A large swath of the West End of London was cast into turmoil for hours yesterday as police sealed off scores of streets after a suspect device was discovered and defused following coded terrorist warnings.
Officers closed an area of two square miles around Piccadilly Circus, causing massive traffic jams as they evacuated cars and panic-stricken pedestrians in the wake of the warnings shortly before the start of the lunch-time rush at 12.30pm.
The Piccadilly line and a number of Underground stations were closed and evacuated before the device was found in a telephone box in Charing Cross Road at about 3pm and made safe by anti-terrorist bomb squad officers.
However, as officers searched for the device a decision was taken only to clear the streets and buildings in the area, in the heart of London's theatreland, close to where the device was found.
A construction worker, Rob-ert Hayes, told of his shock on learning he had used the telephone box where the bomb was discovered just 30 minutes before the bomb squad moved in.
"I went across the road to the phone booth," he said. "I didn't notice anything. Then half-an-hour later a policeman came walking in the construction site telling us to get out.
"Police were telling everyone to run. I dropped my hat and the police said just run. I was pretty scared when I found out where the bomb was. I might have been standing on it.'
Heath Bell, barman at the Porcupine, described customers' panic. "This policeman came in and said: 'Get everyone away from the windows and down into the cellar.' We knew straight away that it was a bomb," he said, explaining that three bar staff and customers spent three hours in the cellar of the pub which is 50 yards from the telephone-box, before being given the all-clear. "People were just freaking out. It was so close."
Another person to be evacuated was Sorrel Jeffrey, an 18-year-old data control clerk in a building in Charing Cross Road. She said: "At 1.15 a man came and told us to get out of the building. In the streets people were running. Some were panicking and some were going in the wrong direction towards the bomb," she said.
However, thousands of others trapped in shops, restaurants and offices were told to stay away from windows, but complained that they were given no information about the situation.
The device was found close to the scene of the October 1992 bomb attack on the Sussex public house just off Long Acre, in which a customer died.