LONDON — A homemade bomb sent a scorching cloud of smoke and flames through a London subway car Friday, injuring at least 22 rush-hour commuters and sending people scrambling for safety in what police called a terrorist incident.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and authorities gave no details on possible suspects. But the incident was quickly labeled a terrorist strike, and security measures were tightened across London’s vast mass transit network.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that the device had a timer, suggesting that some degree of bombmaking knowledge was used in creating it.
“This was a device intended to cause significant harm,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, but it remained unclear whether the device detonated prematurely or malfunctioned in some way.
It also was not certain if the suspected bomber was among those hurt or on the run. But in a sign that a manhunt could be mobilized, London police appealed for cellphone images from the scene.
Meanwhile, May called a special meeting of the anti-terrorism Cobra committee for later Friday. London police declared the subway explosion a “terrorist incident.”
The head of the London area’s police’s counterterrorism unit, Mark Rowley, confirmed that the blast was from an improvised explosive device. A photograph on social media showed a white bucket beside a shoulder bag on fire — but little damage. Even the bucket was not burned.
Authorities said the 22 injured largely suffered from flash burns at the Parsons Green station, about three miles southwest of central London. Some news agencies placed the number of injured slightly higher.
Emergency services said none of the injured faced life-threatening conditions.
“We have hundreds of detectives involved looking at CCTV, forensic work and speaking to witnesses,” he said shortly after the attack. “This investigation will be supported by our colleagues at MI5 bringing their intelligence expertise to the case.”
“My thoughts are with those injured at Parsons Green and emergency services who are responding bravely to this terrorist incident,” May said. Parsons Green is in trendy Fulham, a neighborhood of Victorian rowhouses, furniture designers and Championship League soccer.
Witnesses described a fireball and smoke racing through the subway car, and then a frantic crush of people trying to flee while others attempted to aid those with burns and other injuries.
Luke Walmsley, 33, a film editor, was on his way to work during a normal morning commute, listening to music. And then it was suddenly not normal.
“I heard a scream and then there was a flash, a light, and smoke. I actually pulled my earplugs out, and then the screams got louder and louder,” he said, recalling people running toward him at the station.
“It was chaos. It was every man for himself to get down the stairs, and it’s a very tight exit,” he said, describing injured people on the ground. “I went back to see if they were okay. Other people attended them, then there were nannies and moms asking where their children were.”
He said that on the platform, there were people helping others “who were shocked and burned, bottles of water being poured over burns, quite severe burns, whole legs.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan condemned “the hideous individuals who attempt to use terror to harm us and destroy our way of life. As London has proven again and again, we will never be intimidated or defeated by terrorism.”
A Twitter user named @RRigs wrote, “Fireball flew down carriage and we just jumped out open door.”
Three hours after the incident, President Trump tweeted: “Another attack in London by a loser terrorist. These are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard. Must be proactive!”
It was unclear whether Trump had been briefed by his security advisers, who told him something of the identity of the assailants. Neither the Metropolitan Police nor the British government have said anything publicly beyond describing the detonation as a suspected terrorist attack.
Following Trump’s tweets, and without mentioning the American president by name, May said it’s not “helpful for anybody to speculate on … an ongoing investigation.”
Later, during a brief appearance outside the White House, Trump further hammered a hard-line message, saying “we have to be very smart and we have to be very, very tough — perhaps we’re not nearly tough enough.”
Lauren Hubbard, 24, had just stepped on the Tube at Parsons Green — the beginning of her morning commute to her job in the financial district — when she felt intense heat. Then she saw a rush of flame barreling toward her.
“I got on, heard a bang, looked around, and this wall of fire is just coming at me. It took up the whole circumference of the carriage.” She said the train was a new one that didn’t have smaller, separate cars, so the flame was just ripping right through it.
“I could see the fire; I could feel the heat of it. At first you just panic, then you just run. There can be no good reason why this is happening, even if this is just an accident like an explosion or Tube fault, there is no reason why a fire like that would or should be on a Tube, so you instantly assume the worst.”
Kate Llewellyn-Jones, 42, who lives next to the Underground station, said she heard shouting and then a woman ran into her yard. She had lost her shoes in the stampede. Llewellyn-Jones took the woman into her home.
Shortly after the explosion, the area around the subway station, including a small green park, was cordoned off. Locals who had been evacuated from their homes were sipping lattes in the nearby cafes. A few had dogs sitting on their laps.
This thought struck many: Why attack here? Parsons Green is not a tourist magnet, but a leafy enclave with many cafes, pubs and shops. “It feels very far away from the center,” said Llewellyn-Jones.
It was “obviously really distressing that it is so close to home,” she added.
Stuart Lees, a priest with bright blue eyes who was comforting some of the commuters outside the station, tried to make sense of terrorism flaring in this normally quiet corner of greater London.
“It’s most unusual, to be honest, in this setting,” he said.
On social media, several users living near the Parsons Green station tweeted their support to those affected, responding in a typical British fashion with, “I’ll put the kettle on.”
“If anyone needs a coffee, tea, a quiet moment or just a chat, please DM me — Going home now I am on Dawes Road, 2 minutes to #ParsonsGreen,” Twitter user Maeva Gonzalez wrote.
Police and ambulance arrived at the Parsons Green station very quickly. According to some reports, first responders appeared in three minutes.
After the recent spate of attacks in London and Manchester, Prime Minister May and her government were criticized by the opposition for slashing of local police staffs — and those arguments were raised again after the subway blast.
Others on the right pressed for a tougher response.
The right-wing populist United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, tweeted: “Thank goodness nobody serious hurt at #ParsonsGreen but we cannot rely on jihadist incompetence.”
On Thursday, Britain’s Home Office announced that police, using broader authorities, had arrested a record 379 people for terror-related offenses in the last months, an increase of almost 70 percent.
Britain has been the target of a string of Islamist-related terrorist attacks in the last year.
A suicide bomber detonated a powerful device in May at an Ariana Grande pop concert in Manchester, killing 23 people, including the assailant.
In March, a terrorist drove his vehicle into pedestrians at Westminster Bridge in London and then emerged with a knife. He killed five, including a police officer, before he was shot.
In June, three attackers used a rented van to run over people on London Bridge, before they jumped out of the vehicle and stabbed more victims in the crowded Borough Market. They killed eight people, before police shot them dead.
Police investigators concluded that the attackers were radicalized and inspired by groups such as the Islamic State, but that they planned the assaults on their own.
Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jennifer Hassan in London and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.
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