The Vauxhall Incident

Otherwise known as a prime example of the problems of citizen journalism (and hysterical women…)

This follows today’s liveblog coverage of the shooting at Stockwell and other events at my regular blog.

First pondering:

“I find it strange there aren’t many press stories about an incident at Vauxhall. My colleague was on the tube and a rucksack had smoke coming out of it and the station was evacuated, with according to him people fighting each other to get out first. It’s on the BBC’s ‘have your say’ feature, but not mentioned anywhere else, except the Sydney Morning Herald, bizarrely.”

Here’s the BBC’s page in question, first:

“I was on the Victoria Line tube going north this morning at about 9.15. In the tunnel between Stockwell and Vauxhall we all noticed a distinct burning smell coming from a carriage in front of us (the middle of the train).”

And again:

“I was at Vauxhall this morning and I’d like to thank a man in a Fantastic Four T-Shirt for keeping me calm when everyone got panicky.”

And again, contradicting the first one slightly:

“I was at Vauxhall in the middle carriage and I heard shouting and screaming coming from the end carriage. I was standing by the door, so people pushed me off the train and I fell to the floor. People were trampling on me to get to the exit.”

And another:

“I was on the Victoria line tube this morning that was evacuated at about 9.20am. A girl I spoke to outside the station afterwards told me how she was in a carriage closer to the middle of the train than mine, and heard someone shout to pull the emergency alarm. She then saw smoke in the carriage and along with all the other passengers, rushed to try to get into the next carriage whilst the train was still moving. When the doors opened at Vauxhall everyone just legged it off the train.”

Then more confusion:

“I was on the tube at Vauxhall this morning at around 9.15am when all of a sudden people started screaming and running to get out. There was real panic and I thought another bomb had gone off but didn’t hear or see anything except screaming.”

And a more logical-sounding account:

“I was on a Victoria line tube at about 9.20am having got on at Vauxhall. The tube was just about to leave when somebody started screaming. I later found out they thought they could smell something funny. I’m not sure if there was any more to it than that but panic followed.”

Another bit of hearsay:

“A colleague was at Vauxhall this morning and there was a package in the carriage next to theirs of the tube, which exploded, with smoke everywhere.”

Then another account, this time from outside the station:

“this morning, on my way back in from a run, vauxhall station, a 10 minute walk from my flat, was cordoned off and people weren’t allowed to use the above ground trains.”

Finally, here’s something that professes to be an eyewitness blogger account of the Kennington tube evacuation, Stockwell standoff with police and aftermath of Vauxhall (although I’m not overly convinced of the authenticity):

“The whole of Vauxhall roundabout was cordoned off. Traffic was at a standstill. The roads were all taped off. People were standing beside their cars chatting on mobile phones. There were even army officers in camouflage gear.”

Lots of confirmation that something happened. Lots of different accounts. And you know what? Despite all this information, all these different pairs of eyes and ears and nostrils, do we know what actually took place? Do we bollocks.

Well, until you find something like this, that is:

LONDON -(Dow Jones)- There was a security alert at Vauxhall station in south London Friday, BBC television reported.

However, the alert later turned out to be a false alarm, the BBC said later.

In other words, only Auntie knows.

One person witnessing a worrying incident will rarely be calm enough to give a complete account. When there are crowds, they start talking to each other, and in the confusion mistake other people’s experiences for their own. It’s a form of shock-induced hysteria, and perfectly understandable. It does, however, make eyewitness accounts rather less valuable than has been made out over the last couple of weeks.

Likewise, one guy sitting behind his computer in an office (i.e. me, or any other liveblogger of events like these) can never muster the necessary resources to ensure accuracy. Liveblogging is little more than an electronic form of the person in the crowd who passes on rumours – and panic. And although “citizen journalists”, thanks to these limitations, are even more untrustworthy than the big media (even the scaremongering, scoop-hungry likes of Sky and Fox), yet other citizens are far too quick to trust the words of their fellows. Which is precisely why today I was asked by a work colleague “did you hear about the suicide bomber they shot at Canary Wharf on the 7th?” – a (false) rumour which appeared to spread from my very own blog.

The short version of the Vauxhall incident?

Someone thought they smelt something, got hysterical and caused a stampede. It was nothing, but thanks to the lightning pace of internet rumour – and the fact that more and more people are turning to the internet (including blogs like this) for information when these things happen – it very nearly ended up fuelling a whole slew of conspiracy theories. Hell, it probably still will…

Bear this all in mind the next time one of these things kicks off. And for fuck’s sake, if you’re on the tube and smell something funny, ask someone calmly if they can smell it too before you start screaming like a rabid spacktard and causing a stampede.

  1. Andrew said:

    caveat travellor?

    I know what you mean though – I was in a shopping centre this morning and the alarms went off and people were evacuated, but it turned quickly into a mass panic as people sprinted to get outside. All because some idiot probably left their rucksack on a nearby bus (the shopping centre is also a bus interchange thingy).

    N.B. I know the Latin isn’t correct…

  2. Keith said:

    Was in that carriage on the victoria line, the smoke and smell was getting overwhelming, and smelled like nothing ive ever smelled before – people had their hands on their face. Still, it was quite calm, all it took was one woman to scream “oh my god” and thats when it got out of control.

    It gets bent wrong and covered up, by the wrong people making comments that dont fit correctly.

  3. KathyF said:

    We were at the cafe at Winchester cathedral, and when we went to sit down a cafe worker came and told us we wouldn’t want to sit at that table. Why, we asked. Someone left a package underneath, we were told quietly. Everyone else was left to eat, ignorant of the knowledge there was a potential explosive device nearby.

    Quite right of them to avoid panic.

    We had to eat outside in the rain, though. Would’ve preferred to take my chances with the bag.

  4. Matthew said:

    It was me who left the first comment. You’re quite possibly right, but my colleague said the smell of smoke was quite overpowering, and I don’t think he’s the “hysterical woman” type. Perhaps it was brakes or something.

  5. John said:

    I was also on the carriage between Stockwell and vauxhall were the alarm was raised. Just wanted to add that I too could smell fumes and see a bluish mist that was unlike anything else I had seen or smelled on the tube. I tried to remian sceptical for as long as possible, but it became overpowering causing people to cough- at that point the ‘oh my god’ woman pulled the alarm. There was a panic, but not nearly as bad as some have made out -at least not on that carriage. The ‘hysterical’ woman was, obviously, very distressed but reacted faster than anyone around her in getting to the alarm and evacuating the carriage. This situation would have warranted the alarm to have been pulled regardless of any recent terrorist activity. For a journalist Nosemonkey seems to have been a little premature in dismissing this incident outright – everyone around me was independently reacting to the fumes, covering their mouths and coughing before the woman described as a ‘rabid spactard’ actually cried out.

  6. Keith, John and Matthew – thanks. I’ve also now received the following comment at my regular blog:

    “Me and my girlfriend were both on the actual carriage in Vauxhall that filled with fumes after leaving Stockwell. The operation took over three hours – significantly longer than any of the recent ‘false alarms’. The station was about to be reopened within about 20 minutes of the incident when police realised that the smell of the fumes was NOT the smell of the trains emergency brakes. They then mounted a very large security operation including bomb disposal units in contamination suits and masks. We both stayed with the police in the cordon throughout, then were moved at one point, completely out of sight into the street behind. I can say, and several other witnesses will corroborate, that our carriage definately filled with some kind of acrid chemical smelling haze, which we first tried to ignore but eventually became so strong that people began to cough. The reports of hysteria in the carriage affected are wildly exaggerated, most people managed to remain considerate and fairly calm under the circumstances. For a false alarm this was a pretty major operation, taken very seriously by the officers in the cordon. It’s absence from any news reports from that day seems a little conspicuous to me.”

    Which just goes to show that there are limits to the amount of investigative journalism you can do using the interweb – which is hardly a surprise, but still.

    So now we can (probably – assuming that these new accounts are reliable) revise to suggest that something did happen at Vauxhall, but no one knows what.

    Which then goes to make the whole thing even more confusing. Our shot innocent man was killed at Stockwell at about 10am. The incident at Vauxhall happened before that, probably between 9:15 and 9:30 (accounts on the BBC plus the fact that the train at Stockwell which was in the platform when our Brazilian electrician was killed had gone through Vauxhall without stopping). There was also, around the same time, something going on at Kennington.

    As our man at Stockwell was unconnected to the ongoing police investigation, we can discount early theories that he tried to detonate a bomb at Vauxhall, then legged it overground to Stockwell (which wouldn’t have taken him that long anyway, as it’s only about a 10-15 minute walk).

    So now we’re left with a confusing coincidence – the only connecting factor being that Vauxhall, Kennington and Stockwell are all centered around Oval, where one of the bombs failed to detonate on Thursday. There have also been two arrests made in Stockwell over the last few days in connection with the bombings (although I believe one of those arrested has since been released).

    Is there any significance to this, or is it merely turning into another candidate for Private Eye’s “Conspiracy Corner”?

  7. You might want to look into Mass Psychogenic Illness for an explanation of this. See here for starters. There’s a huge and well-documented literature on it.

  8. Alan said:

    Vauxhall incident

    Just continuing from the more recent comments about the events at Vauxhall, I was also on the tube in question – travelling from Stockwell on the Victoria Line northbound, intending to go to Euston (or rather Warren Street, but that was closed from the events of Thursday)!

    At sometime between 09.10 and 09.15, the tube pulled into Vauxhall, the door opened and the I heard several male voices shouting “Go” and a bit of screaming. The voices seemed to have been coming from the tube either 1 or 2 carriages away from me or possibly the platform opposite these carriages.

    My initial reaction was to get down and away from the windows. After 10-20 seconds a couple of people had trampled over me, so I decided to run for it.

    I saw one person fall on the platform and get a little bit trampled and being helped back to their feet.

    Once off the platform and heading for the escalator, I could hear male voices trying to advise people to not run and to not panic.

    Some people did respond to this a little and toned their run down to an extremely brisk walk! At the barrier, I went through the gate usually used by those people with large luggage.

    I saw one member of Underground staff by the gate who looked a little confused as to what was happening. My gut feeling was that us running past him was the first he was aware that there was a ‘situation’.

    After getting out and having a sit down for 10 minutes or so to get my breath and some form of calm back, I started to slowly walk in the direction of Stockwell – stopping off at a cafe (Oasis, I think) quite near to Vauxhall.

    I met a couple of women in there who’d although not been on the same tube as me, had had to leg it from the tube station.

    They told me that they had spoken to a women who had described seeing a canvass bag with smoke coming from it that had been left on the tube and that this was what had caused the panic.

    I never saw or smelt any smoke personally, so whether or not that was reliable information, I couldn’t say but whether it was a real threat or false alarm, it was still the most frightening experience I’ve had the misfortune of being involved in and I do find it discomforting that other than the few eyewitness accounts on BBC’s website that no media attention has been paid to this incident.

    In the past, I have been evacuated from tube and train stations and also public buildings due to ‘security alerts’ and although it has always been a bit tense, in my experience, people have always been remarkably calm, fairly quiet. Vauxhall certainly was not like this.

    My initial (and possibly cynical) reaction to the news media’s focus on events later that morning, i.e. they were purely covering the Stockwell incident, was that this could be the news media (under instruction or otherwise) focussing on an event which, although would alarm people, would also appear to be a showing a breakthrough for the police and security – rather than continuing to report on threats, real, suspected or otherwise, at Vauxhall or indeed anywhere else (Kennington?).

    Whether this was the case or not, it has left a situation where a few hundred people who were at Vauxhall at 09.15 are quite possibly wondering whether the news media can be trusted to inform the public on all of the incidents which are occurring (or whether they had purely imagined the panic and chaos they’d experienced that morning)!

    Now that the ‘bomber’ has been found to be an innocent man, you can probably add a healthy dose of mistrust that the police are capable of doing their homework properly before shooting people in five times in the head.

    It has been said that ‘they’, whoever ‘they’ may be are trying to make people scared.

    If the news media believe this to be true, maybe they can help to keep this to a minimum by reporting all significant incidents that have actually happened whilst speculating less or the ‘whys’ and ‘what might happen nexts’?

    They can leave that the other parts of the media to analyse.

  9. John said:

    Jarndyce’s Mass Psychogenic Illness research is interesting, had I not been on the carriage in question I’d probably be convinced. As I said in my post the reaction to the smell was spontaneous – no one asked ‘do you smell that?’ – there was no time. It was a spontaneous reaction to a noxious smell and visible fumes on an underground carriage. I can say however that I saw no bag, but then I didnt hang around long enough to have a proper look. I can understand doubts being raised over the ‘smoking bag’ reports as it has been variously described as black or grey and red.
    I have asked British Transport Police for the official line on the whole incident:
    A woman saw an unattended bag, panicked, pulled the alarm which in turn caused the other passengers to panic. The ‘fumes’ came from brakes being applied.
    The problem with this account is that the alarm was raised in our carriage because of fumes, the fumes did not come subsequently. Also it was just as we were leaving Stockwell station – I cant imagine that the first thing the driver did was to apply brakes, we had to make it to Vauxhall to evacuate.
    Anyway, I dont want to go over too much old ground. I also wouldnt want to hazard a guess as to why this wasn’t reported as a very significant false alarm. In fact the only thing that I can say with total confidence is that the fumes on my carriage were not imaginary.

  10. Andrew Milner said:

    “Let me thank those police officers for doing the honourable thing. Why was he running? Shhot first and ask questions later is the order of the day today. Rafael forget your thoughts a raise a glass to a police officer not prepared to stomach any more attrocities in London.

    Buy that man a beer

    Posted by Tony Henry on July 22, 2005 12:04 PM.”

    A lot of water has gone under the bridge since Internet Diarist Tony Henry’s infamous blog. His spelling and syntax is nearly as flawed as his logic. Sad isn’t? The government and authority lie through their teeth. The mainstream media disseminate the propaganda. The police most certainly are not your friend. They never were, it’s just taken you a long time to wake up to this obvious fact. No wonder so many people are in denial. Nothing you can take as Gospel, not even the Bible. But at least Tony’s happy as he can more up a gear towards implementing the police super state. Providing the economy’s on track and there’s full employment no way will the peasants start revolting. Lenin (that’s V.I., not John) was right: You never run out of useful idiots. Nice neutral Buddhist country, anyone?

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