`He had a madman's strength ... it took four of us to bring him down'

Eleven people were hurt yesterday when a man with a Samurai sword ran amok in a south London church. Independent journalist John Cobb was among the congregation
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The Independent Online
THE PRIEST had concluded his sermon, a warming remin der that this was the first Sunday of Advent and that the joy of Christmas was just around the corner. We were on our feet together, the 500-strong congregation of St Andrew's Church, Thornton Heath, reciting The Creed, the "I Believe" that is the central affirmation of the Catholic faith, when prayers turned to screams.

I turned to see people at the back of the church running, scrambling, falling over each other, trying to force their way out of the narrow pews and into the side aisles away from something. A man in the congregation seemed to be fending off something with a chair. What? A savage dog, a bull, a lion? Daft thoughts flooded my mind in the couple of seconds it took before I too could see what had caused the stampede, what had brought terror to passive, peaceful faces.

A man, a naked man, a naked man carrying something, a naked man carrying a sword up the central aisle of the church. Not just carrying it but striking out with it, slashing at the terrified members of the congregation who were too slow, too elderly, too infirm to get out of his way and were trapped in the packed narrow pews by others who had not managed to move or were too stunned to react. We learnt later that 11 people had been injured by his blows, four of them critically.

I am to the side of the altar, just behind the choir, and he's still striding up the aisle towards me, hacking at people, sometimes missing, striking the wooden pews.

I leave my daughters behind me in the pew and move towards him. Two rows in front of me Tom Tracey, an off-duty policeman who is a member of the church choir, is doing the same. Ten minutes earlier he had been singing a solo, the responsorial psalm, from the altar. Now he finds a different purpose for music and grabs hold of an 8ft long organ pipe that has been knocked loose by one of the fleeing congregation.

I tell Tom I'm right behind him. I don't think he hears me and I don't think he needs to. Without hesitating he strides towards the man, past the Advent wreath with its first candle lit and starts to parry the swordsman's thrusts with this unwieldy weapon.

Others move in on him from the other side. Bob Wright, like Tom and me in his forties with children at the parish primary school, St James the Great, uses the crucifix-topped pole that the altar servers carry, to hit the man, others grab candlesticks, music stands, a crutch discarded by a fleeing woman, to defend themselves as we encircle him.

Tom hits the swordsman over the head with the organ pipe but it barely slows him down as he continues to slash fast and frantically at the four or five of us who have got as close as we can to him. He is wheeling around so that we can't get behind him and I am very grateful to be a step behind Tom as he parries blows with his makeshift weapon.

Then, as the swordsman swipes wildly, one man grabs hold of his body and Tom has the arm that holds the sword. Still he won't go down and wrestles with a madman's strength. He is slim, quite muscular and wildly strong. It takes four of us to bring him to the floor and still he struggles. Others pin his thrashing arms and legs to the ground. The sword can't be prised from him until Tom and another man stamp on his hand.

There has been a strange silence between us and from the man as we've brought him down and now the sound of wailing from the injured takes over. One woman, who uses a Zimmer frame to take her place among the handicapped who sit at the front of the church, is bleeding badly and has been stretched out on a bench while others try to staunch the flow. Another woman who had been trampled is on the floor in a side aisle. Parents are trying to find their children, the youngest of whom had been listening to their own simpler service in the church hall and had rushed into the street as the congregation fled.Most are in tears.

I try to shield young eyes from the worst scenes and usher people out and away. Then the screams start again. Armed police have arrived, charged in to surround the prone swordsman still pinned to the ground by half a dozen men, and the sight of them, machine guns swinging from their hands, causes a surge of fear.

There are pools of blood, trails of blood everywhere. Outside a man is lying on a bench, his neck and hand bleeding freely. Part of a hand is found. Tom Tracey gathers it in a plastic bag and packs it in ice but can't find who it belongs to. He passes it to one of the arriving policemen and starts to tape off the area.

The ambulances take an age to arrive and, sensibly - except for those who are administering to wounds, off-duty nurses, the Irish, Asians, West Indians and Africans who keep the NHS going - people are taking their children away from the gruesome scene.

They start to ask why and someone mutters about "care in the community" but the truth is that St Andrew's church, with a congregation drawn from every race and from every walk of life, really is a community and the irony is that it is full of people who really care.

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