Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Gunfire in the Palace

My Daily Record dispatch from inside Westminster

Westminster is used to seeing police with guns, and we like them because this place is a number one terrorist target. In that sense we all knew this day would come.

Armed police are routinely deployed around the perimeter of the fortified palace, keeping it safe.

Each morning and evening as we enter and leave they can be seen in pairs at every entrance of the self-proclaimed mother of parliaments. One of them gave his life defending democracy yesterday.

The sound of repeated gunshots signalled that Westminster was under attack and brought parliament to a shuddering, temporary halt.

At 2.40pm, while the Prime Minister was still in the Commons, the loud, unmistakable bang-bang of gunfire could be heard in New Palace Yard, three floors below our Westminster office.

The division bell summoning MPs to go and vote was ringing out at the same time.

Before the shockwave could settle journalists rushed to windows that overlook the open courtyard, sweeping aside the bomb curtains designed to stop explosive fragments flying into the rooms.

On the cobbled road below, in the shadow of Big Ben, two men were lying prone on the ground.

With others I rushed down three flights into the cloisters by Westminster Hall.

Armed police were surging out of the underground car park which houses their armoury.

Orders were barked,  machine guns at the ready policemen took point behind the eroded limestone pillars, as you would see an armed patrol on the streets of an occupied country.

We peeked into the courtyard, the paramedics were already at work as the police moved in. Quickly we were told to go back inside. Parliament was being put on lock-down.

Events unfolded swiftly then as shocked eye witnesses recalled what they had seen.
Like every violent incident people had fragmented memories. Some people heard one gunshot, others more.

Don Brind, a former Labour press officer, spoke to us with his takeaway lunch getting cold in a polystyrene carton.

“I was walking past, I heard some shouting and saw someone running out of the corner of my eye. Very shortly after that there was a shot.” 

“I looked and I saw a figure on the ground with someone standing over him with what I assumed to be a gun. Then I looked and about ten yards away I saw a yellow jacketed person on the ground.”

Sometimes colleagues were the best witnesses. Kevin Schofield, one time Westminster correspondent for this paper, was seated at a window overlooking the Yard.

He said: “I heard a loud bang like a car crash, I looked out and there was lots of shouting and people running around. That was when I looked out and saw a man bust through the security gate and attack the policeman. They both went down, another policeman appeared and the attacker got up and walked towards him with a knife in his hand. I heard gunfire, but I didn’t see the man go down he was just out of sight.”

Everyone spent the rest of the day piecing together what happened in these few seconds of madness.

As police pushed back the cordon, extending it along the road beyond Westminster Abbey in one direction and Embankment station in the other, the paramedics pumped away.  

They could be seen hunched in a group as they fought to save the life of the policeman and his attacker on the floor of the cobbled courtyard in front of Parliament.

Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood was among those who rushed to help. He gave the downed police officer mouth to mouth.

We could see the MP standing, his shirt bloodstained, the officer dead beside him despite his efforts. The other man lay dead with a blanket covering his face for some time.

Quickly the yard flooded with the heavy duty police, tooled up with machine guns, body armour and grey kevlar helmets. They were the CTSFO, counter-terrorist specialist firearm officers, a police unit set up to deal with just such an incident. 

A room by room search of the vast palace, still going on as I write, ensued. MPs were locked in the Commons, the sitting suspended.

Thousands of pictures were taken, many of them will become police evidence, but the strict rules on taking photos within the palace stopped us broadcasting out the images.

The shock spread throughout the vast building and from end to end of the country as people began messaging for reassurance.There were plenty who needed to told.

Wednesday is the busiest day at Westminster, Prime Minister’s Questions pulls in a full house and many MPs bring in constituents from all parts to see the spectacle of Britain’s vibrant political life.

Theresa May was in the division lobby, preparing to cast a vote,  the ultimate symbol of peaceful politics, when she was whisked away by plain clothes police officers.

Locked in our rooms, we were safe enough inside the citadel. But on Westminster bridge, fear and blood mingled on the pavement. You could feel that as the sirens mixed with the sound of helicopter rotors.

The images showed carnage on one of the busiest tourist thoroughfares in Britain. We could do nothing, and felt helpless.

Westminster has been under attack before. New Palace Yard is where the INLA detonated their tilt bomb and blew up Airey Neave as he drove up the ramp of the carpark in March 1979. 

London has been here before, rocked back on its heels by the 7/7 attacks of 2005. Brussels took a worse beating from terror on this day last year, and it goes on.

This was another futile assault on a way of life, for you cannot kill a city or the symbol of a country’s democracy. That policeman lying on the ground below showed people will die fighting to defend it.

Inside the Palace, as police began debriefing hundreds of witnesses, people shook off their bewilderment, regained confidence. 

A London Underground roundel with  “we are not afraid”  instead of the familiar station names quickly gained currency online.

It was smart, defiant move. But  at the moment when gunshots rang out across Westminster that sentiment was certainly not true.

No comments:

Post a Comment