Julie nods. “We have to normalise grief.”

Julie and Mark have become ambassadors for grief, speaking at UN events and meeting Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. They organise an annual London to Paris fundraising bike ride, and Christine Delcros, who was hit by the van, saw them off on their inaugural ride, from the bit of pavement where Sara was killed.

A piece of concrete from that spot sits in a vase in Mark and Julie’s home. They wanted a way of taking Sara’s spirit back with them from London. But Julie says ever since she visited Sara’s body in the morgue, she has felt Sara beside her. “She’s guiding me with everything we do. I get a sign or a feeling I should be doing something, and I do it,” she says, with sparkling eyes.

The price of Sara’s life is meaningless, arbitrary, unfair. But Julie and Mark are learning to live alongside the pain of their daughter’s death, and they refuse to allow themselves to be victimised again by the injustice of the compensation they received for it. They won’t be stifled by anger or bitterness. As long as it gives them purpose, Sara’s death wasn’t senseless.

“We’re both of the opinion that we come on the Earth with a contract that has a date when you’re leaving – you don’t know what it is, but you’ve agreed to it,” Mark says. “She was leaving on that date, and that’s why those sliding doors took her there.”

Julie nods. “That’s the only way, in my head – in both of our heads – it can make any sense.”

This is an edited extract from The Price of Life by Jenny Kleeman, published by Picador on 14 March at £18.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


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