Stations littered with body parts after 'butchery on a brutal scale'

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The Independent Online

It was just after 7.30 in the morning, rush hour, and trains were trundling in from the suburbs. Then suddenly, without warning, the workers coming from Fuenlabrada and Pozo de Tio Raimundo were pitched into the front line of the "war on terror".

It was just after 7.30 in the morning, rush hour, and trains were trundling in from the suburbs. Then suddenly, without warning, the workers coming from Fuenlabrada and Pozo de Tio Raimundo were pitched into the front line of the "war on terror".

In just a quarter an hour the centre of one of Europe's most civilised capitals, the thriving heart of a proud young democracy, was turned into a scene of unspeakable horror. Ten bombs, some concealed in backpacks, went off one after the other: first in Atocha station, Madrid's Waterloo, then in the two stations closest to Atocha down the line.

Terror struck without warning in the heart of Madrid, twisting and buckling steel, tearing scores of passengers into pieces, mutilating hundreds more.

The streets close to the world-famous Prado Museum was full of smoke; the air was torn with screams. Blood, bodies, arms and legs were hurled in all directions. Truly, it was a vision from hell.

Traumatised survivors groped for words to describe what they had seen. Anibal Altamirano, a 26-year-old Ecuadorian who walked away from the carnage, said that when the first bomb blew a hole in a train at Atocha station commuters were too stunned to move, but when another bomb went off a few minutes later the crowd fled screaming in panic. "People dropped everything ­ bags and shoes ­ and ran, many trampling on others."

It was the worst terror attack in Europe since Lockerbie 15 years ago. The toll dwarfed all earlier bombings on the ground.

It was hideously senseless and cruel. It was a war, but the casualties were babies and small children and labourers; the enemy stayed out of sight.

Corpses were entangled in the shredded metal wreckage of carriages; body parts littered the platforms. "I saw legs and arms. I won't forget this ever. I've seen horror," said Enrique Sanchez, an ambulance worker returning from a third station, Santa Eugenia, where yet another bomb had exploded on board a train.

"The train was cut open like a can of tuna... We didn't know who to treat first. There was a lot of blood, a lot of blood."

One passenger, Ana Maria Mayor's told reporters, her voice cracking as she spoke: "I saw a baby torn to bits."

Juan Redondo, a fireman who came to the next station down the line, El Pozo, where another bomb had gone off, described the scene as "butchery on a brutal scale". Two bombs had erupted there in a double-decker train, and at least 70 bodies were strewn across the platform. One body was blown on to the station's roof, he said.

"It looked like a platform of death," he said. "I've never seen anything like it before.

"The recovery of the bodies was very difficult. We didn't know what to pick up."

Fransisco Larios, a young shopworker, said "I looked behind me and it was like a war. People were thrown to the ground. There was smoke everywhere. I saw a man with his leg impaled on a metal tube. Everyone was covered with blood and many of those strewn about had part of their body missing: feet, hands..."

At this point, Mr Larios, who had escaped with minor cuts and bruises, burst into tears and could not continue.

"My legs are trembling," he choked, and sat suddenly on the ground. It was 8am, 20 minutes after he had got off his usual train from Fuenlabrada. He had no sooner stepped on to the platform when the train opposite "broke in half", he said.

Whoever was behind the bombings, yesterday morning the centre of one of Europe's most ebullient, pleasure-loving capitals was turned into a battlefield. And when the screaming and the sirens stopped a weird silence fell.

Europe's noisiest capital was hushed to a whisper. It was as if the volume was suddenly turned to mute.

Madrilenos hurried home, murmured into their mobile phones, crouched over the radios, calling out to each other only the mounting tally of death as the morning wore on.

Usually talkative taxi drivers were laconic; even their ritual condemnation of separatist murderers was cut short while we listened to the radio relaying the death toll, the ministerial condemnations, the screams and the sobs, respooled endlessly as the hours rolled by.

The city quickly rallied to help the wounded. "This is our 11 September," said Conchita Esperanza, heading to her job in the botanical gardens. Appeals for blood donors were answered by a flood of volunteers, and soon queues were snaking through the heart of the city to hastily deployed mobile units.

In the 12 de Octubre hospital, the ambulances were streaming into accident and emergency. The entire hospital seemed to have been turned over to the rescue effort.

On the steps outside groups huddled, hugged and wept. One young man staggered out, his head and arm bound, his jeans ripped downwards from the hip. "He doesn't want to talk" his companion said as she propelled him to a waiting car.

A huge amphitheatre in the bowels of the building was turned into an information centre for the families. Jesus Gallego, 40, twirled a bottle of water in his fingers and wore a huge bandage on his head. "I'm one of the lucky ones," he said, "I only needed six or seven stitches in my head. I'm just waiting for my family to pick me up."

Mr Gallego had been caught by chance on the stricken train from his home town of Alcala de Henares, a train that he had never taken before. "I was on my way to a child cancer conference in Cuidad Real and I was going to take the Ave from Atocha.

"I was able to get out of the train through a hole in the side. Then I, and many others, turned back into the train to try to help those trapped inside. There was rubble everywhere. Firefighters arrived within 10 minutes, and after the initial shock and confusion people reacted well."

In the Gregorio Maranon hospital, on the other side of the capital, Virginia Androne, 60, from Romania, lay on a bed in a corridor, her left eye injured and the hearing in her left ear almost gone. She was in a train when the carriage was ripped apart.

"The window fell on top of me. And then there were so many dead. To the left of me and to the right, it was full of dead people. My husband has no idea where I am. He doesn't know how to find me," Ms Androne said quietly between shallow breaths.

An exhibition centre in the swanky new business quarter by the airport, usually used for EU summits or an international tourism fair, was transformed into a makeshift mass mortuary. A convoy of more than 50 hearses was poised in the car park, each with its coffin, waiting.

Bodies were brought in from the three devastated railway stations. Families of the dead were in a separate room, facing the ordeal of identifying the remains of their mangled loved ones. An army of social workers and counsellors converged upon those who waited in fear, feeding them water and sandwiches while they waited for news.

Some came away shedding tears of relief when told a relative had survived in a hospital. Others were slumped against walls and pillars in despair. "No I'm not looking for anyone any more. Unfortunately I've found her," said one, who would not be named.

Alfonso Jimenez, 32, a volunteer psychologist who had been on the go all day, cradled a cup of steaming coffee. "This morning I was working at a hospital comforting the injured," he reflected.

"Here it's a very different story. People are bereaved and devastated."

Throught the evening streets remained subdued. Impromptu demonstrations had assembled and dispersed.

Everyone felt that life would never be the same. Madrilenos say the same thing ritualistically after every terror atrocity, and there have been many in the past. But there has never been an attack, and a toll, remotely like this.

All campaigning for Sunday's general election has been cancelled. It has been a lacklustre campaign, all voters seemed to agree, and even though 90 per cent of Spaniards opposed the war in Iraq, José Maria Aznar's successor, Mariano Rajoy, is expected to clinch it for the Popular Party.

Suddenly the whole event seemed trivial, a meaningless sideshow to the war in which the city had been engulfed, a war whose meaning had yet to be revealed.

Instead of yawning at the politicians, today Madrilenos have a more urgent engagement. Hundreds of thousands are expected to march through the capital in a demonstration of grief, protest and solidarity with the victims of the bombs.