Panic and confusion descended on Oxford Street on Friday evening as reports of gunfire in one of country’s busiest shopping districts sparked mass evacuations and a huge armed police response.
Police responded “as if [it was] terrorist related” but just after 10pm revealed the incident at Oxford Circus Tube station that sparked the chaos was merely caused by an “altercation” between two men.
And in the 90 or so minutes that the security alert lasted on Black Friday night - one of the year’s busiest shopping days - the 16 people that were treated for minor injuries were actually hurt trying to leave the area.
But the alert, which began just after 4:30pm, was long enough for a national newspaper to report a completely unsubstantiated incident based on a two-week-old tweet...
... and a pop star to report a blow-by-blow account that aptly demonstrated both the perils of social media in a crisis, yet also the genuine and understandable terror felt by thousands caught up in the rush hour scare.
Here’s how the evening unfolded:
At 4:37pm police responded to reports of shots fired at Oxford Circus Tube station.
Four minutes later the British Transport Police (BTP) confirmed they were responding and were on the scene.
At this point there was no official public indication of the nature of the incident.
The first talk of gun fire began to emerge a few minutes later, although whether or not it was heard firsthand or, as many of the tweets suggest, it was based on rumours is difficult to ascertain.
Within just a few minutes panic had swept Oxford Street and shoppers, workers and tourists alike ran for cover.
Including pop star Olly Murs.
Journalist Naomi Mdudu found herself locked in a Pret a Manger after she saw a “flood of people just running”.
She told HuffPost UK: “I was walking towards Oxford Street Station and Carnaby Street was just completely empty and everyone was hiding in the stores, no one knew what was going on.
“And then all of a sudden we just saw a flood of people just running. So I quickly just ran into the closest Pret and to begin with everyone was calm but we suddenly just saw more people running down from Carnaby Street.”
THE POLICE RESPONSE
The Met Police and the British Transport Police responded “as if [it was] terrorist related” meaning armed officers and cordons were swiftly in place.
HuffPost reporter Owen Bennett, who was at Bond St, said he saw armed police cars driving down the road towards a cordon.
“After a few minutes where it seemed like nothing was happening there were screams and everyone started running and people then ran into buildings.”
Fifteen minutes later BTP confirmed they had responded to reports of gunfire made at 16:37.
THE MEDIA SWINGS INTO ACTION
The first media reports were filed shortly after 5pm and detailed the reports of gunfire and the “terror-related” response.
FAKE NEWS SPREADS
Perhaps the most grievous social media error was made by the Mail Online, which reported a lorry had ploughed into pedestrians.
The article quoted a tweet which said as much, however...
... as Mr Smallbone later pointed out himself.
The Mail Online was roundly condemned.
Also adding to the confusion were the usual suspects, jumping to conclusions about the perpetrators of an attack that may or may not have even happened at this point.
A writer for notorious conspiracy website Infowars gave a running commentary on “out of control” London and then, without any hint of irony, had a go at the Mail Online for reporting “before any facts are known”.
MEANWHILE IN SELFRIDGES...
About a mile from Oxford Street Tube, questions were beginning to emerge over just what happened inside the massive London department store.
ASSESSING THE SITUATION
The next 30 minutes or so saw police take the precaution of keeping people away from the area whilst they attempted to figure out what had caused the alarm.
On the ground, those caught up in the panic had little idea what was going on and reporters talking to them by phone found themselves in the odd situation of updating them on the situation.
Dotti Irving, who was shopping in Fenwicks on Bond Street at the time, told HuffPost UK: “The doorman instantly shut the door and I thought ’if there’s a bomb or someone coming down Bond Street, I don’t want to be in Fenwicks. So I went out of the side door and just rushed down Bond Street and every so often there would be a raft of 200-300 people rushing down the street shrinking and screaming and falling over, pushing each over. That was the horrible bit.
“I called my daughter and she said ‘get into a building’, so I went into Browns in Maddox Street where they were taking everybody in, everyone was really super. We were really looked after. They didn’t want us to leave until we got the all-clear. It was absolutely coming together, it’s the old Blitz thing isn’t it? People talk to each other when they usually simply don’t in London.
“I saw a lot of people being knocked over by other people, a woman with a horrible gash on her head, somebody else was trampled but her boyfriend picked her up.
“Just sheer panic.”
At 5:42pm, little under an hour after the incident began, police revealed they had not found any evidence of gunshots.
BACK IN SELFRIDGES...
A clearly shocked Murs was still trying to understand what had caused the panic.
IT’S OFFICIALLY ALL OVER
At 7:04pm the Met Police stood down their response, cordons were lifted and the affected tube stations were reopened.
And grateful Londoners were quick to praise the response of the police.
Just after 10pm, the BTP revealed the incident at Oxford Circus Tube that sparked the mass evacuation was caused by an “altercation” between two men.
It was also confirmed the only reported injuries during the event were caused by the panic itself and not any incident the police were responding to.
Nine people were taken to hospital, another seven were treated at the scene.
For the stunned Murs, the evening wasn’t quite over. Perhaps in a sign London was returning to normal, as his name quickly replaced the “Oxford Street” trend itself.
Plenty of other people also leapt to his defence.
Murs spent the later evening locked in a heated debate with Piers Morgan but the pair appear to have made friends.
And the Mail Online issued an apology. The Mail’s statement read:
As in any major incident these days, social media was awash with confused reports from Oxford Circus tonight, many of which turned out to be inaccurate.
It is the job of the mainstream media to strike a balance between reflecting what is being reported from the scene without spreading false facts.
And, despite the fast-moving situation, reporting this particular information that was not in line with the mass of eye-witness reports was a grave error.
The failure was swiftly spotted internally and the story containing the inaccurate information was only live for exactly seven minutes.
Nevertheless MailOnline deeply regrets that it was ever published at all, however briefly, and has instituted an urgent inquiry to establish exactly how it happened.