LONDON: Terror returned to the streets of London on Wedneday when an assailant armed with two long knives drove his car through a crowd of people on Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer to death on the grounds of Parliament. Five people died in all, including the attacker himself, in the worst terrorist incident to hit the UK since the 7 July 2005 bombings.
Police said the attacker, who is believed to have acted alone, mounted the pavement of the bridge and mowed down more than a dozen tourists, local workers and police officers before crashing into the Parliament railings. As people ran for their lives, he entered the gates by Westminster Hall and repeatedly stabbed a male police officer. The officer has been identified as PC Keith Palmer, a 48-year-old husband and father with 15 years of service.
The attacker was shot three times after the stabbing by the officer’s colleagues, and later pronounced dead in hospital. Police said two people were killed as the car drove down Westminster Bridge. Forty others were injured in all, including two people who were standing by the railings where the attacker’s black Hyundai came to a stop.
Metropolitan Police acting deputy commissioner Mark Rowley said police suspect the attack was an act of “Islamist-related terrorism”. A major counter-terror operation was launched across the capital, Mr Rowley said, though police believe there was only one attacker. “Looking forward, people of London will see extra police officers on our streets, and we could call on the support of military,” he said.
Theresa May chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency Cobra committee hours later. Ms May described the attack as “sick and depraved”. The Prime Minister praised the “exceptional bravery” of police during the attack and said any attempt to defeat the values that Parliament stands for are “doomed to failure”.
The attack began at around 2.40pm and proceedings in the House of Commons were immediately suspended. Deputy speaker David Lidington announced to the House that a police officer had been stabbed and the “alleged assailant shot by armed police”.
Security sources have described the suspected assailant as a middle-aged Asian man, who attacked the officer on foot with a seven-to-eight inch knife. Images have emerged of a man dressed in black, believed to be the suspect, being treated on a stretcher within Parliament grounds. A knife could be seen lying on the ground nearby.
Tobias Ellwood MP, a foreign minister, was one of the first to arrive on the scene and provided first aid to the police officer, who has not been named while the force offers support to his family. The minister was pictured, his face bloodied, as he gave up efforts to provide CPR and a sheet was placed over the officer’s body. Later, he confirmed to the BBC that the officer had died at the scene.
Witnesses, including members of The Independent’s lobby staff, said the police officer fell to the ground clutching his arm or shoulder after he was stabbed, and was seen wounded but moving in the moments afterwards.
A man, believed to be the assailant, then tried to run towards the exit of New Palace Yard, underneath Big Ben. Police were seen shouting at him, presumably to stop. Shots were then heard. Dozens of police, many armed, ran around the gate of parliament in the moments after the shots were fired.
Witness Rick Longley said he saw the car crash into the Parliament railings, as well as the subsequent stabbing. “We were just walking up to the station and there was a loud bang and a guy, someone, crashed a car and took some pedestrians out,” he said. “They were just laying there and then the whole crowd just surged around the corner by the gates just opposite Big Ben. A guy came past my right shoulder with a big knife and just started plunging it into the policeman. I have never seen anything like that. I just can’t believe what I just saw.”
Theresa May had still been on the parliamentary estate following Prime Minister’s Questions when the attacker struck. Witnesses saw the Prime Minister being led to her car, a silver Jaguar, with the vehicle about to leave when officers then prevented it from driving into New Palace Yard where the incident occurred. A Downing Street source confirmed Ms May was “OK”.
Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, thanked the emergency services and praised “their bravery, their courage and their professionalism”. She said: “The government’s top priority is the security of its people and I urge everyone to remain calm but to be vigilant and if they see anything they are concerned about they should report it to the police. We have the best police, the best security services in the world and we must make sure that we let them get on with doing their job. The British people will be united in working together to defeat those who would harm our shared values. Values of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law. Values symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. Values that will never be destroyed.”
Speaking to reporters outside St Thomas’s Hospital, which is situated immediately at the southern end of Westminster Bridge, junior doctor Colleen Anderson confirmed the first fatality of the attack, a female pedestrian who had been crossing the Thames at the time.
“She was under the wheel of a bus. She died, [medics] confirmed her death at the scene.” She also said she treated a police officer in his 30s with a head injury who had been taken to King’s College Hospital. In his statement to the press, Mr Rowley said three officers were among those injured on the bridge. Ms Anderson said the injuries to those walking on the bridge at the time ranged from minor to “catastrophic”.
One woman was pulled from the River Thames after falling or jumping during the incident. She was said to be undergoing urgent medical treatment at a nearby pier after being rescued. A spokesman for the Port of London Authority said the river would be closed from Vauxhall to Embankment “as part the security response”.
One witness told Sky News: “It was fairly busy and I was just walking across the bridge when suddenly a bus stopped right in front of me and everybody started screaming. I saw a trainer in the road and I thought somebody must have been hit by a car, but then I saw a body on one side of the road. Then there was another body further up — and then when I looked over the side of the bridge there was another body in the water.”
Van driver Mitchell Spree, 27, told The Independent he was driving along Embankment when he saw people being evacuated from nearby buildings. He said: “Then we pulled on to the bridge. A lady was lying at the entrance to the bridge. There were about five more people. She was crying. She was speaking to the paramedic. I don’t know what the others were like. The police asked us to leave our van. It’s still on the bridge. It’s shocking.”
Another witness, Tawhid Tanim, told The Independent he heard three shots — “bang, bang, bang” — some 10 or 15 metres from the Cafe Nero coffee bar where he was waiting for friends. “It was so loud,” he said. “People were running like crazy.”
He saw the aftermath of the car striking railings outside Parliament, he said. Whether someone, or something, was underneath, he could not be sure. “I couldn’t see it properly. I started running.” Police officers told the crowds to “just keep running,” he said.
Within half an hour of the incident, Parliament was in total lockdown. The chamber cleared of MPs, the restaurants of diners. Parliamentary passes no longer opened any door, any gate. Westminster’s press offices occupy the top floor of the palace along from Big Ben and round to Westminster Hall, right over the courtyard where some thought the car smashing into railings sounded like an explosion, and seconds later gunshots were heard.
Chefs, maintenance men, reporters massed at the windows. One filmed as the Prime Minister’s car was hurriedly driven away. Half an hour after the incident, along the Committee Corridor, where MPs meet for meetings all week, another wave of shouting could be heard. Through the windows, anti-terror police could be seen, in their air force blue uniforms, barking instructions to one another, apparently securing the building.
Labour MP Mary Creagh told reporters: “It was very frightening, to see people running towards you, to hear that shots had been heard. My thoughts are really with those people,” who were victims of the attack, she said.
In his statement, the assistant deputy commissioner said the Met responded “in line with our plans for a marauding terrorist attack. We are reaching out and engaging with all communities across London to help reassure them,” Mr Rowley said. “Our strength as a city is our ability to stand together at such terrible times. If anyone sees anything suspicious or that causes them concern please do contact us — don’t hesitate.
“My thoughts are with all those who have been affected by today’s attack — and as a service we have lost one of our own as he acted to protect the public and his colleagues. This is a day that we had planned for — that we all hoped would never happen — but sadly it is now a reality.”
MPs remained on lockdown for hours with few updates, keeping spirits high with jokes about how food and drink were — for once — allowed to be consumed within the Commons chamber. They started to file out of the Commons at about 7.30pm, five hours after the incident began.
Parliamentary authorities announced that both Houses would sit at their normal times today in a united show of determination not to let the attack disrupt democratic proceedings. A joint statement from Commons Speaker John Bercow and Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker, said: “On behalf of Members of both Houses of Parliament, we wish to offer our thoughts to all those affected and their families. We would also like to express our gratitude to the police and all emergency services.”
Reactions to the attack have come from governments and leaders around the world. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who earlier in the day had taken part in commemorations to mark the first anniversary of a terror attack in Brussels, said: “Our condolences are with those who mourn and all who are affected in London. Belgium stands with UK in fight against terror.”
The White House said President Donald Trump had spoken to Ms May by phone, and the President praised the response of security forces and emergency services, pledging “the full cooperation and support” of the US government “in responding to the attack and bringing those responsible to justice”.
Three French students were identified as being among those injured by the attacker’s car on Westminster Bridge. President Francois Hollande was quoted by the French embassy as saying: “Terrorism concerns us all and France know how the British people are suffering today.”
On social media, people offered their condolences and support to the city under the hashtag “PrayForLondon”, and in a video statement shared on Facebook yesterday night, Mayor Sadiq Khan tried to reassure both the British public and “our visitors” coming to the UK from all over the world. He expressed his “gratitude, on behalf of all Londoners, to the police and emergency services for their bravery”.
“London is the greatest city in the world,” he said, “and we stand together in the face those who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life. We always have and we always will. Londoners will never be cowed by terrorism.”