Screaming and bleeding children and adults fleeing the devastation of the first blast in the Golden Square market area at the heart of Warrington, Cheshire, were caught in the second explosion 100 yards away.
A 12-year-old boy was last night said to be critically ill. Four other people were very seriously ill but stable. Sixteen others were seriously injured.
Police said a deliberately misleading warning using an unrecognised code was telephoned 27 minutes before the blast, suggesting that a bomb had been placed in Liverpool, not Warrington. They said the attack had all the hallmarks of the IRA.
The area was sealed off by police and firemen were pulled out as Army bomb disposal officers investigated a number of other suspected bombs and carried out one controlled explosion.
Fears about other possible bombs, and the desire to preserve forensic evidence, meant that the body of the boy, described by a witness as angelic-looking with blond hair, lay in a shop doorway for four hours.
The devices, planted in cast- iron litter bins and plainly targeted at shoppers, followed almost exactly the same pattern as the IRA bombing in Camden, north London, less than a month ago, which injured 18 shoppers.
The day before that attack, Warrington had been the focus of another IRA attack when three bombs exploded at a gasworks. A police officer, Mark Toker, was shot twice as the gang made made its escape. Two men were captured after a car chase, and a third was later held in Nottingham. They have been charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to cause explosions.
Yesterday's bombs exploded within 60 seconds of each other at about 12.25pm in Bridge Street, outside a Boots store and a McDonald's restaurant, as crowds of shoppers took advantage of the warm spring sunshine. Those caught in the blasts lay bleeding and blackened on the pavements, with presents bought for Mothering Sunday lying discarded beside them.
Michael Bowdon, a newspaper photographer, his voice shaking, described the carnage: 'There was an almighty bang and I could see paper everywhere like confetti. People were staggering around dazed. People shouted 'Get away, get away'. They ran up the street . . . straight into the path of the (second) blast in a litter bin. People were just lying everywhere.'
Ian Rylance described how the second blast blew the bin into the air. 'It was outside McDonald's, where a lot of kids hang out.'
Jeremy Green was walking towards McDonald's with his four children when the first bomb went off. He saw people blown into the air and others fleeing in complete panic. 'Young children were running around crying not knowing what to do,' he said.
Ron Riley, 49, a former soldier who is now a porter at the Golden Square centre, was among the first on the scene. 'It was just a cold-blooded massacre,' he said. 'There were bodies lying all over the place. One girl appeared to have lost both legs and her father had a big hole in his leg.'
He said he attended a woman in her twenties whose main artery was pouring blood. 'She must have lost at least four pints. I had to get into the ambulance with her and grasp her artery.'
Kaleen Ullah, 28, who runs a clothing store, said: 'I saw two men and a woman lying on the ground and there was a teenager . . . lying unconscious on the floor. The bottom part of her leg was covered in blood. It could have been blown off. I have never seen people look so frightened.'
Sharon Campbell, 16, said she and a friend, Sharlene Jones, 13, were about 30ft from the seat of the first blast. 'There was a young kid of about two-and-a-half with a leg blown off and a man who had lost an arm.'
Paramedic teams and 17 emergency ambulance crews were sent to the scene. David Todhunter, of Merseyside Ambulance Service, said: 'The scene is appalling. It is a shameful disaster. We were picking up casualties far and wide who were running away in fright.'
A consultant at Warrington General Hospital, Barry Taylor, was close to tears as he described the injuries of those caught by the blast, which included the 12-year- old boy who had sustained fractures to his skull and had most of his face blown away.
Mr Taylor said: 'There is a mood of disbelief at the hospital. We have contingency plans for a major incident but when it happens it is very difficult to cope.'
Later, at a police press conference, Cheshire's assistant chief constable, Brian Baister, explained that a man with an Irish accent telephoned Samaritans' offices in Liverpool and said that a bomb had been placed 'outside Boots', but no mention had been made of Warrington.
Mr Baister said the message had been immediately passed on to the Merseyside police, who had sent officers to various Boots shops. Other surrounding police forces, including Cheshire, had been notified of the call, but Mr Baister said when the first message reached Warrington the explosions were actually taking place.
He said he could not give a precise reason why Warrington might have been singled out, but pointed out that three arrests had been made after the earlier bombing in Warrington: 'This may be a reprisal for the success of that operation,' he said.
John Major, the Prime Minister, said: 'The wickedness of this act defies belief. The purpose was to kill and to maim.'
(Photograph and map omitted)
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