The day Tokyo resembled a war zone

Medics attend to a victim after the sarin attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult that killed 13 and injured thousands.
Medics attend to a victim after the sarin attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult that killed 13 and injured thousands. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TOKYO • On a sunny Tokyo morning in March 1995, passengers crammed onto the world’s busiest subway for their rush-hour commute, unaware that minutes later their city would resemble a war zone. First came the smell, a strong and pungent chemical odour similar to paint thinner that was in fact sarin, a Nazi-developed poison so toxic that a single droplet can kill.

The sarin had been released in liquid form on five subway carriages at different points of the network, a coordinated attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult that would kill 13 and injure thousands more.

Mr Sakae Ito was squashed into a train on the crowded Hibiya Line when he noticed the air was thick and people were coughing uncontrollably. “Liquid was spread on the floor in the middle of the carriage, people were convulsing in their seats. One man was leaning against a pole, his shirt open, bodily fluids leaking out,” Mr Ito remembered.

Another commuter recalled: “I felt like I was suffocating. I coughed a lot and started shivering. The person sitting next to me collapsed.”

Passengers were gasping for air and foaming at the mouth, with blood streaming from their noses and their eyes burning.

Police were first alerted just after 8am on March 20 and panic soon set in, with subway staff screaming at people to evacuate as passengers convulsed on carriage floors.

Good Samaritan commuters who tried to drag victims out of the trains soon collapsed themselves, as others scrambled over bodies lying on the floor to get to fresh air.

Above ground, there was pandemonium as passengers holding makeshift masks to their noses streamed from the subway stations, often vomiting and coughing.

The Japanese Self-Defence Force was called in and descended into the depths in hazmat suits and gas masks. Images from the time show soldiers sprinting up escalators and stairs carrying unconscious victims on their backs. Hundreds of ambulances screamed through the streets and helicopters landed on busy roads to evacuate the injured to some 90 hospitals.

Passers-by and medics administered heart massages on pavements as others stood by, their eyes streaming with tears, either from grief or the effects of the toxin.

Japan is used to natural disasters like earthquakes but in the lowcrime society the news of the sarin attack spread panic nationwide.

“We can accept earthquakes as something outside our control,” one commuter said at the time. “But we can never prepare for something like this.”


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2018, with the headline 'The day Tokyo resembled a war zone'. Print Edition | Subscribe