Messages offer mother, daughter hope amid carnage

July 27, 2011 - 1:13 PM

OSLO, Norway (AP) — Marianne Bremnes' nightmare began with a phone call on a summer Friday afternoon.

It was her 16-year-old daughter Julie, attending a youth camp for members of the Labour Party on the idyllic Norwegian island of Utoya. A crazy man was shooting. People were dying.

Bremnes' agony was made worse by the fact that she was more than 800 miles (1,400 kilometers) away, at home in Harstad, northern Norway. She couldn't reach her daughter, couldn't rescue her, couldn't even talk to her — it was too dangerous to stay on the phone.

"I was terrified, disturbed because I wasn't there to help her," Bremnes said. "I didn't know what to do other than ask her to text me."

As Julie hid from the gunman among some rocks on the seashore, her mother asked her to send an update — "a sign of life" — every five minutes.

And Julie did. For almost an hour and a half, as far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik stalked the island, mortally wounding at least 68 people, mother and daughter exchanged news, words of comfort and potentially lifesaving information by SMS.

"I had to be calm for her," 46-year-old Bremnes said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "She also remained calm so it was easier for he to remain calm."

Julie's first text came at 5:42 p.m.: "Mum, tell the police to hurry. People are dying here!"

Her mother tried to reassure her: "The police are on their way."

Julie's texts were urgent: "Tell the police that a madman is running around shooting people. ... They have to hurry!"

Bremnes kept up the reassurance: Police were on their way and all would be well.

Norwegian police have been criticized for the time it took them to reach the island. Although Utoya is only about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Norwegian capital, police needed 90 minutes to get to the scene.

"Stay under cover, don't move to another place!" Bremnes texted her daughter. "The police are already on their way, if they have not already arrived."

The words may have looked calm, but inside Bremnes was panicking, terrified. "I was scared there was nothing I could do because I was so far away," she said.

For Bremnes, the minutes crawled by, filled with agonizing peaks and troughs of hope and horror.

There was a heart-stopping moment, at 6:15, when Julie texted: "The police are here."

Her mother immediately warned her: "The person shooting apparently wear a police uniform. Be careful!"

Julie stayed in her hiding place. At 6:30 she texted: "He's still shooting."

At one point the teenager heard a helicopter. Thinking help was on its way, she emerged from her hiding place, waving her pink rain jacket to attract attention. It wasn't the police, but a news crew, who filmed Breivik surrounded by bodies piled up on the shore and in the water.

"If she had been at the wrong spot she would have been killed, since the police had not arrived yet and the gunman was not arrested," Bremnes said.

Throughout it all, Julie kept her promise: a "sign of life" every five minutes. Some of her messages were basic: "I am still alive." The bare communication was enough to flood her mother with relief.

"I heard from her every five minutes — she did what I told her to do," Bremnes said. "The whole time I knew how she was and where she was. It helped me and I guess it helped her."

Mother and daughter even had time to say "I love you."

"I love you, even though I may yell at you sometimes," Julie messaged. She added: "And I am not panicking, even though I'm s___ scared."

"I know that, my girl," her mother responded. "We love you very much too."

Still the uncertainty went on. "The evacuation is going on now, they're saying on TV," Bremnes told her daughter.

Still Julie stayed in hiding, no rescuer in sight. "Can't they catch him soon?!!" she texted.

"The anti-terror police is there, and they are working on getting him," her mother replied.

Later, Julie said she saw helicopters searching for people in the water. "They haven't picked us up yet!"

At 7:01 p.m., Julie asked her mother for information: what were they saying on the news?

"The police are also on a boat to Utoya, otherwise nothing new," Bremnes said. "It is not clear what happened to the gunman, so you stay still. Wait for someone to pick you up."

Soon after, she was able to send Julie the news they'd been waiting for: "Now they've got him!"

It was not until later still that Julie called: She was on a rescue boat. She was safe.

"And she cried," Bremnes said. "I cried and she cried."

Mother and daughter were reunited the next evening, when Julie flew back to northern Norway with other survivors from the region.

Julie lost five friends in the shooting. Bremnes said her daughter is holding up well — but she worries about the future.

"She is fine," Bremnes said. "But I don't know about the long-term aspects of it."

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Jawless reported from London.