Initial reports were vague. It was Monday morning rush hour and more than 150 people had been hospitalised after inhaling fumes they said smelled like paint thinner on Tokyo’s Hibiya subway line.
People complained of pain in their eyes.
Then passengers started dying.
Today’s death sentence on Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Supreme Truth sect, after an trial spread over eight years, has rekindled memories of the sarin nerve gas attack in which 12 people were killed and more than 5000 injured.
A court convicted Asahara of masterminding the attack, along with other crimes blamed on his doomsday cult.
At the time of the attack, police were quick to say the gas was like sarin, a deadly agent invented by the Nazis during World War II.
The gas had been suspected in the unsolved killing of seven people in central Japan nine months earlier.
“I saw a man lying, with bubbles coming out of his mouth. His nose was bleeding,” one commuter told a television reporter at the time.
“My eyesight became dark and narrow,” another said.
Witnesses noted liquid-soaked newspapers giving off a “really strong smell”.
Others noticed a “stinging gas”.
Some began coughing after a man in sunglasses wearing a half-length dark blue coat got off at Ebisu station leaving something wrapped in newspaper in a subway car.
By mid-morning, with the underground system paralysed, emergency services in the capital were fully mobilised.
Firefighters and medics in protective suits and breathing apparatus brought hundreds of choking, blinded or unconscious passengers out of the subway.
Scores of ambulances and police vans ferried the injured to some 90 hospitals.
Tokyo’s governor called in an army chemical warfare unit to neutralise and dispose of the deadly fluid.
Then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama called the incident an “attack”.
The police said the “organised, premeditated and indiscriminate” attack was “intended for mass killing”.
Sixteen Tokyo stations on lines converging on Kasumigaseki, home to most of Japan’s ministries, were apparently targeted.
Panic turned to anger as police opened a murder investigation.
“It’s really outrageous. I don’t know where to let my anger out,” said a 60-year-old man, who narrowly escaped the gas.
“I feel like tearing apart the culprit if I could find him.”
Many people said they were more shocked by the gas attack than the massive earthquake that killed 6433 people in the city of Kobe two months earlier.
“This kind of thing is much more frightening than earthquakes, as it was done by people with intent on their minds. We can accept earthquakes as something beyond our control,” 52-year-old worker Kohei Harada said at the time.
By the evening, six people were dead, and 3300 were hospitalised. Some of the victims were station staff who shepherded passengers to safety.
Later that day, Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth), issued a statement denying responsibility, saying the authorities had orchestrated the attack “to create a climate to suppress” the religious group.
By the next morning the death toll had risen to eight dead, with 4695 injured.
Two days after the gassing, 3000 police officers raided the Aum headquarters and 19 Aum offices around Tokyo _ ostensibly to investigate an abduction.
Fifty cultists were found comatose in an Aum chapel at the base of Mt Fuji due to malnutrition. Police also found 30 bottles of acetronitrile, a solvent that dilutes sarin gas and makes it easier to transport.
Four Aum members were arrested for illegal detention.
Two more people in the Tokyo gassing died, and the number of injured climbed to 5500.
A raid on the Aum compound turned up a sophisticated chemical plant capable of producing enough sarin to kill millions.