Police reportedly had one suspect under guard today as they searched for a well-organized terrorist gang believed to be responsible for the release of poison gas on the Tokyo subway Monday, which left eight dead, 76 critically injured and more than 600 hospitalized overnight.
According to the national police agency, the World War II-era nerve gas sarin apparently was released on at least five widely scattered trains during a half-hour period starting around 8 a.m. Monday. Handling this powerful poison - so potent that a single drop on the skin can be fatal - and coordinating its delivery around the city probably required a careful team effort, a police spokesman said.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which one official called “a case virtually unparalleled in the history of crime in this country.” Police said they are reviewing several other recent cases in which noxious fumes were released - including an incident last June in which seven people died from inhaling what appeared to be the same substance released in the subways Monday.
The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported today that passengers at the Kodenmacho station in downtown Tokyo spotted and chased a man who had left a vial of vaporous liquid on the train shortly after 8 a.m. The suspect was overcome by the fumes and could not get away. He is now under guard in a hospital, the newspaper said, but was too ill to be questioned Monday.
Officials are investigating links to three other poison gas incidents in the last year. Last June, sarin was released in a neighborhood in Matsumoto city in Nagano prefecture northwest of Tokyo, killing seven people and sending more than 200 to hospitals for treatment. One month later, traces of sarin were found in Yamanashi prefecture in northern Japan.
Monday’s attack was a shock in a city that prides itself on civility, courtesy and the lowest crime rate of any big city on Earth. It brought back memories of the frightening years of the late 1960s and ‘70s, when the self-styled Red Army and other terrorist groups resorted to occasional violence in pursuit of various political aims.
There was little sign of panic in Tokyo following Monday morning’s attacks. The thousands of people who came gasping and retching out of the subways - many temporarily blinded by the stinging gas - lined up and waited quietly for on-thespot treatment or transport to hospitals.
Outside the subway station at Kasumigaseki, bureaucrats sat atop their briefcases while police gave them oxygen. Meanwhile, police and military personnel wearing gas masks and spacesuit-style protective gear searched inch-by-inch through trains and stations.
More than 4,600 people sought hospital treatment. At St. Luke’s International Hospital downtown, beds lined the lobby and corridors as nurses washed the eyes of victims and gave them oxygen. Most victims left the hospital under their own power after a few hours. Police said 603 persons were hospitalized overnight.
Service was restored on all but one of the city’s 12 subway lines by Monday afternoon, and officials said trains were as packed as usual during the evening rush hour. In contrast to the delays and confusion that marked the government’s response to the disastrous Kobe earthquake in January, rescue and relief efforts Monday seemed to be timely and adequate. Subway lines were shut within minutes after the gas was discovered, and medical teams were quickly dispatched to the affected stations.
U.S. government sources in Washington expressed some skepticism that the substance used in the attack was actually sarin. They said they understood that Japanese police had not completed testing needed to prove what chemical was used and that the data collected so far indicate the substance instead may have been a mixture of agricultural chemicals and other hazardous pesticide-like compounds. The U.S. officials also said they believe the number of deaths is low for a genuine sarin-like agent.
Experts said that sarin itself is in relatively scarce supply and would be difficult, though not impossible, for a terrorist group to make. But structurally similar compounds, with similarly lethal properties, can be made relatively easily and cheaply, according to chemists and other experts.
Other than the report that a suspect was under guard, police said almost nothing about their investigation, but other media reports indicated that there were several witnesses who saw unusual actions on the subways Monday morning.
At Nakameguro station, southwest of the city center on the Hibiya subway line, witnesses told police, a man about 40 years old jumped on the train just before 8 a.m. When he got off at Ebisu, the next stop, he left behind on the floor a plastic lunch box wrapped in newspaper. Within eight minutes, or three more stops, a sharp odor coming from the package forced everybody off the train.
At a train on the Marunouchi line, a wad of wet newspaper on the floor began giving off noxious fumes. A similar wad of papers was found inside a plastic trash bag on a different train.
Government and private experts said these reports suggested that the perpetrators may have brought sealed bottles of sarin onto the trains, poured the clear, lethal liquid onto newspaper, then left the train. Of the eight people who died, seven were riding on the cars where the chemical was placed. The eighth victim was a subway employee who grabbed a plastic bag containing the fuming poison and carried it away for disposal.