'Oi, terrorists, cowards!' Fighting back in London's chaos

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Monday, June 5, 2017

LONDON -- For eight agonizing minutes, the orders came from all directions, frantic and contradictory. Crowds scattered, sometimes directly into the path of the men trying to kill them. Police cars screamed past the attackers toward the van they had abandoned. Chairs, bottles and even a basket flew through the air as terrified onlookers tried to hold off the three men and make sense out of the senseless.

Gerard Vowls was across the street from a Barclays bank branch when he heard someone moan, "I've been stabbed." He thought it was a joke. But as the man leaned weakly against a wall, the blood was all too real. Moments later, as one bystander helped the wounded man, Vowls saw the three attackers fall upon a nearby woman with their knives.

"The three guys, yes, they were just stabbing this woman constantly, non-stop the three of them. Just stabbing her from every direction, the three of them around her. Lunging at her," he said. "I heard them say one thing: 'This is for Allah.'"

Police cars screeched past the scene, so intent upon the van the attackers had abandoned after plowing it through a crowd at London Bridge that they did not yet know about the mayhem around Borough Market.

Vowls tried to distract the men with knives and warn the unwitting neighborhood filled with crowded restaurants and bars. He shouted as he ran through the streets, according to his account and that of bystanders who believe he saved many lives Saturday night. Doors slammed shut. The attackers retreated from at least one establishment when they were hit with a barrage of glass bottles.

In another, Richard Angell was gossiping with friends when a security guard shouted to take cover. A waiter jammed his foot in the door to prevent anyone from pushing in. People overturned tables and ducked under chairs. Food flew through the air.

Images started to cohere. Angell saw someone throw a table and realized it was a "heroic guy who saw what was happening" - apparently Vowls - and was trying to keep the attackers at bay. Vowls said he picked up whatever was handy - chairs, a stool and bottles of beer.

"I went 'Oi, terrorists, cowards, Oi!'" Vowls said. He was hoping to lure them toward a main road and into the line of fire of police. Still, the squad cars headed the wrong way. Vowls ran back and found a local beat officer, saying he knew where the attackers were. Despite being unarmed in a country where few police carry firearms, the two started back toward the restaurant.

By then, full-blown panic had set in at Borough Market.

Rhiannon Owen, a student nurse studying in London, said she was standing at a cash machine when a taxi driver saved her life.

"The taxi driver just swerved toward me and screamed, 'Run! You have to run! They've got a knife!'" she said. "His face was just like something was so wrong, and I just started running as fast as I could. There was sirens everywhere, people screaming, the glass was smashed in one shop. There was a guy, he was injured. I just ran."

Even as one of the attackers followed behind her, she called out to others to run away. She slipped into a pub where she hid upstairs with 40 others.

Nearby, Florin Morariu was at the Bread Ahead bakery where he works when he glanced out the window and saw people running.

"They were fainting, falling and we went outside to see what was happening," he said.

Morariu saw men with knives attack someone, and did the only thing he could think of: He hurled a big bread basket he was holding at the attacker's head.

Moments later, gunshots rang out.

"So many gunshots. We were just lying on the floor like, everyone was introducing ourselves, trying to keep each other calm, giving each other water and stuff," Owen said.

The three assailants died in the hail of bullets.

Vowls arrived moments later to see the bodies, which wore what looked like explosive vests. Police called out that they were rigged to blow, though Vowls wondered why - if they were real - the men hadn't detonated them inside one of the pubs.

But that's not the image that haunts Vowls. He woke from a nightmare before dawn on Sunday.

"I saw a vision of the poor woman being stabbed, and the three guys - the three terrorists - stabbing her, and she was going 'Help me, help me!' and then I woke up and I started screaming," he said.

"I'll have her in my mind for the rest of my life."