Swordsman who ran amok in church suffered severe depression

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The Independent Online
DETECTIVES WERE last night investigating the psychiatric history of a man who caused mayhem in a packed church when he burst in naked, armed with a sword, and hacked at members of the congregation.

Eleven people were hurt - five seriously - when the man ran amok in St Andrew's Catholic church in Thornton Heath, south London. He was wrestled to the ground by members of the congregation, one of whom tackled the assailant with a broken organ pipe.

Detectives were last night questioning the alleged attacker at an undisclosed south London police station, as well as talking to his family. They revealed that the man - a 26-year-old from the area - had been suffering from depression. Church officials denied reports that he had recently been banned.

"At this time we're trying to determine a motive of what might have caused the man to do this," said Detective Chief Inspector Phil Fitzgerald.

"Apart from suffering some severe depression we have no details as to why he carried out this horrific attack."

Yesterday's incident took place at around 10.30am at the parish church, one of the busiest churches in the Diocese of Southwark with regular congregations of 500.

The congregation, celebrating mass on the first Sunday of Advent, had just finished reciting The Creed - the central declaration of Catholic faith - when the man burst in through the door. He was completely naked and was waving a golden Samurai sword with a three-and-a-half-foot blade.

"I have been a priest for 52 years and I have seen most things but I have never seen anything like this," said Canon John Lennon, 78, the retired priest who was taking the service.

"Coming down the aisle towards me was this naked man wielding a sword and hacking at people as he went. You can imagine the panic that set in. You can imagine what it was like."

Within seconds the quiet, orderly service turned into pandemonium. Some of the congregation threw themselves towards the man, fending off his blows with anything that came to hand, oblivious to their own safety and desperate to try and stop him.

Others struggled to get out of the way of the attacker. As they did, some suffered broken bones while others were trampled in the rush.

For a few moments it seemed as though there was going to be carnage; afterwards witnesses said it was little short of a miracle that no one was killed.

"I saw this bloke come in carrying what I thought looked like a home-made machete. He ran forward shouting. Everybody else started shouting. He started attacking people," said Tino Hernandez, 35, a local government employee who was in the church.

"It was pandemonium, with people being trampled trying to get out of the door. There was a crush, people were panicking. I saw this old lady who fell and people trampled over her.

"I saw two people seriously injured. I saw an old lady hit across the arm. She had a horrible wound. The worst I saw was when he hit a man across his face and I saw his face split open."

Another worshipper, Marie Parcou, 66, watched as her husband Jules, was struck from behind. "My husband was spouting blood and I had to pull him to the ground before the maniac chopped his head off," she said.

While the reaction of most was to escape, some of the congregation had the presence of mind and courage to try and stop the assailant, knowing that if they did not, there would almost certainly be fatalities.

They used whatever came to hand - music stands, candlesticks and furniture. One man jumped into the aisle and tried to fend off the sword with a chair, which he held above his head. "It was like he was fighting off a wild animal. That is the only way to describe it," said one of the congregation.

From his seat to the side of the altar, choir member and an off-duty police officer Tom Tracey watched in horror as another congregation member tried to stop the man with a crucifix-topped staff. Springing to his feet, PC Tracey, 40, grasped an organ pipe that had been broken off by fleeing people, and went to join the fray.

"It was just instinctive," said PC Tracey, whose teenage daughter had been sitting behind him in the church. He said people's faces showed "pure fear" as they rushed past him, but that there was "surprisingly little noise at first, the screaming came later. People were stunned".

Facing the assailant head-on in the middle of the aisle, he struck the man across the head with the organ pipe. Apparently oblivious to the blow, the man carried on slashing at people. It was at this point - as he drew back the sword for another blow - that one of the congregation was able to throw their arms around him. Immediately around half-a-dozen others joined in, wrestling the man to the ground. One person stood on his hand to make him release the sword.

Minutes later police arrived, creating more chaos as they poured into the church armed with machine-guns, before taking the suspect away.

Children attending Sunday School in the neighbouring church hall narrowly missed becoming caught up in the mayhem. They had been preparing to come back into the church as the man began his rampage.

The most seriously injured man was found slumped on a pavement two streets away. He had run from the church pouring blood after having his jaw and neck deeply slashed and his finger and thumb chopped off.

Mayday University Hospital, Croydon, received 10 casualties. Chief executive Keith Ford said last night that three were still in theatre, the most serious being a man with severe injuries to the face and hand.

Consultant Kambiz Hashemi said five surgeons were working on the badly injured man. Attempts were being made to sew his thumb and index finger back on after another churchgoer handed them to a paramedic. He said the man had the worst injuries he had ever seen.

The bottom of his face was "literally hanging off". The blade had sliced through the man's mouth down into his jaw and then to his neck.

Home Secretary Jack Straw said last night: "I would like to extend my deep sympathy to those injured, and to relatives and friends.

"It is difficult to think of anything more shocking than having the serenity of a religious service shattered in this way."