Not Much Damage but Plenty of Uncertainty and Fear

Police enter the Warren Street station in central London after the explosions on the city's transit system. The small blasts came exactly two weeks after four bombs killed 56 people.
Police enter the Warren Street station in central London after the explosions on the city's transit system. The small blasts came exactly two weeks after four bombs killed 56 people. (By Jonathan Bainbridge -- Reuters)
By Craig Whitlock and Tamara Jones
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 22, 2005

LONDON, July 21 -- This time, there was no carnage, no bombed-out trains or buses, no makeshift triage centers on the sidewalks. But for the legions of people who rely on London's public transport system, the suffocating sense of fear Thursday afternoon was the same.

Although only one person was reported injured by four small explosions at the lunch hour, the heart of the British capital was quickly seized by gridlock and uncertainty, noisy with the familiar sounds of wailing ambulances and hovering helicopters. The cellular networks quickly became overloaded again as people dialed nervously for answers.

Was there really a nail bomb on the Tube? Had another bus been blown to smithereens? Was it true that police had chased one of the bombers into a hospital, wires still sticking out of his shirt?

The hundreds of police officers who roped off the crime scenes weren't talking, so the surplus of rumors and shortage of facts only fueled the collective anxiety.

For 10 solid minutes, Nicky Bhatt, 45, from the suburb of Ealing, paced indecisively in front of the turnstiles at the Baker Street subway station after police said someone had tried to set off an "explosive device" at the Warren Street station several blocks away. "Do I go down there and chance the bombs and more chaos?" she asked. "Or do I try to take a taxi, even though that's looking impossible right now?"

"You don't want to give in to them. You don't want them to win," Bhatt said, trying to reassure herself. "But all the time, you hear more and more police cars out there, so you wonder if there are more bombs." She put her subway ticket away and walked outside.

At the same subway stop, Fran Wittich-Broadley, a 27-year-old auditor lugging around a heavy black briefcase, made a different decision. She walked briskly down the stairs leading to the trains, but not without reservation. "It scares me," she said, the worry evident in her eyes. "Actually, I'm petrified. But I need to go back to work. And I have no other chance of getting out of here. What can I do?"

If police were right in their preliminary statements that the goal was mass casualties, Thursday's plot was an amateurish failure. There was no significant bloodshed. The incidents occurred at midday, when use of subway trains and buses is usually light. The sum total of the physical damage was less than a two-car accident.

But in terms of spreading fear and provoking chaos, the assaults had the desired effect. For the rest of the day, the sidewalks of London were clotted with commuters and tourists trying to figure out how to reach their destinations, blocked by a shifting variety of subway shutdowns and police barricades across streets.

Along normally bustling Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, the evening rush hour brought more problems. Riders jockeyed to squeeze aboard packed buses, only to discover that congestion was so bad that the buses were moving just a few feet every 20 minutes or so.

Giving up and deciding to hoof it instead, people besieged police on street corners and at the cordoned-off areas for directions to points sometimes several miles away. Tourists with fold-out maps suddenly found themselves surrounded by anxious Londoners asking for a look.

Many pedestrians appeared more frustrated than fearful, as they walked for blocks only to encounter another police roadblock and orders to head in a different direction.

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