Police searching tunnels for clues to London attack
Bomb death toll passes 50; officials cautious on blame
LONDON -- As more bodies were found in the underground wreckage, police officers worked on their hands and knees in the dark, narrow, vermin-infested tunnels of the subway system in the British capital yesterday, searching for clues to who was behind Thursday's bomb attacks that left more than 50 people dead.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair said the four staggered explosions wounded 700 people and left about 100 still hospitalized, approximately 22 of them in serious or critical condition.
Two police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said investigators suspect the bomb that killed 13 people on a double-decker bus in Bloomsbury exploded prematurely and was not intended as a suicide attack. They said several witnesses on the bus reported seeing an agitated man repeatedly checking the contents of a carry-all bag before it exploded.
Officials raised the death toll from the initial 37, but said they will not have a final tally until authorities are able to recover an undetermined number of bodies still trapped in one train in a tunnel between Russell Square and King's Cross stations. Blair said he did not expect the death toll to approach triple figures, but other police officials said they could not rule that out.
Police struggled to pin down who was still missing as anxious relatives checked hospitals and police stations for word of loved ones who failed to turn up after the attacks.
Standing above King's Cross Underground station, Superintendent William McCafferty, police chief for British Transport, said officers were in a tunnel below conducting a ''fingertip search" on hands and knees, gathering the forensic evidence that might help them pinpoint who was responsible for the worst attack on London since World War II.
Andy Hayman, assistant commissioner of Metropolitan Police, said officers were being hampered by vermin, fumes, and concerns about the structural safety of the tunnel between Russell Square and King's Cross. Hayman said the three bombs that exploded on the trains appeared to have been placed on the floor, and that each bomb contained less than 10 pounds of high explosive, which could be contained in a relatively small package.
He said it was too early to say whether the bombs were detonated by the bombers using some form of remote trigger or whether they had timing devices attached. However, the two police officials said the initial forensic evidence points to timing devices, and that the bombs were left behind by people who exited the trains before the explosions. Police said that while the attacks resembled the bombing of commuter trains in Madrid last year, the Madrid bombs were triggered by cellphones, which cannot receive signals in Underground tunnels. Blair said authorities considered shutting down the cellphone network after reports of the initial blasts, but decided not to do so because they feared it would undermine ''public confidence."
Home Secretary Charles Clarke, who is in charge of policing, said there was a strong possibility that Al Qaeda or a group sympathetic to it was behind the attacks. But officials said there also could be other possible culprits. A Downing Street official said authorities had ruled out involvement by the Irish Republican Army or any other Irish splinter group. But, mindful of how the government of Jose Maria Aznar of Spain was voted out of office last year after insisting, wrongly, that the Basque group ETA was behind the Madrid attacks, officials here have been publicly cautious about assigning blame.
Clarke did not minimize the difficulty facing police in finding those who carried out the bombings or deterring future attacks.
''You're talking about looking for very small, evil needles in a very large haystack," he said.
Privately, police officials say they are confident the bombs were the work of Islamic militants. They also believe that whoever was responsible was not associated with any local mosques, especially one in North London that is a hotbed for radicals, given that police monitor their activities very closely.
Blair said there had only been one or two ''very minor incidents" of anti-Muslim harassment since the attacks, but officials at the Muslim Council of Britain said their offices had been deluged with abusive and threatening phone calls and e-mails. There are about 1.6 million Muslims in Britain.
Clarke said there was no intelligence to indicate that an attack was planned or imminent, suggesting that the bombers were ''sleepers," operating clandestinely and unknown to police.
Hayman said the best hope for finding who was responsible lay in painstaking processes: reviewing closed-circuit television tape and gathering and analyzing forensic evidence at the blast sites.
''We have got forensic opportunities," he said, ''but they are very challenging scenes."
Blair's repeated appeals for tips from the public suggest that police here do not have evidence that could lead them to the bombers such as the unexploded bomb and cellphone Spanish police recovered soon after last year's attack in Madrid.
As police technicians combed through the top of the double-decker bus, which was ripped open like a tin can, a tattered advertisement hung from the bus's shell, describing a current movie as ''outright terror."
While police conducted four intense crime-scene investigations in a 4-mile swath north of the River Thames, London got back to business.
Traffic into the city was much lighter than a typical Friday, as many took the day off or, on the advice of employers, worked from home.
Most of the Underground, which carries 3 million passengers a day, was up and running less than 24 hours after the attack, reflecting officials' desire to blunt the effect of the attacks by operating as normally as possible.
But some commuters were jumpy, as several train stations were evacuated after reports of suspicious packages
Many commuters acknowledged they were expressing their defiance by riding trains and buses. Pauline Murphy, 30, a ticket seller at Paddington Station, said she had had the day off on Thursday, and briefly considered staying home yesterday. But she went to work despite lingering fear.
''The only way to fight back is to keep doing what you're doing," said Murphy. ''Londoners won't lie down. We never have."
Ken Livingstone, London's mayor, returned from Singapore, site of the International Olympics Committee selection meeting, after cutting short the city's celebration of landing the 2012 Olympic games. Livingston quoted Winston Churchill, saying that the last seven days held ''triumph and tragedy" for London: hosting the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park last weekend, winning the Olympics on Wednesday, and the terrorist attack on Thursday.
Livingstone said the bombers felt threatened by the cultural diversity of a city where ''300 languages are spoken, and the people who speak them live side by side" peacefully.
Still, Livingstone was under no illusions that Thursday's attack was a unique event.
''We will have to continue to be vigilant, probably for the rest of our lives," he said.