Day of disaster the emergency planners hoped would never come

Police, fire and ambulance services, health chiefs and transport operators immediately activated a long-rehearsed, but previously theoretical, procedure for reacting to a strike.

The emergency team, led from Scotland Yard by the Metropolitan Police's Westminster commander, made swift decisions. The Tube network was shut down and all bus services in central London halted shortly afterwards. The capital's hospitals were put on disaster alert and told to cancel routine operations.

Several mainline stations were closed and an air exclusion zone imposed over much of the city. Security was stepped up at obvious terrorist targets, such as the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace.

A quarter of a mile away in Whitehall, the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, summoned a meeting of the Cobra, the Government's crisis management team. It is named after Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, where the committee meets.

Joining Mr Clarke around the table were cabinet colleagues, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director-general of MI5, Bill Jeffrey, the security and intelligence co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office, as well as other senior police and security officers.

Its immediate task was to decide whether to invoke emergency powers, such as ordering evacuations or calling in the military. It decided against such dramatic steps, judging for the moment that the operation led by Scotland Yard was adequate for dealing with the crisis.

The immediate challenge facing the emergency services, who called in reinforcements from across the south-east, was to remove the seriously hurt from the four bomb blast sites. Those with the worst injuries were carried by helicopter to hospital, with others transferred in the 100 ambulances that were made available. Double-decker buses were requisitioned to carry the "walking wounded" for treatment. Once the injured were removed or treated on site by paramedics, detectives moved in to search for evidence.

Emergency planners were well aware that sensitive media management was also crucial to handling the crisis.

As news of the blasts spread across the country, and hundreds of thousands of people tuned in to television and radio news programmes, police chiefs were at pains to calm public fears, repeatedly stressing the situation was being brought under control. Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, toured the TV studios to provide reassurance to the public as he emphasised a "sophisticated" emergency plan was being implemented.

A news centre was set up and a news conference arranged to get messages across to Londoners. They included pleas to stay out of London if possible, to stagger journey times home and to only dial 999 in a life-threatening situation.

Tony Blair flew from the G8 summit at Gleneagles to chair a second Cobra meeting yesterday afternoon, at which the handling of the disaster was examined. The likely identity of the attackers was also discussed, with those present concluding that the co-ordinated blasts bore all the hallmarks of al-Qa'ida.

The emergency plans for London have been overhauled since the attacks on New York and Washington nearly four years ago. The capital had lived with two decades of IRA attacks, culminating in the Canary Wharf blast in February 1996. It has also coped with a series of disasters, the most recent being the Paddington rail crash of 1999.

But never before had London faced the prospect of a co-ordinated attack, possibly using deadly chemicals.

As a result the "London resilience partnership", bringing together the Government, the Greater London Authority, local councils, the emergency services and health chiefs, has drawn up fresh emergency plans.

It has compiled a range of scenarios, such as coping with the aftermath of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. Plans are in place to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people out of the capital and move the seat of government out of Whitehall.

Emergency services have conducted regular exercises in London, including a simulated "chemical strike" on an Underground train at Bank station in September 2003. It concluded evacuation plans for stranded passengers were inadequate and warned of communication problems underground.

The early evidence yesterday was the emergency response had gone as well as could be expected. Mike Grannatt, a former head of the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat, told the BBC: "Since 9/11, the planning for actually handling mass casaulties, for handling widespread events has improved.

"You have seen some of that, the reports for example of buses being used to ferry casualties, the way in which the Underground and the buses have stopped quickly so things can be checked, that kind of response has been well-polished."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all