Visitors to London West End ran and hid, two tube stations were closed and armed police raced to scene after incident
An altercation between two men appears to have triggered the outbreak of mass panic in London on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, leading to people fleeing in fear, armed police being deployed and a section of the West End being evacuated.
British Transport Police issued a CCTV appeal for information about two men believed to be involved in a fight in Oxford Circus tube station on Friday afternoon as part of their inquiries into the cause of the panic.
Nine people were injured as hundreds ran to escape what they believed to be an attack on Friday evening, only to find it was a false alarm. The reaction was a sign of just how jittery many have become at the end of a year in which the capital and Manchester have been targeted by five terrorist attacks.
Sophia Smith, a witness to the fight, told the Guardian an altercation on a Victoria line platform panicked travellers and caused people to start running.
Young boys with a few girls were attacking each other and everyone screamed and began to run, she said. I escaped through the exit along with hundreds of other people and some women were on the floor and shoes were falling off and shopping bags. It was absolutely terrifying.
The incident began just after 4.30pm and centred on the tube station, where a number of passengers began to flee believing that they had heard gunshots.
As they fled, so did other passengers inside the station. As the crowds spilled out on to Oxford Street, hundreds of Christmas shoppers also started to run.
Within minutes, Oxford Street and Bond Street underground stations were both closed and Scotland Yard was issuing alerts on Twitter, warning people in the area to get inside the nearest building and stay there.
If you are in a building stay in a building, if you are on the street in Oxford Street leave the area, the Met police said.
The panic appears to have been spread not only by the sight of fleeing crowds and word of mouth, but by incorrect reports on social media.
Inside nearby pubs and restaurants, people crowded into the cellars, while shop staff moved customers away from the doors and windows.
There was a mass stampede of people running and trying to get away as quickly as they could, said the BBC producer Helen Bushby, who was in the area. They were crying, they were screaming, they were dropping their shopping bags. It was a very panicked scene. A couple of people said they thought it was a gunshot or a fire.
Another witness said he saw an elderly woman and a man carrying a child knocked over in the rush. There were people running in all directions, he said.
At Westminster University, a few hundred metres from Oxford Circus, students and staff were locked in. I was in class and there was a helicopter, lots of ambulances and police cars, said Andrea Acedo, 21. Then I heard that someone was shooting people but we didnt know where, so they had to lock down the university so no one could come in.
Armed police were on the scene within minutes and a police helicopter hovered overhead. But after searching the area for almost an hour, police announced that no suspects had been found and there was no evidence of any shots having been fired.
The London ambulance service said several people sustained injuries in the rush to escape from the area. Eight people were taken to London hospitals for treatment for minor injuries, and one person was taken to a major trauma centre after sustaining leg injuries.
After the stations were reopened and police cordons lifted, the Met and the British Transport Police said their response had been stood down.
Given the nature of the information received, we responded as if the incident was terrorism, including the deployment of armed officers, the Met said.
The transport police said there had been a significant level of panic in the area.
Police released a CCTV image of the two men believed to be involved in the altercation and said officers would now like to speak to these two people in the CCTV images, who they believe may have information about the incident and the circumstances around the incident. They would also like to speak to anyone who was at the station or in the area at the time and saw or heard anything that would have caused mass evacuation.
Although some stores remained closed after the panic, most of the Oxford Circus area returned to normal.
At Pontis Italian Kitchen, a few metres from the tube station, customers sheltering in the basement erupted in applause when a waitress announced that there had been no terrorist incident.
People returned to their evening commute and the Evening Standard distributors returned to their newsstands.
Four terrorist attacks in London this year have left 18 dead and 137 injured. A further 22 people were killed by a suicide bomber in Manchester.
The UK terrorism threat level is set at severe, meaning an attack is assessed to be highly likely.
Anyone with any information should contact British Transport Police on 0800 40 50 40 or text 61016 citing reference 405 of 24/11.