Witness to terror: ‘There was a lot of screaming. I’ll never forget the fear in the eyes of the police’
‘In situations of terror, you get the heroes, the quiet ones, and the people who completely lose their minds’: Paul Millar remembers the terrifying day he was trapped inside Parliament during the 2017 Westminster attack.
One foot in front of the other. He maintains a nervous pace until he reaches his office, writes Will Millar. A helicopter hovers above the building. He can see it clearly on the television in the corner of the room.
Every single office door is bolted shut and a deathly silence starts to emerge. On a normal day, the sound of chatter, laughter, and division bells ring through the palace of Westminster. Today, a policeman has been stabbed to death.
Paul Millar, who was just 24 when the Westminster terror attack took place in 2017, had only been working in Parliament for six months, as a researcher for the late Paul Flynn.
When the job got too chaotic, he’d sit alone in the atrium of Portcullis House, sipping a coffee, amongst the tranquil setting of trees and distant chatter.
That’s where he was when the sound of gunshots rattled through the atrium. That grim afternoon in March, there were six victims. Five innocent adults and a killer shot dead on the grounds of Parliament.
“There was a lot of screaming. The police officers were running, trying to keep everyone away from the entrance,” he says. “The fear in their eyes will always be stuck in my memory.”
Escorted to safety, Paul and his colleague Kathy hid underneath a table in the office. The chaos soon faded and was replaced by a tense stillness, where the slamming of every office door mimicked that of a prison cell.
“The feeling in the building was that this was only going to get worse,” he says. “Rumours were going around that there were bombs in abandoned cars. Even my dad texted me saying there’s a gunman in the building. It was terrifying.”
After a while, Paul was moved to a safer environment. Though, the new location, identified by its single-glazed windows and fragile structure, left him feeling even more anxious.
News channels relentlessly covered the event and started to identify the policeman that had been stabbed – PC Keith Palmer.
“I knew Keith Palmer. He was someone I used to walk past. Someone I used to speak to. A lot of people did,” he says.
With nothing to eat but some Rowntree fruit pastels from a near-empty vending machine, Paul started to observe the odd behaviour of those around him.
“I recall a few people who wouldn’t stop playing with the TV sets. They were obsessed with changing the channel,” he says.
“In situations of terror, you get the heroes, the quiet ones, and the people who completely lose their minds.”
Five hours had passed, and Paul could leave, he shuffled through a cowshed of journalists and reporters. On his long walk home, he passed Huw Edwards, setting up scene on Westminster bridge. Ready to deliver a united 10 o’clock news.
The following morning was eerily quiet in Westminster. Abandoned cars. Police tape. The palace had been choked of its personality. No bells. No laughter. No Chatter. Security no longer greeted Paul but grilled him on arrival.
Just a couple months later, a snap general election was called, and Paul was plunged into the chaos of campaigning. He tried to come to terms with the attacks, but he was restless and so were his colleagues.
One night, whilst campaigning in his MP´s constituency. Paul was sat in the back of a car driven by a colleague, when they crashed at a road junction and the car was sent spiralling out of control. “Inches more and we would have died,” he says.
That election campaign was littered with traumatic events and Paul vividly remembers these months being the hardest. Hearing about the Manchester Arena bombing, and the London Bridge attacks forced Paul to relive that horrible day inside Westminster.
Upon returning to London, Paul started to notice his mental health deteriorate. He recalls arming himself with a tennis racket on the tubes, in case he was attacked. In Parliament, he started to experience symptoms of Post-traumatic stress-disorder (PTSD).
The sound of a hoover echoed the screams in the atrium. The cleaners in the corridor slowly morphed into police running up and down the building. Paul realised these triggers were sinking deeper into his conscious.
One day, after settling into a new role, he fell ill.
“I felt faint and my body was taken over with adrenaline. My face was bloated and pale. I thought I was having a heart attack,” he says.
What Paul experienced, was the beginnings of a panic attack. A very severe panic attack. He recalls the security guards. Fully grown men. Weeping as they watched on. His vulnerable mind started to play tricks on him, and he was cast back to the events of the attack.
“What happened during that panic attack proved that I’d completely lost my mind,” he says. “I thought the Russians had poisoned the water in the Parliamentary estate. That was my only explanation.”
Paul scrunches his face, as he explains the horrors, he felt during the panic attack. He remembers feeling that his death was certain. He even started to prepare his final wishes.
After being taken to hospital, Paul was diagnosed with PTSD and a severe anxiety disorder. He soon left Parliament and moved back in with his parents. For him, this was a safer, more secure place.
His overall health had been chipped away at but months of cognitive behaviour therapy helped him get back to his feet. Though, the effects were still long lasting and sleep became his only medication.
It has been more than four years since the Westminster attack. He no longer visits the city. Paul now works as a councillor for East Devon District Council, 200 miles from London.
Recovery is slow and he often laments that afternoon. That grim afternoon in March, where five innocent lives were taken.
Paul may never look past his own trauma, but he is insistent that each person, affected by the attack, should look after oneself.
“I like to remind myself of the instructions from cabin crew to air travellers. Put your own oxygen mask on, before helping others,” he said.