A large bomb exploded in the Paris Metro at the height of the evening rush hour yesterday, killing four people and injuring 62, 14 of them critically. Several of the injured had limbs blown off by the force of the explosion. This was the first terrorist bomb attack in the French capital since the bombing of a department store by a Lebanese group nine years ago.
The explosion happened at the Saint-Michel Metro station in the heart of the city's Latin Quarter, opposite the cathedral of Notre Dame. Eyewitnesses spoke of "an enormous conflagration", a train carriage incinerated and filled with smoke, and an explosion so forceful that it stripped people's clothes off.
The first news of the disaster came when individual survivors, bleeding from cuts and with their clothes torn, staggered out of the Metro exit on to Place Saint-Michel, a square lined with cafes frequented by students and tourists.
The emergency services and officers from the French anti-terrorist squad were on the scene within minutes; dozens of ambulances and fire engines lined the embankments of the Seine beside the tube station and bright red civil defence helicopters hovered over Notre Dame. The area was completely sealed off to other traffic, paralysing the city centre for much of the evening.
The city's police chief, Philippe Massoni, declared a "red alert" - providing for a co-ordinated mobilisation of all emergency services, including specially equipped ambulances and fire engines. In a widely praised operation, involving more than 500 people, two field hospitals were set up, one in a cafe close to the station, the other two storeys underground at the level of the wrecked line to treat those too badly injured to be moved. Most of the injured had been moved by helicopter to specialist hospitals within an hour of the blast.
The Metro line on which the bomb was planted - line B of the suburban RER network - links the international Charles de Gaulle airport and the Gare du Nord - terminus for the Eurostar trains from London - with central Paris. The line is much used by tourists, as well as commuters. A crossing point between two RER lines and two Metro lines, it is also an important hub for the city's transport network.
Anti-terrorist specialists said first information suggested that the bomb contained between three and four kilograms of explosive and was the same type as that used in car bombs. They said it had a timing device and had been planted under a seat in the sixth carriage of the southbound train. They speculated that those who planted the bomb had left the train at the previous stop.
Although anti-terrorist squad officers had been called to the Metro station at once, it was two hours before they confirmed that the explosion had been caused by a bomb. Immediately, security in the capital was tightened.
The Mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, and the Justice Minister, Jacques Toubon, whose offices are close by, went to the scene of the explosion immediately. They were followed through the evening by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, and President Jacques Chirac. Mr Chirac looked grave as he was taken down into the devastated shaft, and emerged without making any comment to journalists.
Mr Juppe said he was "very shocked" by what he had seen and announced the formation of a "crisis task force" to spearhead the investigation.
The task force met late into the night, chaired by the Interior Minister, Jean-Louis Debre.
No one was reported to have admitted responsibility for the explosion, but several theories were circulating in Paris last night. Suspicions focused on Algerian Islamic terrorists, who were responsible for the hijacking of an Air France plane last Christmas. A senior Algerian cleric was assassinated in Paris 10 days ago, apparently after the breakdown of secret talks being held between the Algerian military government and Islamic fundamentalists.
Photograph, page 9Reuse content