‘All hell was let loose’: Witnesses describe London attacker, incident at Westminster

Updated on Mar 23, 2017 09:01 AM IST
Shortly after 2.30pm a car travelled at speed across Westminster Bridge in the direction of parliament, mounting the pavement and careering into pedestrians.
An injured woman is assisted after an incident on Westminster Bridge in London, Britain.(Reuters Photo)
An injured woman is assisted after an incident on Westminster Bridge in London, Britain.(Reuters Photo)
ByEsther Addley, Luke Harding and Robert Booth, Guardian.com

It began like any other early afternoon in Westminster. Inside the Houses of Parliament, MPs were gathering in the Commons chamber to vote, while journalists and parliamentary staff worked in their offices, and parties of schoolchildren and other visitors mingled around the rambling parliamentary estate.

Outside, on the street immediately below Big Ben and on Westminster Bridge, the pavements were packed as usual with tourists and pedestrians.

Precisely what happened next will be the subject of intense inquiries by police and the security services for some time. According to multiple witnesses, however, shortly after 2.30pm a car travelled at speed across Westminster Bridge in the direction of parliament, mounting the pavement and careering into pedestrians.

It struck and injured dozens of people, many of them foreign tourists. Three of those hit were killed, others sustained injuries that one junior doctor from St Thomas’ hospital, at the opposite end of Westminster Bridge, described as catastrophic and life-changing. Three of the injured were police officers; two of them seriously hurt.

One woman leapt or was thrown into the Thames; she was recovered from the water alive but with serious injuries. Images posted on social media in the hours that followed would show at least one other badly injured victim who had apparently fallen or jumped from the bridge to a stairwell below.

Rob Lyon, 34, from Rugby, was walking along the bridge when he heard “quite a loud crunch noise” of a wheel hitting a kerb, and looked up to see the car hitting people as it sped towards him.

“A colleague I was with, James, I heard him sort of shout. I instinctively jumped off the pavement. I could see people being hit.” He was, he thinks, about a metre from being struck himself.

He said he saw about five people lying on the ground around him. “[I saw] people who had been hit by a car at speed – it was harrowing,” he said. “I just sort of went into shock mode. I didn’t necessarily run and help people, I just looked around me. I couldn’t really work out what had happened.”

A general view of The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge after an attack on Westminster Bridge in London. (Reuters Photo)
A general view of The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge after an attack on Westminster Bridge in London. (Reuters Photo)

Gathering his wits, he dialled 999, then gave a woman his coat as a pillow, kneeling beside her until the ambulance arrived.

Some of the injured, it later emerged, were French students aged 15 and 16 from the Saint-Joseph de Concarneau secondary school in Brittany. Ouest-France newspaper reported that three students were injured, two critically.

But the incident, dreadfully, was not to end there. Having careered to the eastern end of the bridge, immediately beneath Big Ben, the car, a dark grey Hyundai i40, sharply crossed the cycle lane and mounted the pavement again, before crashing into the black railings that enclose the parliament complex, striking at least one other person.

Alan Parry, of Sky Sports News, was just outside Westminster underground station, immediately opposite the scene, when he heard “an almighty crash” and saw the crashed car. “There was smoke coming from this vehicle. I walked on a few paces further and saw what I assumed to be either a pedestrian or a cyclist who had clearly been hit and wasn’t moving, although he did then gently move.

“The guy who I assumed was the driver of this 4x4 got out of the car and suddenly sprinted away from the scene – that was followed by four of what sounded much like gunshots.”

“All of a sudden all hell was let loose. Police descended everywhere and the whole area was locked down.”

From her family’s newspaper kiosk on the opposite side of the road, Kirsten Hurrell, 70, also witnessed the immediate aftermath of the crash. “I thought initially it was some kind of accident,” she told the Guardian. “Then I heard a couple of sharp noises. It could have been gunshots. I wasn’t sure.” Someone, perhaps a cyclist, was lying on the ground near the car – “they didn’t look very good” – and steam was coming from the vehicle, she said. Fearful it might explode, she fled.

She did not see what happened to the driver of the vehicle, but police later confirmed that it was this man – not, as was initially feared, an accomplice – who seconds later dashed on foot through the gates of the parliamentary complex.

What happened next was witnessed by a number of parliamentary journalists, whose offices immediately overlook New Palace Yard, the cobbled square through which many MPs and peers drive each day to access parliament’s underground car park.

Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail’s parliamentary sketch-writer, has a desk near the window overlooking the yard; on hearing a loud crash and some screams, he told BBC news, he and his colleagues rushed to see what was happening.

“Then I saw a thick-set man dressed in black clothes, he looked I would say about 40 years old, I don’t think he had much hair, running ... through the gates. He seemed to have something in his hand, a stick or something like that.”

A policeman who tried to challenge the man had fallen over, Letts said, “and the attacker was hitting him, possibly striking him or knifing him”. The weapon was a knife, and the stab wounds inflicted would prove fatal. The victim was later named as PC Keith Palmer, a 48-year-old officer with 15 years service who was a husband and father.

The attacker then ran towards the entrance of the parliament building that is used by MPs every day. “He got about 15 yards or so when he was shot by two plain-clothes men who had come out of the building, having been summoned by the uniformed police,” said Letts. Before shooting, they shouted something at the man, “and he appeared to ignore them and still ran towards them, and they shot him about three times”.

For those inside the parliament buildings, the realisation of the horror outside was just beginning to dawn. Labour MP Mary Creagh said she and other colleagues were on their way to vote, making their way from Portcullis House, where many MPs have their offices, through the underground walkway beneath Westminster Bridge that opens directly into New Palace Yard.

“I was met by about 50 people running in the opposite direction and saying, ‘Shots have been fired – get out, get out now!’” Unable to get back into Portcullis House, they were forced through the heavily guarded security doors that open into Westminster underground station.

“I could see there were a whole bunch of tourists just milling around, about to go into a potentially very dangerous situation. So I went to the control room, I said: ‘You’ve got to shut the station down’.”

News was also spreading rapidly inside the Palace of Westminster itself. At 2.44pm, as MPs anxiously gathered inside the Commons chamber itself, the deputy speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, got to his feet to declare parliamentary business suspended – “but please stay where you are”. Fifteen minutes later, David Lidington, the Commons leader, told the packed benches that a “serious incident” had taken place, and for the time being the Commons chamber itself should remain in lockdown.

An air ambulance flies above Portcullis House, next to the Houses of Parliament in central London. (AFP Photo)
An air ambulance flies above Portcullis House, next to the Houses of Parliament in central London. (AFP Photo)

Journalists, MPs and visitors were similarly told not to leave the offices and rooms where they were. St Thomas’ hospital, similarly, went into lockdown, with visitors advised not to leave. The London Eye, immediately opposite parliament at the far side of the bridge, ground to a standstill, trapping dozens of sightseers inside the attraction’s pods for 15 minutes.

Theresa May, the Prime Minister, had been ushered to a government car and driven at high speed to Downing Street. In a brief statement, a spokesperson said she was “being kept updated” on the situation. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, later tweeted that May had spoken to Donald Trump about the incident.

Outside, while shocked passers-by struggled to understand what they had witnessed, others leapt into action. One of the first to arrive at New Palace Yard was Tobias Ellwood MP, a foreign office minister and himself a former soldier, who attempted to resuscitate the injured policeman by giving CPR. Ellwood’s brother, Jon, was killed in the Bali terror attack in 2002.

On Westminster Bridge, similarly, passers-by attempted to comfort the injured until paramedics arrived, no more than six minutes after the first 999 call was made at 2.40pm.

Police and emergency vehicles rushed to the scene, and speedy cordons were thrown up around the parliament buildings. The cordons were gradually pushed back as the secure area was widened by armed police.

As the day drew to a close, Mark Rowley, the Metropolitan police’s assistant commissioner and head of counter-terrorism, confirmed the provisional toll.

Five people were dead, including the stabbed policeman, the attacker, and three on the bridge. Around 40 people were injured, some of them severely.

“This is a day that we had planned for – that we all hoped would never happen, but sadly it is now a reality,” Rowley said.

Hundreds of officers are now working on the investigation, focusing in particular on the “motivation, preparation and associates” of the dead attacker, said Rowley.

One of those who may be key to it is Craig Mackey, as acting commissioner currently the Met’s most senior officer, who happened to be at the scene when it unfolded. On “an incredibly sad and sombre day, especially for the Metropolitan police and all those affected”, it was only right, he said, “that I mention the pride I feel in our officers’ swift and brave response”.

At 9pm, May emerged from Downing Street after chairing a meeting of Cobra, the government crisis committee. The “sick and depraved” incident had been the work of a single attacker, she confirmed; Britain’s security alert status, which has been “severe” for some time, would not change.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement at Downing street in London. (Reuters Photo)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement at Downing street in London. (Reuters Photo)

She paid tribute to the “exceptional men and women” of the emergency services, and said her sympathies were with “the victims themselves and their families and friends, who waved their loved ones off but will not be welcoming them home”.

Any attempt to undermine Britain’s values of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law would fail, the Prime Minister added: “Tomorrow morning, parliament will meet as normal. We will come together as normal. And Londoners and [other visitors] will get up and go about their day as normal.”

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