A van driving at high speed mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge tonight before the occupants got out and began stabbing patrons at nearby bars and restaurants, witnesses said in an attack that police described as terrorism.
Police said at least one person had been killed. Witnesses described a trail of serious injuries on the bridge and in the adjacent Borough Market.
The attacks set off scenes of panic in the heart of London on a cool June evening as the city’s streets were filled with people heading home from dinner or out for a drink. In packed pubs – normally scenes of Saturday night revelry and merriment – patrons threw chairs at the attackers as the assailants used long knives to slash their way through crowds.
London’s Metropolitan Police said the attacks were being treated as “terrorist incidents.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May, who returned to 10 Downing Street for emergency meetings with security officials, had earlier described the “terrible incidents” as “a potential act of terrorism.”
As of 2 a.m. Sunday, it was unclear whether the assailants remained at large, but police urged the public to remain vigilant and to avoid the area.
If confirmed as terrorism, Saturday would mark the third major attack in Britain in as many months. The evening’s carnage carried grim echoes of a similar incident in late March, when a driver swerved into pedestrians on another Thames crossing, killing four, and then stabbed to death a police officer at the gates of Parliament.
May had lowered the nation’s threat level only days ago – from “critical” to “severe” – after having raised it following a bombing last month at a Manchester pop music concert that killed 22.
But even with the lower threat level, the nation’s intelligence services had continued to judge that another attack was likely.
Witnesses reported that a white van was traveling fast – approximately 50 miles per hour – when it mounted the sidewalk and plowed into a group of people crossing the Thames River on foot around 10:30 p.m.
Witnesses speaking to the BBC said the van collided with a guardrail, and three occupants got out. They then began attacking people on the bridge with knives before making their way to Borough Market.
London’s Metropolitan Police later confirmed an attack at Borough Market, an area packed with popular restaurants that is located just south of the bridge. Police said that armed officers were responding to the scene, that there were reports of injuries from knife attacks and that shots had been fired – though it was unclear by who.
“I heard many gunshots and I heard people running away,” said Joe Dillon, 23, who was near London Bridge when the incident occurred. “Police officers were shouting: ‘Get out of here, you need to go!’ I heard at least eight rounds of gunshots, but I’m not sure who was shooting. When I arrived a second after I had heard the screams and the shots, I saw five or six officers running toward the van.”
Cell phone video from a restaurant in the market showed people diving under tables amid the sound of breaking glass as officers rushed in and ordered patrons to stay down.
Tamara Alcolea, 24, who works as a bartender in a pub called Southwark Rooms, which is near the bridge, said the first indication that something was wrong was when she heard that someone had been stabbed. in the proximity of London Bridge.
“Then we heard gunshots and people started to hide beneath the tables,” Alcolea said. “We locked ourselves in the office. From the window, I could see an injured person being treated by emergency personnel. Then the police came in and told us to run. Everyone was panicking.”
As Alcolea recounted her story, she saw two friends who she had lost track of during the melee. She cried and hugged them as they reunited outside a police cordon.
Chris Jacobs, 52, and his wife Kavita Jacobs, 49, were woken up by police officers banging on their door on the third floor of an apartment building at Borough Market.
“I heard gunshots as we left the building,” said Chris Jacobs, who stood next to a petrol station outside the cordon, with no shoes on and holding his dog.
Alex Shellum, an eyewitness, told the BBC he was at the Mudlark pub in the London Bridge area when at around 10 p.m. “a woman probably in her early 20s staggered into the pub and she was bleeding heavily from the neck and from her mouth. It appeared to myself and my friends that her throat had been cut.”
Police said they were responding to a third potential incident in the Vauxhall area, which is about a mile from the scene of the first two incidents. The subway station at Vauxhall was briefly closed, but later reopened. Police later clarified that the Vauxhall incident was unrelated.
Dozens of police cars sped to London Bridge, with helicopters hovering overhead. Police closed the bridge and urged the public to avoid the area.
The incident caused chaos in the heart of London in an area normally bustling on a Saturday night. Pedestrians near the bridge said they were ordered by police to run. Video footage showed people fleeing in a panic. Two hours after the incidents began, police were still widening cordons and pushing bystanders further back from the scenes.
Members of the public were escorted away from the bridge with hands on their heads.
British leaders scrambled to respond to the attacks.
May, who had been out campaigning ahead of an election slated for Thursday, returned to Downing Street and was being briefed by security officials.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said on Twitter: “Brutal and shocking incidents reported in London. My thoughts are with the victims and their families. Thank you to the emergency services.”
President Donald Trump was briefed on the incident, and immediately took to Twitter to say: “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!”
After taking criticism online for trying to use the attack to advance a policy goal that is now under review in the courts, he sent a follow up tweet minutes later: “Whatever the United States can do to help out in London and the U. K., we will be there – WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a statement thanking emergency responders, and condemning “a deliberate and cowardly attack on innocent Londoners and visitors to our city enjoying their Saturday night.’
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Griff Witte, Rick Noack, Karla Adam