A terrorist attack on three Tokyo subway lines during this morning’s rush hour permeated trains with what police said was a form of nerve gas, killing at least six people and injuring more than 1,200.
No group claimed responsibility, but police believe “a simultaneous guerrilla attack” from several points was responsible.
Officials said the gas was sarin, an extremely toxic and volatile nerve gas developed by Nazi scientists in the 1930s.
“This is a case of organized and indiscriminate murder,” said Masahiro Terao, head of the Metropolitan Police First Investigative Division.
Ambulance sirens wailed as police and rescue forces rushed to the affected subway stations on three main lines that traverse central parts of Tokyo about 8:15 a.m.
As trains pulled into stations, passengers staggered out and collapsed. Emergency workers set up tents outside, and passengers were rushed out on stretchers and lay on the ground with bubbles coming from their mouths. In some cases, blood poured from their noses.
At least 1,200 people were admitted for treatment or observation with more than a dozen in critical condition.
There were no explosions reported, and some passengers reported that a liquid appeared to come from lunch boxes wrapped in newspapers. Police said that these boxes may have been the source of the gas. They warned passengers not to touch any such box and to report it immediately.
“I saw no gas, but I saw a transparent liquid spreading on the floor, and people falling on the ground one by one,” a young woman told Japanese television. She was not hurt.
Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama ordered an all-out rescue effort, and the government ordered increased security at all public railways, airports and ports.
One reason why police believe terrorists were responsible is that the gas came from perhaps as many as 15 different points, all in subway cars. The subway stations affected were on the Hibiya, Marunouchi and Chiyoda lines.
In one case, passengers reported that a man in sunglasses - unusual for the subway - apparently left a package behind when he got off the subway at the Ebisu station on the Hibiya line. The package was blamed for one of the gas outbreaks.
Sarin is not available in Japan. Made by mixing chemicals containing fluorines and organic phosphorus, it causes breathing problems and seizures and attacks the central nervous system. Authorities said that 0.5 milligram of sarin is enough to kill an ordinary person.
Passengers reported dizziness, blurry vision and nausea. “I was losing my sight,” a subway employee told Japanese television. “I couldn’t see, and I was feeling dizzy.”
It is expected to take several weeks for complete recovery from miosis, a contraction of the pupils that is a characteristic of gases such as sarin. But victims may suffer after-effects such as breathing difficulties and disorders of the nervous system.
At one station, subway employees tried to pick up the boxes from which the fumes were coming and carry them out. Then they fainted.
“I saw people coughing, and I thought they were sick,” a male passenger said. “But then it started all over.”