Melbourne crash: Driver who ploughed into Flinders Street crowds has history of mental health issues
A crazed 32-year-old man deliberately drove a car through a crowd at one of Melbourne’s busiest intersections in an “evil” act that left 19 people injured and raised fresh questions about the adequacy of security measures to protect pedestrians. In an horrific incident that occurred less than a year after a driver killed six people in a nearby pedestrian mall, a driver aimed his white SUV at a pedestrian crossing outside Flinders Street station, one of the city’s main transport hubs. The incident occurred at 4.41pm during the busy pre-Christmas shopping rush. Police said the driver, an Australian citizen of Afghan descent, had a history of drug use and mental health problems and was not believed to have been motivated by extremism. Wearing jeans and a white t-shirt, the man crashed the car into a tram stop before an off-duty sergeant who was passing by rushed to the vehicle, fighting with the man before subduing him. Both men were injured. Describing the incident, a German tourist staying at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel, which overlooks the scene, told The Telegraph she “heard people screaming” and observed the chaos through her tenth-floor window. The scene in Flinders Street, Melbourne, after the SUV rammed into pedestrians Credit: Twitter/sirVIX_a_lot “We saw people rush to the victims and help them with first aid,” she said. “It impressed me because I think I would have run away from fear.” A store owner near the scene told ABC Radio: “The only thing that seemed to be slowing him down was the amount of pedestrians he had hit. All you could hear was just 'bang bang bang bang bang'.” The horrific incident has raised fresh questions about how to secure busy mid-city thoroughfares, particularly as it occurred just a short stroll away from Bourke Street, where a driver killed six people in January. The driver of the SUV is arrested by police after the crash Credit: LachlanVe/Twitter Following that incident, authorities installed temporary concrete bollards across the city. They are due to be replaced by permanent barriers in the coming months. Some witnesses questioned whether bollards could have been placed closer to the location of the latest incident. “Taxpayers money has been spent on bollards and look, it’s happened again,” one person told Channel Nine. However, most commentators said bollards could not have prevented the incident, which occurred at an intersection. After the driver of the SUV was arrested, police held a second man outside Flinders Street station Credit: Andrew Lund /PA Daniel Andrews, Victoria’s state premier, said authorities would consider further security measures after reviewing the incident but noted that it was virtually impossible to protect some thoroughfares. “We have delivered temporary and permanent solutions where that is possible,” he said. “But there are some features of our city, to make them completely and utterly safe from terrible, horrific, one-off events like this, would be to change the nature of the city for everybody forever.” The incident occurred on a cloudless sunny day as Christmas shoppers and tourists were out in force. Two men were arrested after the white SUV hit a number of pedestrians Credit: Australian Broadcast Corp/AP Half an hour after the incident, locals suggested that normality had already returned and that an attack of this nature was not totally unexpected. People calmly walked from the scene, talking on their telephones, without any sign of panic. The area was cordoned off, although tourists were allowed to return to their hotels. Aside from the driver, a 24-year-old man was arrested after he was seen filming the incident on a mobile phone and was searched by police, who found three knives in his bag. However, police said last night he did not appear to be connected to the driver, who was believed to have acted alone. Emergency medical workers treat people injured in the Melbourne crash Credit: Australian Broadcasting Corp/AP “We don’t have at this time any evidence or intelligence to indicate a connection with terrorism,” said Victorian acting police commissioner Shane Patton. “One of the key aspects we are exploring is in respect to mental health backgrounds and drug use in respect of this individual.” Mr Andrews, the state premier, heralded the heroism of the off-duty sergeant who arrested the driver. “We would be right to single him out for special praise for the way in which he instinctively came to the aid of others,” he said. The white SUV collided with a tram stop bollard after hitting pedestrians Credit: MAL FAIRCLOUGH /AFP “At a time of the year when so many families are celebrating the end to the, doing their Christmas shopping, making plans for what should we are festive season, we have seen a horrific act, an evil act, an act of cowardice.” In January, James Gargasoulas, 27, mowed down passengers in nearby Bourke Street, later claiming he was having a mental breakdown and was under the influence of “the illuminati”. Police said there was no known connection between the incidents. 'It just mowed everybody down': Screams... then 'people flying everywhere' One witness, called Sue, told Melbourne radio station 3AW that she heard screams before she saw "people flying everywhere". "We could hear this noise, as we looked left, we saw this white car, it just mowed everybody down," she said. "People are flying everywhere. We heard thump, thump. People are running everywhere." Injured pedestrians are treated moments after the crash Credit: Andrew Lund /PA Citing other witnesses, Sky News Australia said the white Suzuki SUV was driven into the crowd before crashing. Another witness, John, told ABC Radio Melbourne that he saw a "SUV coming at high speed". "(I) really just heard the collision with people with bags and what must be shopping trolleys - and I hope not prams," he said. "I've really never seen anything like this before and I haven't stopped shaking." Suzuki 'travelling at 60mph': 'There was no braking... no slowing down' According to the Australian Associated Press, a witness said the Suzuki was travelling at around 60mph. "The intersection was full of pedestrians and he just ploughed through," the witness named Jim told ABC TV. "The only thing that slowed him down was him hitting pedestrians. There was no braking, there was no slowing down." A heavily armed police officer stands guard as emergency services work at the scene of the Melbourne crash Credit: MAL FAIRCLOUGH /AFP A woman called Nicola told ABC News she initially thought a bomb had gone off. She said: "I was waiting for the train and there was a big bang and lots of screaming. "I thought it must be a bomb. I could just see dust rising and we were told to get away and stay in the station." 'All you could hear was bang bang bang bang bang' Authorities evacuated surrounding buildings and have offered counselling to traumatised bystanders. A shop owner near the scene said: “The only thing that seemed to be slowing him down was the amount of pedestrians he had hit.” "All you could hear was just 'bang bang bang bang bang'," he told ABC Radio. The bonnet of the Suzuki SUV was crumpled when it crashed into a bollard Credit: AAP/Joe Castro/Reuters Chris Gath, another witness, said: “I saw a car ploughing into many people and bodies flying everywhere." “I heard it first and then I turned around and saw lots of bodies on the floor,” he told The Age. “I just freaked and ran." Kyra Gillespie was one of "hundreds of people" who were told to get off trams near the area following the incident. She told ABC News: "I think everyone is a little bit shaken up by the experience. Lots of people were phoning their loved ones to tell them they were OK." 'It was mayhem': The 15 horrifying seconds Lachlan Read told the Herald Sun the whole incident lasted about 15 seconds. "It was bang, bang, bang. It was just one after the other," the 20-year-old said. "The last bang the car stopped." "There were bodies on the ground and people running up to them - it was mayhem. It is definitely something you don't expect to see on Flinders Street." First week of school summer holidays in Melbourne It was the first week of school summer holidays in Victoria and the area was busy with Christmas shoppers. Elton Hindoli, who works at an off-licence by the scene of the incident, told the Herald Sun that a man who was pulled from the car appeared to be unconscious. The area around Flinders Street station is one of Melbourne's busiest intersections and was busy with Christmas shoppers Credit: Kaitlyn Offer/AAP/AP "A girl came into the shop and she was very upset," he said. "She said a guy in a big car had hit about six people. "He hit the people then crashed into the tram area in the middle of the road." A man who was working in a nearby shop and was at the scene before emergency services arrived said: "There was no screaming, just people lying there." Police chief: Driver was known to police; second man might not be connected The driver of the car was detained by an off-duty police officer, who was later taken to hospital with injuries not believed to be critical. Victoria Police chief Shane Patton told a Press conference there had been "somewhat of a fight between" the driver and officer. He added: "We have reviewed the footage and are satisfied that he was driving the car without anyone else present. He has be taken to hospital as a result of the incident, as has the police officer. "He is a person known to Victoria Police. He has historical assault matters an has a history of drug use as well as mental health issues. We understand that was on a mental health plan and receiving treatment." He added: "We do not at this time have any intelligence to indicate that there is a connection to terrorism." Police officers detain the man suspected of driving the car outside Flinders Street station Credit: LACHLANVE/Twitter/Reuters The second man held in connection with the incident was seen filming it on a mobile phone "and also had a bag that had some knives in it", Mr Patton said, but added that it appears he might not be connected. He added: "We don't yet have any relationship established between the 24-year-old man who was taking a video, who was arrested at the scene, and the driver. In fact there may be no relationship between them. "But, obviously, at a significant scene like this he was taken into custody because of the circumstances so we can explore it. It may well be that person is exonerated from any involvement in this in the end, and that's probable at this stage." He was not known to police, Mr Patton added. Victoria Police statement after 'deliberate act' Victoria Police said the SUV had collided with "a number of pedestrians" on Flinders Street, a busy junction in the city centre. The force said in a statement: "Police have saturated the CBD (central business district) area following an incident where a car has collided with a number of pedestrians on Flinders Street. Melbourne crash locator "The incident occurred when the vehicle struck a number of pedestrians in front of Flinders Street Station just after 4.30pm. "The driver of the vehicle and a second man have been arrested and are in police custody. "A number of people were treated at the scene for a range of injuries and have been transported to hospital." In a tweet, police appealed to members of the public to upload any images they might have of the incident to a cloud address to help assist with their investigation. A police cordon outside Flinders Street in the centre Melbourne Credit: Melanie Burton/REUTERS Police later said it was a deliberate act, but that it was too early to comment on whether or not it was a terrorist incident. Commander Russell Barrett told reporters: "Police arrived at the scene within minutes and arrested two men. At this stage we have 14 people injured and several are critical. "At this stage we believe it is a deliberate act, however we do not know the motivation and it is still the early stages of the investigation. "Police and emergency service will remain on scene for the foreseeable future. The crime scene will be in place for a considerable amount of the time." State premier: City will not be defined by this Daniel Andrews, the state premier of Victoria, told a Press conference the city would not be "defined by these sorts of incidents". "I am confident that we will go about our business and we will celebrate Christmas, we will be at the Boxing Day Test, Carols By Candlelight and we will spend what should be a joyous time with people that we love," he said. "But we will all spare a thought for those that have been touched and, indeed, ever changed by the evil and cowardly scenes in Flinders Street today." Politicians' shock at 'shocking' scenes Australian politicians have condemned the "horrendous" and "shocking" scenes in Melbourne. Malcolm Turnbull, the country's Prime Minister, said his "thoughts and prayers" were with those injured in the crash as well as those who rushed to help. He wrote on Twitter: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and the emergency and health workers who are treating them." As our federal & state police & security agencies work together to secure the scene and investigate this shocking incident our thoughts & prayers are with the victims & the emergency & health workers who are treating them. https://t.co/JkUM9TuIQe— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) December 21, 2017 Daniel Andrews, premier of the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, described it as a "horrible incident", adding: "Stay safe. Check on your loved ones. And thank you to our brave emergency services." Bill Shorten, leader of the opposition in the Australian Parliament, referred to the crash as an "atrocity", tweeting: "Shocking scenes in Melbourne this afternoon." Shocking scenes in Melbourne this afternoon. Credit to first responders who are doing us proud once again. Thinking of everyone caught up in this atrocity.— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) December 21, 2017 New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern offered her support, after the "shocking incident": My thoughts are with Australia and the people of Melbourne- such a shocking incident this afternoon. Thinking of all the victims and their families.— Jacinda Ardern (@jacindaardern) December 21, 2017 A statement issued by the City of Melbourne local authority said: "Our emergency services, including Victoria Police, have control of this situation. We have every confidence in them to protect Melbourne in such horrific circumstances. "We have the best advice available to us and we will continue to work with the State Government and Victoria Police to keep people safe. "At this time our thoughts are with those most affected and of course we will work with agencies to provide immediate and long-term support to them." England cricket squad 'accounted for and safe' The England cricket squad and management - who are in Melbourne for the Boxing Day Ashes Test - are all safe, the England and Wales Cricket Board said. A brief statement read: "Following the Flinders Street incident in Melbourne, all players and management have been accounted for and are safe." The fourth Test is scheduled to get under way on Tuesday at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, around a mile from the scene of Thursday's incident. Concrete bollards installed after six pedestrians killed in January The incident came months after a car struck pedestrians in Bourke Street, Melbourne's busiest shopping centre, in January, killing six people. The driver, whose case is still being heard in court, had allegedly been pursued by police on suspicion of stabbing his brother. Six people were killed when a car hit pedestrians in January Credit: AAP/Luke Costin/REUTERS After the crash, officials installed concrete bollards in various locations of the city - including Flinders Street - in an attempt to prevent similar incidents. Melbourne has had several terrorist attacks and foiled plots in recent years. Vehicle attacks a major challenge for security services Authorities are still working to establish the motivation behind the Melbourne crash, but the scenes in the Australian city echo attacks in a string of countries in the last year and a half. The use of cars, vans and lorries has emerged as a major challenge for security services and counter-terror agencies around the world. The potential for vehicles to inflict mass casualties was laid bare in July last year when a lorry drove through crowds gathered to celebrate Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86 people and injuring scores more. Scores of people were killed when a truck ploughed into Bastille Day revelers in Nice in July 2016 Credit: Sasha Goldsmith/AP Security experts say the tactic is difficult to prevent, while a flurry of later incidents prompted suggestions in the UK that van rental could be subject to more stringent checks. Police have appealed for vehicle hire and haulage firms with suspicions to come forward. Earlier this year, the Government said the Department for Transport was working with the police and industry to explore what could be done to prevent "malicious" use of hire vehicles. Reports suggested one option could see rental firms share drivers' data with authorities so the information can be checked against terror watchlists. Terror timeline - Ramming attacks involving vehicles Physical security measures have also been stepped up at locations such as bridges and city centres in response to the threat, while guidance for armed police has been tweaked to take account of the trend. Previously, firearms officers had the option of shooting at a moving vehicle, but this was discouraged as it was felt it could increase the risk to the public. The approach was revised so that firing at a car, van or lorry when it is on the move is an accepted tactic for such incidents. Spate of attacks using vehicles as a weapon The Melbourne incident follows a spate of attacks in major cities in Europe and the US in recent months in which terrorists have used vehicles as a weapon again innocent people: Eighty-six people were killed in Nice in July 2016 when a lorry was driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day. Twelve people died in December last year when a truck was driven at crowds at a Christmas market in Berlin. Four pedestrians and a police officer were killed by Khalid Masood in the Westminster Bridge attack in March. In June, eight people were killed and 48 injured when three terrorists ploughed into pedestrians on London Bridge then went on a knife rampage in Borough Market. Thirteen people were killed when a van was driven down Barcelona's Las Ramblas in August In October, eight died in a truck attack in New York.