Sebastian Lukomski

London, d. 23.Feb.2004
Killed in traffic

London messenger killed by collision with HGV whilst working

Sebastian, Polish messenger, working for Anderson Young, died today after a collision with an HGV.  The accident took place this morning, 23rd February. No other details are available. 

Yesterday the bicycle messengers of London left the Duke of York, and, rolling as one on a path opened for them by their outriders, went back to that part of Lower Thames Street where their comrade, friend, brother, lover and rider Sebastian Lukomski was taken. Ignoring the entreaties and threats of the police, and the curses of passersby, the crowd laid candles, flowers and prayers. Bikes and voices were raised and a minute's silence followed. Sebastian Lukomski is dead. He will not be forgotten.

-Buffalo Bill

In memory of Sebastian Lukomski, the bicycle messengers (and their friends) of London yesterday, 27th February 2004, marked the place of their colleague's death with his name. The spot, previously a bleak and windswept confluence of iron and tarmac has been turned back to something more human, more cared for than mere road surface and pavement. There are flowers to sweeten the atmosphere, pictures of Sebastian's face to lighten the road and marks to tell of the love of his friends, colleagues, family and lovers for him. May he always brighten that place.

Today, nearly 200 people squeezed into the Polish Church in Islington to hear a memorial service in Sebastian's native tongue. We will never forget him, but I and many others were not, and still are not, ready to say goodbye. Sebastian is the seventh London bicycle messenger to have died after a collision with a HGV (truck). May he be the last?

-Buffalo Bill

Wheels of fortune
written by Graham Bowley

At about 8.45am on Monday, February 23, a 32-tonne Scania tipper truck rumbled on to the streets of the City of London. It turned on to Upper Thames Street, a busy road that runs parallel to the northern bank of the river Thames, then it drove west towards a notoriously busy T-junction with Southwark Bridge.

At about the same time, a young man on a pushbike left the offices of his courier company in Shoreditch, just north of the financial district, and peddled south past the City's shops and office blocks. He was a bicycle messenger. He had a package to deliver near London Bridge and another in the West End. His route took him down to the river and into the maelstrom of traffic flowing west on Upper Thames Street.

His name was Sebastian Lukomski. He was a 27-year-old Pole, one of the thousands of young eastern Europeans who have left their post- communist homes over the past decade to seek new lives in the wealthier cities of the west, often taking jobs in the urban underbelly or living on the margins, barely visible to mainstream eyes.

Sebastian was born in Lublin, a small leafy industrial city in south-east Poland that was the site of the Majdanek concentration camp during the second world war. After the war, it was a centre for the state-run Polish truck and tractor industry but by the 1990s, when Sebastian was growing up and the Polish economy was making its stuttering transition to capitalism, the factories were closing down.

After technical school, Sebastian got a job selling car parts in a garage shop. He owned his own car, an old grey Peugeot 505 with a loud 2.2 litre engine. On summer evenings he would race to the forests and lakes 20 minutes outside Lublin. But he was already thinking about the world beyond the small town. When his boss at the garage said he needed to lay off staff, Sebastian volunteered to go. A friend had family living in London and, despite his mother's protests, Sebastian left for the sprawling capital in October 1999. "You don't leave because of the jobs," said Remi, one of Sebastian's friends from Lublin who followed Sebastian to London. "You leave because of the people. It's an old system in the country. Sometimes, if you want to be free, you have to try another place."

In his new home, Sebastian worked first for a few months as a mechanic, fixing rally cars. Then he got a job as a bicycle messenger, joining an industry that had begun modestly in the early 1980s when a couple of pioneering companies realised that bicycles were a faster and cheaper way of navigating London's clogged streets than motorcycles or vans. By the end of the 1990s, there were more than 20 companies using large teams of bikes to courier packages around London. Between 200 and 400 riders roamed the capital, shuttling between the City and West End.

It was a job that suited immigrants like Sebastian: it required no formal qualifications, minor English skills and, unofficially at least, on the whole, no proper legal status. The aspiring arrivals required little start-up investment beyond a bike and plenty of time and energy. The downside was that the job didn't pay much. Today, messengers earn around GBP2.50 per delivery. If they do about 30 jobs a day, covering about 70 miles, this can add up to GBP350- GBP400 a week. But often it's much less. Couriering is piecework: the more the messengers toil, the more they get paid, and if they don't work, or there just aren't the jobs, they get nothing.

The messenger business is also dangerous. Perhaps this is made worse by the piecework structure, which encourages riders to take risks. Between the mid 1980s and the end of 2003, six cycle couriers were killed in London, all by big trucks. Even minor injuries are potentially disastrous because the riders have no insurance and the companies generally do not provide holiday or sick pay.

The London Bicycle Messenger Association, which was formed in February 2003 to "give a voice to London's most visible cycling group", posts advice on its website such as "How to be a messenger and not get stitched up, nicked or run over," and commemorates those messengers who died. Still, even though the work is tough, it can offer riders a decent way of living.

Sebastian joined a small courier company in north London. He became a feature on Cheapside, a main street in the heart of the City, where he and his friends would sit on benches opposite Bow Church waiting for business.

During his first two-and-a-half years in London, however, he was working illegally and at the end of 2002 he was caught. A friend from Poland visited in a convertible car, and they drove together along Cheapside, the wheel of Sebastian's bike sticking out of the car roof. When police pulled them over, there was a spliff in the ashtray and no official record of Sebastian on police computers.

He was deported to Poland, but didn't stay long. After four months he came back to England with his father, Jan, a lorry driver. With a lawyer, they drew up a business plan for Sebastian to operate as a self-employed bicycle courier. Armed with this, the young man got a visa under the UK government's business scheme. Now he could make a more permanent move to the UK.

Sebastian was one of about 100,000 Poles who have moved to the UK since 1989, according to Jan Mokrzycki, president of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain. The west's economic attraction for east Europeans is obvious: GDP per capita in Poland is two-fifths of the EU average. When the EU opens its borders to the 10 new countries joining on May 1, the flow of people such as Sebastian into the UK is expected to rise - at least at first - to about 17,000 a year.

After settling back in London, Sebastian threw himself into his newly official life. He moved to another courier company, Anderson Young, a bigger group that served big City clients including Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Linklaters. It was based in Fulham but Sebastian rarely went to the head office. He stayed out on what is known in the trade as the "circuit", talking to a dispatcher on a two-way radio and vying for work with 15-20 other Anderson Young cyclists.

He was one of the company's most enthusiastic couriers. "He was the easiest one to work with. He was so keen," says Alan Briggs, his controller. " You could give him a bad job and he could be very blase about it. Smiles all the time. He was the happiest boy on my fleet. A gorgeous geezer, and brave too. You have to be brave to come to a different country, learn the language, learn the streets."

Sebastian also treated himself to the best equipment. He had a blue Cannondale track bike, worth about GBP1,500, with disc brakes and high performance gears. On steps beside the Palladium Theatre in Soho, a favourite waiting spot for messengers, he was continually tinkering with his bike. When it was in good condition, he could earn GBP500 a week, as long as he turned up early and worked nine to 10 hours a day.

"He was annoyingly punctual. He was always the first one at work," says Kyriacos "Gigi" Englezou, another courier, who shared a flat with Sebastian in Bethnal Green, and who taught Sebastian much of his first English. (Even so, Sebastian continued to speak with a strong Polish accent.)

To support his work schedule, Sebastian kept fit, exercising at home with dumb-bells. He hated cigarettes (at least, tobacco cigarettes). And at night his flatmates had to keep quiet because he liked to go to bed early. "Always the job, always the job," says Bart, another friend from Lublin who lived with Sebastian when he later moved to Dalston. "It was not the money. It was about him and his bicycle." He cut out the words "Polish Courier" from a magazine and stuck them to his bike. "He wanted to label himself as the Polish courier," said Bart.

A photograph of Sebastian taken around this time shows a tanned, muscular young man in dark racing glasses and gloves, backpack slung over his shoulder. Poised on his bike, he looks as if he's ready for anything.

"He believed he could make something of himself here," his father, Jan, told me. "He got proper money for proper work. He liked the atmosphere in London. He had plenty of friends. Seb could feel this place."

One aspect of London that Sebastian especially liked was the social life in the tight-knit courier community. A love of bikes, plus the daily dangers faced on the streets, forged a strong messenger subculture, the social hub of which could be found in the Duke of York, a red-painted pub on Clerkenwell Road in the capital's centre. Most evenings, the pub is filled with Russians, Poles, Latvians and other eastern Europeans. (Poles make up about one- sixth of London's messengers, the couriers estimate.) But there is also a mixture of Germans, Brazilians, Australians, Americans and Brits. Some have been professional couriers for years. Others are just passing though, earning cash until they get more permanent jobs. But all are attracted by the messengers' counter-culture lifestyle.

Sebastian was an enthusiastic member. He raced last year in the European Cycle Messenger Championships, held at Lee Valley Park east of London. Cyclists competed around a track - dubbed Babylondinium - dropping dummy parcels at pretend addresses and protecting their bikes from pretend thieves. In one race he finished 29th in a field of about 120. He also took part in less formal "alleycat" rides - hastily arranged street races that defy traffic and red lights. He won the egg and spoon race.

Sebastian still stayed in touch with Poland. He sent money back to his parents and travelled to Lublin when his mother fell ill. Every three or four months, his father would come to London on business in his lorry, bringing packages of food for his son - Polish sausages, pate, pickled cucumbers, cheese, beer and vodka.

But increasingly the focus of Sebastian's life was in London. He had plenty of Polish friends - he was the photographer at a Cracow friend's wedding at Hackney Town Hall last year. At one point, he had an Australian girlfriend, a woman he met at the Duke of York who worked for a law firm. He spent Sunday afternoons in Greenwich Park, drinking beer and smoking dope. Some weekends he would go on trips to Great Yarmouth, or a cannabis festival in south London. When his older brother, Mariusz, visited from Lublin, Sebastian took him to Brighton.

In the meantime, to save money, he moved to a squat in an abandoned office-warehouse in Dalston, a scruffy district of run-down shops in east London where many east Europeans live. He shared with about 20 other people - builders and DJs; some of them Polish, others Italian, Irish, Spanish, and British. One of them, Remi, a DJ, told me: "Always he said, 'Life is beautiful. Zycie jest piekne! He also liked to impersonate Ali G. Booyakasha!" In a sign of how well his new life was going, his friends said, when he flew back to Poland last Christmas for a holiday in the Tatra Mountains he spent GBP2,000 in two weeks.

His appetite for enjoying his new life was evident during the weekend of February 21-22 this year. On Friday night, he went to a birthday party for a fellow Polish courier, Justina. At her house in Brixton Hill, he danced to techno music and ended up staying most of the weekend, talking with his friends about buying a car and discussing an overnight cycle trip planned for the end of March to the Isle of Wight.

Despite the weekend of partying, Sebastian was at work early on Monday. At around 8.15am, he reported to Anderson Young's Redchurch Street office in a narrow lane on the City's northern fringe. Three other messengers had gathered outside the office, a three-storey modern building with flaking white metal window frames opposite the Owl and Pussycat pub. Sebastian chatted with Nick Pereira, a fellow-partygoer from Friday night. "I was groggy. He was hey-hey," said Nick, a 30-year-old English graduate with fair hair who wears part of a bicycle chain as a bracelet. (He is known as "Lover Nick" in messenger circles.)

Sebastian was wearing black tights, black, baggy cycling shorts and a blue Gore-Tex jacket. His courier bag was strapped over his left shoulder. The sky was clear and blue. "We said, 'Oh my God, it's going to be a beautiful day'," said Nick.

Sebastian was given two jobs, the first a delivery at Berwin Leighton Paisner, a law firm on London Bridge. In the fresh morning air, he cycled through the City, past Liverpool Street station and Leadenhall Market, where stallholders were setting out trays of flowers and fish. The pavements were alive with people. He sped into Gracechurch Street and then dropped down one of the tiny, ancient lanes near the Monument, handing in his parcel at the company post room underneath London Bridge. Then he struck out west along the river on Upper Thames Street, a dirty avenue of traffic, crossed overhead by footbridges.

His second drop was in Regent Street in W1. His route, "Lover Nick" speculated later, would probably have taken him to Embankment station or Northumberland Avenue, before he cycled up towards Charing Cross. But first he had to negotiate the notorious junction at Southwark Bridge.
Before he got there, he cycled through the low-roofed tunnel beneath the Liffe building. When he came out, he passed the garden of St Michael Paternoster where a white magnolia tree was budding. Nearby, sunlight danced on the Thames where barges were unloading. Then suddenly, in the thunderous confusion of traffic, he found himself beside the 32-tonne Scania. Crusted with dirt, the high- sided lorry towered above him. It was probably heading to one of the big construction sites on the south side of the river. What happened next is unclear. Both bike and lorry may have stopped at the traffic lights before setting off again, or they could have been travelling together in the fast-moving traffic. Perhaps Sebastian tried to overtake on the inside, or the lorry may have swung out to overtake Sebastian before turning left. Whatever happened, Sebastian was probably cycling straight on as the truck turned on to the bridge. It caught him and he fell under its wheels.

A moped rider following behind stopped to try to help Sebastian, who opened his eyes but then appeared to pass out. A motorcycle paramedic and an ambulance arrived from Waterloo shortly after, along with an emergency doctor from east London. Sebastian had serious chest and head injuries. They gave him oxygen and tried to start his heart beating again, but they pronounced him dead at the scene. The ambulance took him directly to St Pancras mortuary. Police were still examining the truck on Southwark Bridge later in the morning. A few feet away, the truck driver - police said he was a 36-year-old man from Tilbury in Essex - stood against the side of the bridge staring at his lorry. He was arrested and later released on bail pending the outcome of a police inquiry.

Sebastian's death hit the messengers hard. On Monday evening they held a vigil on Southwark Bridge. The chairman of the London Bicycle Messenger Association, "Buffalo" Bill Chidley, described the event on the association's website like this: "On Monday the bicycle messengers of London left the Duke of York, and, rolling as one on a path opened for them by their outriders, went back to that part of Upper Thames Street where their comrade, friend, brother, lover and rider Sebastian Lukomski was taken."

In the following days, they draped roses, yellow carnations and lilies around a parking pole near the bridge, and heaped them on a wooden pallet in front of the Volkswagen showroom on the corner of Upper Thames Street. They left candles, and notes saying, "Your smile will always be remembered, full of hope, full of joy", "Ride in peace", and memorabilia, including a bottle of Polish Zubrowka (Bison) vodka, with Sebastian's name scrawled on the green label.

The mourning continued all week. On Friday at 10pm, when the streets around the bridge were quiet, a swarm of about 30 bikers rushed suddenly out of the night. Whooping loudly, their bike lights flashing, they converged on the corner where Sebastian died. One rider dismounted and hung his bike on the traffic light, while others blocked the road.

"You are a fuckin' great bunch of human beings!" one called out. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise!"

Incense was lit. They laid a cut-out cardboard template on the road and spray-painted over it, revealing in big yellow letters: LONDON BICYCLE MESSENGER SEBASTIAN LUKOMSKI 23.02.04 DIED NEAR THIS SPOT

Just as they finished, a white police van screeched to a halt and the cyclists disappeared into the side streets. By this time another sign had appeared at the scene:

It was raining on Saturday afternoon but about 100 messengers gathered at the Duke of York in their cycling gear and set off on their bikes for Sebastian's service at the north London church, where the crowd swelled to nearly 200. Standing on the steps, Nick Pereira announced that everyone should put out their cigarettes and file inside. In their parkers and trainers the messengers and their friends filled the tall, white-stoned church. They listened as Christopher Goralski, a thick-set priest wearing glasses and a purple and gold-braided gown, rang a bell and blessed the wine and bread. Standing in front of a mural of the Last Supper, he sang and read in Polish from the Bible: Philippians 3 20-21 and John 14 1-6. "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me."

After the priest had finished, one of Sebastian's closest friends, Lucasz Rzeszow, a round-faced Pole with an eruption of dreadlocks, asked in halting English whether anyone had anything to say. In a nearby pew, Emmanuel Ogbaro, a courier, stood up. "He enriched my life on this planet," he said, shaking, and close to tears. Nick Pereira said: "All these people here today, that shows a lot."

Sebastian's father, Jan, and his brother, Mariusz, spent the weekend driving over from Poland in Sebastian's old grey Peugeot. It took them 20 hours and they missed the service. They stayed with one of Sebastian's friends in his small flat on a housing estate in Hackney.

High up behind closed blinds, they sat in the shadowed room as the sound of trains echoed outside the window. Jan's eyes were red. "I knew the work was hard and quite risky, but I believed everything was going to be all right," he said, gripping the arms of the sofa. A broad, barrelled man with greying hair and a wiry goatee beard, he was wearing a green shirt and blue tie. His glasses and his passport were in his breast pocket. With a laugh, he stood up and demonstrated how Sebastian had hurt his leg doing the splits dancing as a teenager. It was while he was injured that he started riding bikes.

"Music and cars and girls were his passion," he told me. He invited me to visit Lublin one day.

In the corner of the room, 34-year-old Mariusz sat silently. He and his father had both just come back from dealing with Sebastian's body, which Anderson Young was flying back to Poland. "I wish his mother could have seen this reaction [from Sebastian's friends]," Jan said. "It would be easier for her to get over it." He sighed, crying quietly. He hid his face. Sebastian always wanted to be first, he said. "I wish he would not win any more races now, as long as he was alive," he said. "He could be last, as long as he was alive."

At 9am on Monday, a week after the messenger's death, the sky above Southwark Bridge was once again clear and a bell rang from the church of St James Garlickhythe. Some people stopped to inspect the flowers in front of the Volkswagen showroom. On the pavement in black marker were the words: Last resting place of Sebastian Lukomski.

Not long after that, the Bicycle Messenger Association wrote to Mayor Ken Livingstone demanding a ban on heavy goods vehicles in the city during the daytime. At the time of going to press, they have heard nothing back.

Sebastian Lukomski driver found guilty and sentenced

22nd November, City of London Magistrates Court
Terence Mark Fallows, driver of the HGV that killed London bicycle messenger and LBMA member Sebastian Lukomski, today [Nov. 22, 2004] pleaded guilty of driving without due care & attention. He received a sentence of 6 endorsement points on his driving license. A total of 12 points results in disqualification. In addition, he was fined £1000 and ordered to pay £230 costs. -Buffalo Bill

Warsaw Car Killers decides to dedicate ECMC2004 to Sebastian. A brief interview with him can be read here. The City Cyclist page about him is here.