Thursday: Minute by minute, the horror emerges

From the very first reports of trouble on the rush-hour trains, through the hours in which ordinary lives were touched by confusion, pain, sorrow and courage, Cole Moreton pieces together the definitive account of the day that terror returned, without warning, to the streets of London

8am

London feels good. The sun is shining and the Olympics are coming. Out in the suburbs, commuters are snatching breakfast and reading jubilant headlines in their morning papers. Up in Scotland, where the most powerful men in the world are gathered, the President of the United States is on the terrace of the luxury Gleneagles Hotel chatting with the British Prime Minister about Africa, global warming, and how he nearly ran a policeman over on his mountain bike.

8.45am

Across London, the rush hour is on. More than half a million men and women are taking the Underground or the bus to work. One of them is Zeyned Basci, 21, who has left her home in Edmonton, north London, and is travelling in the front carriage of a Piccadilly line train bound for King's Cross. Further south, Michael Henning, 39, a Lloyds banker, is on board a Circle line train. He is not sitting in his usual seat, because the trains are so crowded this morning that he had to let one go, and then move down a carriage just to get in.

To the east, George Psaradakis is preparing to drive a No 30 bus from Hackney Wick to Marble Arch. The journey through rush-hour traffic will be stressful, and the 49-year-old had a heart attack a year ago, but it's his job. He's carrying a picture of the Virgin Mary with him for protection, as usual. And to the west, a 28-year-old journalist Chris Randall is travelling towards his office in Kensington, riding the loop of the Circle line down past Edgware Road.

8.50am Aldgate

Michael Henning sees a blinding flash of light and hears a bang, then everything goes dark on his westbound Circle line train in the tunnel just outside Aldgate station. The bang came from the next carriage - the one he tried and failed to board earlier. "You couldn't see," he says, "You could just hear screaming." Coughing and choking in the smoke, holding anything they can up to their mouths as filters, the less stunned passengers somehow find a way out of the train through smashed windows and forced doors. "What we left behind was absolute carnage."

The driver of the train calls his control room, which contacts the emergency services. This is a major incident, they declare. The people stumbling over the track and debris in the tunnel know this already: they can see the roof of the third carriage out of six has been blown off. There are bodies at their feet. "Am I dead?" wonders Bruce Lait, 32, a dancer on his way to rehearse a show. "My brain is still thinking. So I can't be dead." Jack Linton, a 14-year-old schoolboy from Essex, lies face down on the floor of the train waiting for the smoke to clear, because somebody in the chaos yelled that he should. "I've got glass in my hair and my pockets," he will say later, when he finally gets out. "My ear hurts."

8.50am Edgware Road

War veterans say that if a bomb goes off and you do not hear the sound of it, then you are close enough to expect death. On his Circle line train at Edgware Road station, Chris Randall hears nothing. He just sees a flash of light and feels a burning sensation in his hand. "I fell to the floor and covered my face with my hands. There were six or seven people lying on the floor, a lot of people, a lot of blood on faces, and ripped clothes. I just had to get out of the train."

Other passengers just sit there in the dark, trying not to breathe in the smoke. When they move, shattered glass falls from their clothes and hair. Others become hysterical, and try to smash the windows with umbrellas, shoes, anything that comes to hand, but it doesn't work. The voice of the driver comes over the intercom, telling them not to panic. Few hear him.

The blast has blown a hole through a wall and smashed into a train travelling in the opposite direction on an adjacent track. Its passengers peer out of the windows and as their eyes adjust they see a woman in pieces on the ground. They hear the voice of a man, highly distressed: "Help me!" They realise the sound is coming from beneath them, from under their train or the one next to it that is motionless. They can't open the doors. There is nothing they can do for the man. They see other bodies moving in the darkness. Somebody hammers on the door of the driver's cab but there is no answer. Then the driver emerges, looking dazed, having taken some of the blast. His windows have shattered. The track ahead is a mess. "Don't go out there," he says. The track may be live. "There has been an accident," he says over the intercom. And he gets out, while the passengers wait in the flickering light of the emergency power system. He will find help, and they will be led out along the track, eventually. By then the man trapped under the train will have stopped screaming.

8.45am King's Cross

As the northbound tube carrying Zeyned Basci approaches King's Cross there is a huge bang and shards of glass are sprayed on to passengers. "There was blood everywhere," she will remember later. "People were screaming and panicking. It was pitch black and then there was smoke. I thought I was going to burn alive." Through the smoke she sees a woman lying on the floor unconscious, her face gouged and bloody. A man is beside her, writhing with agony. There is light, somehow, from a torch, and as it scans the scene she gets flashes of the horror that is happening. Basci is covered in other people's blood. The carriage is filling with thick, black, choking smoke. It is hard to breathe. "Don't panic," says the driver, coming out of his cab into the carriage. But the passengers are not listening. They are screaming. The driver opens his own door and tells them to come through, and step down into the tunnel. The power in the tracks must have been switched off. There are hands in the gloom, helping men and women out and down. Basci is terrified. "I thought we were all going to die."

9am

London Underground controllers are frantically trying to work out what's going on. There are reports of a derailment with a person under a train at Edgware Road and an explosion at Aldgate, where emergency services are already on the scene. Steve Jones, 36, a paramedic, is one of the first rescuers to reach the carriage destroyed by the bomb. He sees a girl of about 20, very pretty he thinks, but she is lying on her back, trapped by a fallen bar. She is dead. Around her there are bodies without limbs, and one without a head. The bodies of the dead must be pulled off to reach the bodies of the living. There is urgency in the dark, where the heat and the stench of burned flesh are overwhelming, but nobody is panicking. Jones has seen this before, this calm in the face of sudden, astonishing disaster: he was at the Clapham rail crash, and the Soho bombing. He works quickly but methodically alongside firefighters, who are trying to free the survivors.

Steven Desborough, 28, has escaped unhurt from the back end of the train and is trying to get out when he sees the wreckage of the carriage where the bomb was. An events organiser from Witham in Essex, he is trained in first aid, so he calls out to ask if anyone needs help. Then he climbs up a rescue ladder into the carriage. A doctor asks him to sit with an injured woman. Cradling her in his arms, Steven guesses that she is in her early twenties; she has shoulder-length hair, but he can't tell what colour it is, or the colour of her eyes, because of the soot. Most of her clothes are tattered or gone. The doctor says the woman has severe abdominal injuries, a broken right wrist, and a cut left leg; her face is bleeding. Jones holds her head and talks to her. She does not reply, but he keeps talking, telling jokes in a voice choked by smoke and emotion. He does not know how much time passes until rescuers attempt to lift the woman from his arms and out of the wreckage. But a medic shakes his head and says, "It's too late, guys."

9.05am

Tony Blair is meeting privately with the Chinese Prime Minister at the Gleneagles Hotel and his staff can't interrupt him. They are receiving word of the emerging chaos in London, and listening to confused news broadcasts. "At that stage there was genuine confusion," says one aide. The Cabinet is meeting as usual in Downing Street, with John Prescott in the chair.

At King's Cross, the torches of transport police probe the smoky darkness. The train is 150 metres out of the station, around a corner in a deep and very tight tunnel. As the first rescuers approach, a few walking wounded stagger towards them. Sergeant Steve Betts hears somebody cry out for help, but he can't see who. He calls out, but there is no response. There is only about six inches of space on either side of the train, so the force of the blast has been contained and pushed back on to the passengers. Inside the first carriage, Betts sees "people with limbs missing, huge open wounds with their organs showing" and he hears people "crying out and moaning and asking for help". It's like the end of the world, he thinks. But then he thinks, "Do your job". He climbs over dead bodies, trying to work out who is still alive, and finds a man who has lost his leg below the knee. To reach him, the policeman has to get past a pile of clothes. As he tries to do that, the pile of clothes moans for help. It is a woman. All her limbs had been blown off.

9.10am

Police have sealed off the area between Aldgate and Liverpool Street, evacuating shops, cafés and offices. As they leave, workers see the victims emerge from underground, their faces and bodies blackened by soot.

Today it is the turn of Julia Dent, chief executive of the South West Strategic Health Authority, to be "gold lead", the person in charge of the response of the National Health Service to any major disaster. By an extraordinary coincidence, all the experts who formulate such plans are together in a meeting at the headquarters of the London Ambulance Service - and they are discussing an exercise they ran three months ago that involved simulating four terrorist bombs going off at once across London. The order is given and hundreds of emails, text and pager messages are sent out putting the whole of the NHS across the capital on standby to receive casualties. The plan is for the worst injured to be taken to hospital by helicopter. The walking wounded will go on requisitioned double-decker buses. Ambulances begin heading towards London from the Home Counties - by lunch-time more than 100 will have responded.

Professor Jim Ryan, head of the Accident and Emergency Unit at University College Hospital, is having breakfast at the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall when a colleague calls his mobile to warn that something is happening, although he doesn't know what. Professor Ryan starts to walk to the hospital in Euston, which is about to declare a major incident. It has been told to expect 60 casualties. Staff at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington receive text messages: "Major incident - please attend." Operations are cancelled there and at other hospitals, beds are cleared, and casualty departments go on standby. Nurses line up trolleys and chairs at the Royal London hospital in Whitechapel, which is sending double-decker buses to pick up the injured.

London Underground bosses suspend services and tell every driver to get their train to a station if possible so that people can leave. British Transport Police say incidents at Aldgate, Edgware Road and King's Cross have been caused by power surges, some causing explosions. The tube infrastructure company, Metronet, agrees. But National Grid Transco Plc, which supplies the power, says "there's no fault in our network".

9.30am

The first of the walking wounded emerge from Edgware Road, led out by rescue crews and are shepherded past the dozens of fire engines and ambulances to the Hilton London Metropole Hotel opposite the station. The reception area is being turned into an emergency ward, where a doctor tries to work out who is the most seriously injured. Those who can be treated straight away are having bandages applied by volunteers. Paul Dadge, 28, a reserve fireman from Staffordshire, is supposed to be at work in the offices of AOL in Paddington but his train got stopped and now he is here, helping assess the suffering of victims. He's wearing a white shirt, and people think he is a medic. They don't really care if he isn't because he's helping and comforting them. Sitting on the floor is a woman in a black jacket and skirt, who tells him her name is Davinia. There are red flash burns on the right side of her face and on her chin. Davinia was on her way to work in Canary Wharf when she saw a fireball coming towards her, and felt as though she had hit a wall. Paul carefully dresses her wounds, and applies a water gel face mask to ease the pain. Then the police start shouting, telling people to run, and Paul drags Davinia to her feet. She is barefoot. He puts his arms around her as they run towards the hotel, to get inside to safety. Somebody takes a photograph. Paul and Davinia, the woman in the white face mask, will be on the front pages tomorrow.

Sniffer dogs search the area as a man in a jacket and tie, his collar bloody and his face bandaged, stands and watches television through the window of an electronics shop. He says nothing, unable to believe that this is not just some local tube accident. It is deliberate, and it is happening across London to others just like him. The morning newspaper clutched tightly in his hand is soaked with blood that may well not be his.

9.35am

Tony Blair leaves his meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister in Gleneagles and is told there is traffic chaos in London because of a series of serious and suspicious incidents.

9.46am

A student called Jeremy has been thrown off a train at King's Cross because of one of those incidents. He is a student at University College London so he starts to walk, passing cars and black cabs moving slowly in the heavy traffic. He also passes the No 30 bus from Hackney to Marble Arch, driven by George Psaradakis, who has just been arguing with commuters trying to get on his diverted, crowded bus. There is no room, it's packed. Behind him, on the lower deck, where it is standing room only, a computer specialist from Bracknell called Richard Jones is getting irritated. A tall man next to him, who must be in his mid-twenties, is anxious and agitated, repeatedly diving into the bag at his feet "fiddling about with something". Every time he does that the men and women pushed up close to him have to move, adjust their stance. The bus is stuck in traffic so Jones gets off and starts to walk. He has taken half a dozen steps, no more, when a loud bang scatters pigeons into the air and he sees the roof of the bus fly up to join them. The bus, he thinks, has opened up like a splitting olive.

9.47am

The roof of the bus floats down to land 20 yards from the rest of the wreckage, whose red metal walls are twisted outwards like wings. Smoke and dust hang in the air as debris patters down. There are bodies on the road, and blood on the walls of the elegant buildings in Tavistock Square. The driver, who thought the bang was a tyre blowing, stumbles out of his cab. The windscreen has gone. The back of the bus has disappeared. "How am I alive?" he wonders. Surrounded by bloody chaos, he calls home on his mobile but as his wife Androulla answers, he can barely talk. "My passengers are dead," he says, sobbing. "All my passengers are dead." Close by is Gary Lewis, who also cannot believe what is happening to him. He has just come from King's Cross, where he was evacuated from a train and saw a fellow passenger with face blackened by soot and blood. Now this. Tears stream down his face. "I don't what this is," he thinks. "I don't know what is going on." A traffic warden wipes something from his arm and mutters to himself. "Human flesh," he is saying quietly. "This is human flesh."

10am

The Tube network is suspended. The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, is chairing a gathering of Cobra, the civil emergencies committee of senior Cabinet ministers and the heads of MI5 and the police. It has the power to call the Army out, destroy property and order people to their homes. Emergency planning officers in the Home Counties have been told to prepare for a possible evacuation of London.

In Bloomsbury, the sound of sirens and helicopters is deafening. The headquarters of the British Medical Association close to where the bus blew up have been sprayed with blood. It has become a field hospital, with staff helping ambulance crews to set up drips and dress wounds. Two people die in the courtyard of the building as doctors try to save them. "One man we extracted from the bus began screaming and screaming," says Stephanie Riak Akuel, who has gone to help. "Another was only visible by his head. When we pulled him out the bones of his legs were in pieces and the flesh was torn out."

Londoners are listening to the radio, trying to make sense of the breaking news, when Yaz from Milton Keynes calls Radio 5 Live to say his friend Jeremy, a fellow student at University College London, has just seen "a bus with its top ripped open like a sardine can". The presenter, Matthew Bannister, cannot quite believe what he is hearing. "Your friend has rung you to say that a bus has exploded in some way in the Tavistock Square area of London?' "Yes. He is covered in blood." "That is unconfirmed," says Bannister, "we are hearing it second hand." But within minutes Scotland Yard confirms the story. Now everyone knows that this is not a power surge. The Prime Minister finishes another round of talks at Gleneagles and takes a call from his Home Secretary. Now they use the word terrorism, but when Charles Clarke appears in Downing Street a few minutes later to make a statement he avoids it. "There've been a number of dreadful incidents across London today," he says. There have been "terrible injuries".

11am

This has been a co-ordinated attack, say the police. Londoners should stay where they are and not attempt to travel. All hotels are full. All bus services are suspended. Shops and offices in central London have been closed and some evacuated. Signs on the motorways say: "Avoid London. Area closed. Turn on radio."

The messages cascading through the NHS have made 1,000 beds ready across London. "We have had huge numbers of people walking in off the street offering to help," says Ryan at University College Hospital, one of four major teaching hospitals close to the bomb sites. "We have even had builders working on the site next door offering to give blood." The hospital has taken 61 casualties, mainly from the bus. "The injuries are what we would expect from a blast - facial, chest, abdominal and limb injuries." Some may be suffering from blast lung, where "people sustain a lung injury which leaks over time. They appear fine but they slowly deteriorate. It is important that we watch them."

Androulla Psaradakis has run through the streets of London from her home in Stoke Newington to try to be near her husband, the driver of the No 30 bus. She reaches a police cordon and is stopped, but yells out that she is the driver's wife. "They put their fingers to their lips because they didn't want other people around us to hear about the bombs," she says later. The area is still being cleared and the police fear a panic. They will not let Androulla through. Her husband's phone is not working. Distraught, she begins to walk home again.

At Aldgate, Sarah Jones is looking for her friend Martine Wright, who did not turn up for work today. Wright, 32, is a chatty marketing executive who can talk to anyone, so Sarah hopes she is helping victims somewhere and is just too busy to answer her mobile phone, which rings until it goes to the message system. That's when she can get a line at all, because the mobile phone networks are jammed. Sarah Jones will spend the day at the station handing out photographs of Wright, but she will not find her. Then later, as evening comes, she will be traced: alive but in hospital, and critically ill.

At King's Cross, the last of the survivors are out. The rescue teams have withdrawn for a while, for fear the tunnel might collapse. There are also dangers from fumes, asbestos and rats. A young policeman splutters and gulps down fresh air and says to nobody in particular, "I don't know what heaven looks like but I have just seen hell." Sgt Steve Betts emerges from the station at last, two hours after he went in. He has been in the carriage where the bomb went off, where the roof had collapsed. "There were body parts everywhere, there was not one bit as far as I could see that was not covered with organs or blood or bits of body. I was squashed in by chairs and dead bodies as we searched for anyone alive. I could not help standing on things but I had to carry on and do my job."

It was, he says, as though someone had poured black paint over shop dummies, cut them up and filled the train with their parts. The woman he found who lost all her limbs has died on the station concourse. Out in the dazzling daylight, somebody asks this exhausted, filthy policeman for directions. That makes him smile. But mostly he feels very lonely. He just wants to see a friend, or somebody he knows, and hug them.

12 noon

Soldiers with machine-guns are guarding Buckingham Palace, where the Union flag is at half mast. The Queen says she is deeply shocked. Royal engagements have been cancelled. The FTSE share index has fallen more than 200 points as investors abandon companies in the transport and holiday industries. At Gleneagles, Blair appears before the cameras for the first time, announcing that he is leaving the G8 summit for London. Looking serious and taking long pauses between phrases, he says: "It is reasonably clear that there have been a series of terrorist attacks in London. There are obviously casualties, both people that have died and people seriously injured, and our thoughts and prayers of course are with the victims and their families."

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, will conduct G8 negotiations while he is gone. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary is telling the Commons that there have been three explosions on Tube trains and one on a bus but it is not yet known who is to blame. Even as he speaks, a group calling itself the Secret Organisation Group of al-Qa'ida of Jihad Organisation in Europe is claiming responsibility on a website, saying: "The heroic mujahedin have carried out a blessed raid in London. Britain is now burning with fear, terror and panic, from north to south, from east to west."

The Prime Minister will leave Gleneagles in a helicopter then take a jet to RAF Northolt. But first he makes another televised statement, flanked by Presidents George Bush and Jacques Chirac. "We will not allow violence to change our societies or our values," he says. "Nor will we let it stop the work of this summit."

3pm

Schoolchildren across London are being kept in classrooms as their parents are caught up in traffic chaos. Teachers have been asked to work late and look after pupils. Security is being tightened in European capitals, and many of the 1,500 Metropolitan Police officers serving the G8 summit in Scotland are to be rushed back to London. Some mainline stations are already reopening.

The Muslim Council of Britain "utterly condemns the perpetrators of what appears to be a series of co-ordinated attacks". A statement is also made by George Galloway MP, long-time opponent of war in Iraq, who says, "We argued, as did the security services in this country, that the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would increase the threat of terrorist attack in Britain. Tragically, Londoners have now paid the price of the Government ignoring such warnings."

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is in Singapore with the successful Olympic bidding team. Before boarding a flight home he makes an impassioned televised statement that causes many stranded Londoners watching in offices, cafés and bars to fall silent, then applaud. "This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful," says the Mayor. "It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever. That isn't an ideology, it isn't even a perverted faith - it is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder."

5.30pm

Blair is chairing another meeting of Cobra in Downing Street. Even as he does so, the Prime Minister also appears on television in a pre-recorded statement. "We know that these people act in the name of Islam," he says, "but we also know that the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims, here and abroad, are decent and law-abiding people who abhor this act of terrorism every bit as much as we do."

Theatre and music shows for this evening have been cancelled, as have most major events. Roads around London are gridlocked. On the M4, people heading for Heathrow abandon taxis and attempt to run to the airport along the hard shoulder, dragging suitcases behind them, in an attempt not to miss flights. Hotels and guesthouses are swamped with stranded commuters. Some have raised their prices to take advantage.

The hundreds of NHS workers who volunteered for extra duties today are stood down. Cordons remain around the affected underground stations and in Tavistock Square, where rain falls lightly on the twisted wreckage of the bus and on the forensic experts in white protective suits who are looking for evidence.

7pm

Psaradakis, the bus driver, is going home to Stoke Newington where his wife and children are waiting. His uniform is stained with blood. Davinia, the woman in the mask, is being treated at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. So is Chris Randall, who suffered burns in the explosion at Edgware Road. His brother Jonathan, 22, is with him at the hospital and says the atmosphere is "strangely relaxed", not least because many people are still in shock. The hospitals have seen more than 350 patients, but at least as many injured people have been treated at the scenes. The official death toll this evening is 37, but everyone knows there are still many more bodies underground and on the bus.

At least 20 people are missing. One is Shahara Akther Islam, 20, from Plaistow in East London, who said goodbye to her brother this morning and went off to the dentist. "If we had a body, if we knew she was dead, at least we would be able to start mourning," says her uncle. "What tortures us is that the police say there are still bodies in the tunnel. I keep thinking, what if she is lying there still alive, still just breathing, but needing help, and nobody is coming for her?"

On Friday, many people will stay away from London. Hundreds of thousands of others, including those like Michael Henning and Zeyned Basci, who found themselves caught up in the worst attack on the capital outside wartime, will go to work as before, determined not to let the terrorists steal their city from them. As they do so, Shahara's father, Shamsul, will visit the East London Mosque, only a couple of hundred yards from where the Aldgate train was blown up, to ask if anyone has seen his daughter. There, as his fellow Londoners pray for the help and comfort of Allah the Merciful, the Compassionate, Shamsul will talk about the men or women who have made this a day that will hurt for a very long time. "These people are not human beings," he will say. "They are not doing anything for Islam. They may call themselves Muslim but there is no such thing as a Muslim killing people."