TOKYO — Japan recoiled in horror today from a coordinated nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed eight people and injured hundreds more during the rush hour yesterday morning.
The world’s largest subway system — normally a bustling city-within-a-city of stations, subterranean walkways and shopping kiosks — was a ghost town this morning, in part because of a holiday, but also because everyone who could take buses or trains instead of the subway was doing so.
Although ventilation pumps were turned all the way up, air in the worst-hit of the stricken stations was heavy with acrid chemicals and detergents applied overnight by the Japanese military and police to neutralize and clean up the deadly gas.
In addition to the dead, authorities said this morning that nearly 800 persons remain hospitalized, 75 in critical condition. In all, 4,695 persons were treated for exposure to the gas.
During the attack, dazed commuters staggered from the transportation system, vomiting and bleeding from the nose and mouth. Others were carried out by police, firefighters and subway attendants.
Bustling streets outside major stations — including Kasumigaseki, in the heart of Japan’s government center, and Tsukiji, home of the world’s busiest fish market — became scenes of surreal chaos as medical workers struggled to evacuate the most severely injured while gas-masked soldiers plunged into the tunnels.
Primary school children who usually ride the stricken lines unaccompanied were released from classes early and escorted home; televised footage of them leaving school with their mouths and noses swathed in gauze distributed by their teachers heightened the impression of apocalypse.
Police said plastic bags containing a chemical believed to be sarin — a deadly nerve gas developed by the Nazis during World War II — were placed on five trains running on three major lines through the heart of the city. Sixteen subway stations were affected.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported today that passengers at the Kodenmacho station in central 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 yesterday.
Authorities said thousands of police were assigned to the subway investigation but yesterday morning there was no uniformed police presence in the stations where the gas bombs went off.
“It’s the end of the world,” Fumihiro Ogawa, a 24-year-old architect, said as he watched surging crowds of refugees from the subway system push their way onto Japan Railway trains at Shimbashi Station last night. “I can’t believe a person would do this sort of thing.
“We really feel unsafe because of this incident,” Ogawa said. “It’s not like it happened to other people. It’s happened to us.”
Japanese and foreigners living in Japan, who generally enjoy one of the world’s safest and most secure societies and are revolted by the random violence in the United States, were badly shaken.
It was the second major instance in less than a year in which sarin was involved. Last summer, a release of sarin in Matsumoto, a city northwest of Tokyo, killed seven and injured more than 200. No one has been charged in that case.
Sarin use also was suspected early this month, after 19 persons became ill while riding a train between Tokyo and the port city of Yokohama. No one died in that case, which was little publicized at the time.
“When it happened in Matsumoto, we thought ‘that’s bad,’ but that’s all we thought,” said Chiho Hanada, a 22-year-old government worker. “Now it seems it can happen to you anywhere.”
Commuters and officials will have a short respite today, a national holiday marking the spring equinox.
But tomorrow they will have to face twin realities: There is no alternative to subway commuting in metropolitan Tokyo, where crowded conditions and high costs make automobile ownership impractical for some and unaffordable for others, and the subways now have been shown to be immensely vulnerable.
“You can’t let yourself worry about it too much,” Hanada said. “If I do I can’t go anywhere, and I have to go to the office.”
Despite such widely expressed sentiments, people are deeply worried, and the fact that no one has claimed responsibility or been arrested for the attack is fueling rumors of all sorts. Some say it was the doing of North Korea sympathizers, others that it was the work of religious extremists.
“It’s very obvious that this is very easy to do,” said David Chamberland, a native of Hawaii who has lived here for 11 years and runs a small import company. “At the rush hour in a system this size, there’s absolutely nothing you can do.”
Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, reacting with greater speed than he did after last month’s earthquake disaster in Kobe, condemned the indiscriminate murder of ordinary citizens, pledged heightened security, urging people to speedily report anything unusual that they notice on trains or subways.
The feeling that yesterday’s attack was a trial that well could be repeated was widespread, especially because of indications that the chemical used yesterday had been diluted to soften its effect.
“It seems to me that the purpose was not to kill people but to make trouble,” said Kuniko Miyanaga, a professor of social sciences at International Christian University. She said that in Matsumoto the chemical ”was set outside and seven people inside buildings died.”
Others said they believed the attackers had diluted the chemical to make it safer to carry, and to allow time for the people who placed the gas on the subways to escape.