For close to three hours on Wednesday, the gates of Buckingham Palace were shut and the houses of parliament – with over a thousand people inside – were put in lockdown. Prime Minister Theresa May was whisked off to safety, and central London was cordoned off and evacuated as police rushed in to deal with what they were quickly calling a terror attack.
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The event started as a large vehicle went careening out of control while crossing Westminster Bridge, plowing into the crowds on the sidewalks. Eyewitnesses insist the driver acted deliberately and describe scenes of chaos and confusion, including screaming tourists, a member of parliament giving mouth to mouth resuscitation to an injured stranger and at least one person being flung or falling into the River Thames below.
After reaching the north side of the bridge, the vehicle then hit the outer rails of the storied parliament building – and a lone driver got out of the car wielding a hunting knife. The attacker reportedly then stabbed and killed a police officer, before being shot and killed himself. Early reports of the attacker being seen alive on a stretcher and surrounded by police officers in St. Thomas’ hospital were later debunked, as were early reports of there being a second attacker.
Police confirmed that four people had been killed, including the attacker while at least 40 others were injured. In an oft repeated description of the carnage, a junior doctor at St. Thomas’ said many of those hurt had come in “with catastrophic injuries.”
While refusing to discuss the identity of the attacker, police said that the act was inspired by international terrorism.
Among the wounded were at least three police officers and several schoolchildren — part of a group of visiting students from Brittany, France. A plane from France took off for Britain immediately, with the families of the injured.
One member of parliament, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Prime Minister Theresa May, who had been present in the building as “three or four,” shots rang out, was immediately bundled into a silver Jaguar and taken away. Everyone else in the building was told to stay put as police tried to account for all members. Concerned there might be more than one attacker, they also cordoned off the area, and all the subway stops in the area were closed down.
“There were several announcements on the loudspeaker saying there could be further incidents,” said the MP.
As bystanders began posting photos of the wounded and the chaos on social media, London’s Metropolitan Police urged everyone to use “common sense and restraint,” in circulating such pictures and videos. “If you have photos or film of the incident in Westminster please make sure you pass them to us,” they said in a bulletin.
Both the Metropolitan Police and the mayor’s office were cautious about giving out information about the event or the identity of the attacker, and for many hours there was great confusion about what had actually happened. And yet, almost from the beginning, the police were calling this a terror attack, and many news agencies noted that it was taking place on the one year anniversary of the suicide bombing in Brussels airport that killed 32 people.
London’s police commander said that a “full counterterrorism investigation,” was underway and May called together an emergency meeting with the country’s heads of counter terrorism and with her ministers.
May later called the terrorist attack “sick and depraved,” and charged that the terrorists chose to strike “at the heart of our country,” and at “the home to the world’s oldest parliament,” because they reject the values Britain represents: values of democracy, freedom and human rights. “These are values that command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere,” she said.
“Yes, we are a target for those who reject our values,” she continued, speaking from outside Number 10 Downing Street after the emergency meeting, “but any attempt to defeat those values is doomed to failure.”
Londoners and visitors to London, she promised, will wake up tomorrow and “move forward together – never allowing the forces of terror,” to change their habits, their plans or to drive them apart.
Mayor Sadiq Khan, in a statement, said that Londoners and visitors should not be alarmed by the increased numbers of armed and unarmed police being sent out to the streets. “Our city remains one of the safest in the world,” he assured, and went on to express gratitude to the police and emergency services. Parliament, he said, would be open as usual on Thursday and both the houses of Commons and Lords would meet as planned.
There has not been a large scale terrorist attack in Britain for many years — since July 7, 2005, when bomb attacks killed more than 50 people on the subway and on a bus. But nonetheless, police have been planning and training for such an eventuality for years. “This is a day we planned for which we hoped would never come,” Rowley said.