Westminster terror attack: ‘everything suddenly went very still’

A police officer stands on Albert embankment near to the Palace of Westminster, London, after at least two people have died after a knifeman brought terror to the heart of Westminster, mowing down pedestrians then stabbing a policeman before he was shot by armed officers.

EXCLUSIVE: Our reporter James Somper recalls the experience of being in Westminster on Wednesday afternoon. 

A police officer stands on Albert embankment near to the Palace of Westminster, London, after at least two people have died after a knifeman brought terror to the heart of Westminster, mowing down pedestrians then stabbing a policeman before he was shot by armed officers. Credit:  Lauren Hurley/Press Association

I heard three gunshots. I froze.

It had been a dull, grey afternoon when I’d got on the tube. I was on my way to an interview in the Westminster area, due there for 3pm. With a spring in my step, I slowly climbed the escalators up from the tube station, my portfolio and CV tucked under my arm, full of nervous anticipation. I was not aware of the horror unfolding above me.

As I left the station, the silhouette of Big Ben in the distance, I saw what appeared to be an SUV that had crashed into the railings that snake along the front of Parliament from Westminster Bridge. I assumed there had been an accident. A cyclist had been hit by a car, perhaps? Maybe a car crash?

Then, as I reached the top of the steps leaving the station towards Portcullis House, I heard three loud thumps. As someone who grew up on a farm, I knew exactly what the sound was. Gunshots.

Across the pavement, no one moved.

My first thought was my appointment. Was this going to make me late? Would the person I was supposed to meet be understanding? Before I could think of a response, people started running. I don’t know why, but my first thought was to turn around and head back into the station. I walked through the subway, towards the Downing Street side of Parliament Square, thinking that I would be able to bypass the commotion.

As I exited, I walked down the front of Parliament Square, directly opposite the gates of Old Palace Yard. I saw three armed police officers running round the corner towards the crashed car and I could make out a group of figures hunched over the bonnet. As I reached the corner of the Parliament Square, walking down towards Millbank, three police BMW SUVs raced past me at high speed before an armed officer by St Stephen’s Gate entrance shouted at me to run.

I did what I was told, and started running.

Behind me, a group of peoplewho moments before had been leisurely strolling around Parliament squaresoon caught up with me. Bizarrely, one of them smiled at me as we ran side by side.

“I’m Peter,” the man said.

In the heat of the moment, I could do nothing but laugh.

“I’m James,” I replied, grimacing as we ran down College Green, a cacophony of sirens blaring out as ambulances and police cars rushed past us.

Panic probably isn’t the right word. There was something distinctly understated in the way we were shepherded down towards Millbank. Around us, buildings neighbouring the Parliamentary estate were gradually being evacuated, their occupants frantically scrolling through newsfeeds on their phones.

Hushed voices swapped rumours of a possible incident in the Commons.Apparently someone had tried to force their way into Parliament and a policeman had been stabbed. The shock was palpable.

Then, everything suddenly went very still.

A policeman appeared, flanked by firearms officers, each holding a submachine gun, fingers on the trigger.

“You need to move back from the area!” the officer exclaimed.

I could see genuine fear in the policeman’s face. When I heard the shots I thought this may have been a minor incident, a lonesome intruder trying to get into Parliament. This seemed bigger though.

A woman on a bike came up to me. “What’s happened?”

“Security incident in Parliament. A policeman was stabbed, apparently.” She gasped.

“Keep moving back,” shouted the policeman, his voice booming out with a sense of reassuring authority.

As we were forced back down Millbank, Waterloo Bridge came into view. The flash and wail of sirens blared out amidst a dreary late March day. By this time, an email flashed up on my phone from the person I was supposed to be seeing: “Office evacuated James. We’re fine- will rearrange. Stay safe”.

I remember the colour of the sky as I was leaving to make my appointmentIt was dark blue. By now, it had turned into a grey blanket.

Something was happening on the bridge, but people had no idea what. Again, fragments were pieced together as people flicked through their phones. “Twelve people injured on the bridge apparently,” someone behind me said.

By this stage, the phone calls and texts from friends whom I’d told that I’d be in the area began to drift in.

“Mate, just saw you on TV.”

“Fuck off”, I said, hanging up.

Then my Dad called me.

“Get out of there now. Get as far away as you can”.

At the time, this seemed like a reasonable suggestion. The police were clearly concerned about a possible second incident or suspicious vehicle as the whole area came under lockdown.

This dawned on me as a flustered policeman tried to direct a lorry doing a U-turn down Millbank, swiftly followed by a cement mixer.

With my phone running low on battery, I decided to try and move north towards Victoria and see if I could get in front of a television. As I walked up towards Junction, the bustling shops and cafes of this area of London were deserted, the power to the buildings cut.

Quickly though, I managed to find a pub with the news on, the full horror of what I had witnessed slowly being mapped out before me.

This was by no means a near-death experience. I merely happened to walk in at the tail end of the incident, the three shots sounding out the death of the intruder.

As I walked up to the bar, the landlady smiled at me.

“Something strong darling?” she said, her hand outstretched around a double brandy.