A hunt was underway on Friday evening for the bomber who attempted to bring carnage to a London rush-hour tube train packed with schoolchildren and commuters.
Twenty-nine people including a young boy were injured when the bomb partially detonated and sent a ball of fire along a carriage of a District line train at Parsons Green, west London.
Police are understood to have found CCTV images that captured the bomber as he boarded the train with the bomb packed in a white plastic bucket inside a Lidl supermarket bag. The train is believed to have had onboard CCTV, and there are a large number of cameras covering the network.
Nobody suffered life-threatening injuries in the incident, the fifth terrorist attack Britain has suffered in less than six months. Theresa May condemned it as cowardly and the home secretary, Amber Rudd, denounced it as “callous and indiscriminate”. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, described the attack as hideous and added: “We will never be defeated.”
A former army bomb disposal officer told the Guardian that it appeared the initiating charge of the device had exploded but had failed to detonate the main charge.
Initially, police had considered the possibility that the bomber had been among those taken to the hospital, where many were treated for flash burns.
However, investigators believe the device was remotely detonated, which suggested it may not have been intended as a suicide attack, and that the bomber may have left the train before the explosion.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s first response to the attack – a tweet in which he claimed the “loser terrorist” had been on Scotland Yard’s radar, and that more proactive policing was required – was dismissed by a police spokesman as “unhelpful”. May also criticised the US president, saying: “I never think it is helpful for anybody to speculate on what is an ongoing investigation.”
The explosion happened at about 8.20am on Friday while the train was stationary and the doors open.
Rory Rigney had just boarded the rear carriage of the train and was standing just feet away when the blast went off. “I thought, ‘Did someone smash something?’ It sounded like a smash, then I heard a scream and thought ‘it’s someone having a fight’. Then I saw the fireball coming towards me – yellow or orange. My face still feels warm.
Before long, a number of people returned to the train to retrieve bags and telephones. A few took photographs of the smoldering remains of the device, which had been packed into a bucket that eyewitnesses said appeared to have held mayonnaise. A number of wires, which appeared to be attached to small lights, were also visible.
Tube staff then ordered people to leave the station. Armed police were on the scene within minutes, as were firefighters and paramedics, who began treating people with burns.
Police threw a cordon around the area and asked some residents to leave their homes. Armed police evacuated a nursery and a junior school, and a girls’ secondary school was placed on lockdown.
NHS England said 29 patients had been treated, with 21 still in hospital on Friday evening.
Responsibility for the investigation was quickly handed to Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command. However, the joint terrorism analysis center, which sits within MI5, decided against raising its public assessment of the terrorist threat level to critical, which would have signaled that an attack was thought to be imminent.
May said: “The threat level remains at severe. That means that a terrorist attack is highly likely. But this will be kept under review as the investigation progresses.
“The public should go about their daily lives but remain vigilant. People who are traveling in London will see an increased armed police presence on the transport network and security will be increased.”
The assistant commissioner, Mark Rowley, said that hundreds of detectives have been drafted into the investigation.
On Friday night detectives were examining a mass of CCTV footage from the underground rail network, and from businesses around some District line stations.
The device was being examined by forensics experts and may offer clues from its construction and from the chemicals used to make the explosive charge.
The explosion at Parsons Green is the first terrorist attack in the UK this year to not result in loss of life. Two vehicle and knife attacks in London and a bombing in Manchester were blamed on Islamist-motivated terrorism. A van attack in June was blamed on an extreme rightwing motivation.
“In appearance and arrangement, the remnants of the device seem highly similar to those of the hydrogen peroxide-based devices of 2005. The size of the device and its containment in a plastic bucket is also the same.”
The trial of the 21 July bombers heard that their devices failed because they had made mistakes when mixing the chemicals