The night that rioters ruled and police lost control of the streets of London

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After two nights of violence, the capital was braced for more on Monday – but not on the scale that transpired. Cahal Milmo recounts the extraordinary events

Nishma Patel knew by 5.30pm on Monday that what she called the "breakers" were coming. What started with a small group of youths captured on the CCTV to the rear of her convenience store in central Croydon became by 9.15pm a laughing, swaggering mob breaking through steel shutters and systematically stripping her business of £17,000 of stock that she could not afford to lose.

As youths danced on her cash register in the street outside and drove each other on while swigging from bottles of looted discount-brand whisky, identical scenes were being played out a few yards down the road, and then again across an arson-sprinkled London in the grip of a third night of unrest that mutated into a bewildering epidemic of violence, intimidation and unremitting destruction.

From the capital's southern suburbs to Ealing in the west, Woolwich and Stratford in the east, Camden in the north and myriad locations in between, the rioters and looters ran amok. In many places, running battles with police were caught on shaky mobile phone footage. But elsewhere the beserkers of August 2011 went about their thieving and burning largely unchallenged. In Croydon, a 26-year-old man, who suffered gunshot wounds after a car chase, yesterday became the first murder victim of the disturbances.

Scotland Yard admitted yesterday that the Thin Blue Line had been stretched to invisibility at times as it dealt with 20,800 emergency calls between Monday afternoon and the early hours of yesterday – 400 per cent more than usual. A total of 44 police officers, including a constable apparently driven at by looters, were injured along with 14 "non-rioters" caught up in the mayhem. They included a 67-year-old man fighting for his life after he was attacked while tackling a litter-bin fire. The London Fire Brigade dealt with 2,169 emergency calls in the same period – 15 times the number on an average day in the capital.

In the words of the Met's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Kavanagh, resources had been stretched to "an extent I have never seen before". He apologised, and said that "that London has got to wake up to these scenes".

In purely chronological terms, it began in Hackney, the definition of London's multicultural melting pot neighbourhoods where inner-city poverty lives cheek-by-jowl with a vibrant urban economy. Skirmishes broke out in the late afternoon, supposedly after police stopped and searched a man on Mare Street only to release him after nothing was found. The truth of that claim yesterday remained unproven but it was a measure of the febrility ensnaring the capital that it was being touted as the "spark" which led to the orgy of violence. The reality was that in pockets of the city last night, the simplest of acts – photographing a hooded youth, calling for calm on a housing estate corridor – were met with havoc.

Within minutes of the skirmishes beginning in Hackney, the now familiar roll call of high-street brands favoured by this new underclass of "recreational rioters" was being ransacked – JD Sports, Tesco, Ladbrokes and Vodafone. About 40 passengers fled a double-decker bus as masked attackers – some on BMX bicycles, some as young as 11 – pelted the vehicle with bottles of champagne stolen from a Tesco Metro.

Nearby on Hackney's Pembury Estate, Regine Allen, 75, left her home to see what the commotion was about. As she walked, she was knocked to the ground by two youths fleeing an attempt by 200 police to corner the troublemakers. Fearing a broken hip, the pensioner was left sitting on the ground as the crowd swirled around her.

In one of many acts of humanity and bravery by Londoners on a night in which a vile minority sought to rule, onlookers gathered over Regine to protect her from missiles as she placed on an ambulance stretcher. She said: "Two youngsters with drinks in their hands running away from the police ran into me. I think I have a broken hip – that is the last thing I want now. I just came out to see what was happening. The whole thing is awful."

In this age of viruses, the contagion spread with a virulence and randomness that left many Londoners watching in horror as events unfolded over Twitter and the 24-hour news channels. By 6.45pm, the Sky News helicopter was hovering over a blazing shop some eight miles away across the Thames in Peckham, picking out figures – either residents or looters – fleeing over rooftops. Nearby, the BBC's eye-in-the-sky was beaming back images of burning cars and bins in Lewisham.

They were the first of a catalogue of conflagrations, literal hot spots that served as the most mindless calling cards of the mob. In Enfield, a Sony warehouse was set ablaze, consuming 30 million DVDS, including the entire stock of several independent distributors. In Clapham Junction, one of several gentrified neighbourhoods turned into a battle zone, looters aged from 10 upwards stole face masks from a fancy dress shop to conceal their identities. By 12.30am the store was on fire.

Across London police deployed a range of tactics to try to disperse the marauders, using a new fleet of armoured vehicles known as Jankels (the name of their British manufacturer), to charge lines of defiant rioters in Lavender Hill, close to Clapham Junction. But residents complained police were often conspicuous by their absence.

Philip Molyneaux, 31, a doctor who lives opposite the Clapham fancy dress shop, said: "[The rioters] were stuffing rags into bottles of beer and trying to light them. It was stupid. But there were just no police at all. I didn't see a police officer from eight till gone eleven. I called them a couple times and said there's kids down there making Molotov cocktails. They said they were aware of the situation."

Some six miles south, the TV helicopters were hovering over Reeves Corner in Croydon – a landmark named after the House of Reeves furniture business set up by an entrepreneurial Victorian, Edgar Reeves, in 1867. Firefighters were called to the scene at 8.54pm but the flames were already leaping 100ft above the neo-Gothic showroom in what became the most destructive fire of the night.

As the blaze spread to adjoining buildings, partially melting the steel tracks of the adjoining tramline, the image that made its way to many front pages was captured – a woman, understood to be of eastern European origin, leaping from a first-floor window into the arms of waiting riot officers. Bewildered and hysterical, she fled the scene unharmed before briefly returning yesterday morning to thank firefighters. Randeep Kushmar, 27, a neighbour, said: "She was in floods of tears. She just said 'thank you' and left. She was a matter of seconds from death."

Meanwhile, Graham Reeves, 52, the fifth generation of his family to run the furniture repository, surveyed the ruins of his livelihood yesterday. He told The Independent: "Some 30 years ago I carried my wife across the threshold of that building. My family have worked here for nearly 150 years. Last night, I watched as it was destroyed in 45 minutes. I would ask whoever did this to look at themselves and ask if they would do that to their family? Why did they do this? Why weren't they stopped?"

They were questions echoed across London by shop owners, their customers and passers-by in places littered with the detritus of looting – piles of naked coat-hangers, Marks & Spencer wire baskets on kerb-sides. In Clapham, one man coming across mobile phone handsets strewn on a pavement by sated looters simply picked a few up and continued on.

The demographics of the mob varied with well-spoken middle-aged men and women, apparently mothers of young looters, mixing with the majority of who were in their teens and twenties.

Mrs Patel, 52, had run her Quick Stop shop on Croydon High Street for eight years before it was cleared of its stock of cigarettes, spirits and wine. She said: "By 9.15pm, there were 50 youths in the shop, girls and boys who were laughing, encouraging each other on. In 30 minutes, I lost £17,000. They were completely brazen. I called the police 10 times. When officers walked past, I called them over but they apologised and said they had to deal with something else."

As the arrest tally neared 600 and the actions of the rioters met outraged unanimity, two teenage girls involved in the trouble attempted to explain their actions. Swigging from a bottle of looted wine, one said: "It's the Government's fault. It's about showing the police we can do what we want. It's the rich people, people who have got businesses. We are showing the rich people we can do what we want."

Certainly, the "rich people" were targeted. Diners at the Michelin-starred Notting Hill restaurant The Ledbury were set upon by up to 100 masked youths who robbed them of jewellery and belongings before kitchen staff chased them off, wielding an array of implements from knives to wire baskets from the deep-fat fryers. But other victims, perhaps from more modest walks of life, paid a higher price on Monday night.

The 26-year-old man, who had travelled to Croydon from outside the area, died from a gunshot wound to the head following an altercation with a group of nine men following a car chase through the town. His death was last night being investigated by Operation Trident, the Scotlant Yard unit investigating gun crime in the black community, whose officers were involved in the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan last week.

In Ealing, the 67-year-old man, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, suffered a "grave assault" resulting in life-threatening injuries when he was attacked by rioters after he tried to extinguish a fire started in a bin.

Santiago Reverter, 39, whose health food shop in central Croydon was ransacked, said: "There were no principles involved in what happened in London. No-one was fighting for anything. There was no cause. All this was about was breaking things. And people."

Additional reporting by Tom Peck, Kevin Rawlinson and Sarah Morrison

Stories that defined the night

The mob that showed no mercy

A video uploaded to YouTube last night shows a young boy who is bleeding profusely being mugged by a group of youths who had at first seemed to be helping him.

Among the most shocking footage to circulate in the aftermath of Monday night's riots, it was captured by a resident of Queens Road in Barking, east London, and shows a group of masked youths surrounding the boy while he bleeds on the floor. One appears to help the boy to his feet, while another opens his rucksack and removes items from it, leaving the scene with a swagger. The victim's identity and condition are unknown.

The film and music library

A Sony distribution centre that carried stock belonging to several independent music labels and film companies has been destroyed. Those affected by the fire in Enfield on Monday night included Sunday Best, the label of the DJ and producer Rob Da Bank and Arctic Monkeys, who lost most copies of their new single. The BFI, the leading body for film in the UK, lost all stock it held there.

The woman who jumped for her life

A woman was forced to jump from a first-floor window in Croydon as a massive blaze spread through the building. Photographer Lloyd Beiny, who captured the image, said police gathered under the window to catch her as she fell.

The family business in ruins

A 140-year-old furniture store in Croydon was completely destroyed by fire last night as police were unable to control rioters. House of Reeves had stood on the street corner for more than a century before it was burned down.

Its owner, Trevor Reeves, said: "Words fail me. It's just gone, it's five generations. My father is distraught at the moment. It's just mindless thuggery."

The restaurant staff who fought back

At the two Michelin-starred Ledbury restaurant in Notting Hill, diners were protected from invading rioters – who demanded jewellery and telephones – by kitchen staff wielding rolling pins. Customers were then ushered into the restaurant's cellar for safety, and served champagne and whisky.

The pensioner who took a stand

The video still above shows the moment a pensioner took a stand against rioters in Hackney. Standing in the rubble after the looting, she berates those roaming the streets.

"The shop up there, she's working hard to make her business work and you lot want to burn it up, for what?" the woman asks in the clip, which has been widely viewed online. "So that you can say you're 'warring' and you're bad man."

The woman, walking with the aid of a stick, concludes by saying that the attacks have made her "shamed to be a Hackney person".

The TV star who stepped in

Television historian Dan Snow took matters into his own hands last night as he performed a citizen's arrest on a looter outside his home in Notting Hill Gate at around 11pm. He told The Times: "One of them belted out of the shoe shop. He didn't see me coming, so I rugby-tackled him. He was quite surprised."

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