Nerve agent overwhelms commuters Attack bewilders Tokyo A MORNING OF TERROR

March 21, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Even as the coughing, the headaches, the nausea and the dizziness spread through Tokyo's trains during the morning rush hour yesterday, commuters conditioned to expect punctual and safe service said urban terrorism was the last thing on their minds.

"There was never any panic, never any terror -- we had no idea what it was," said David Pearson, a 47-year-old Australian banker, as he groggily awaited a chest X-ray in a central Tokyo hospital. "There was just the personal fright of losing control of your senses."

In the aftermath of an unprecedented chemical attack that killed eight in the Tokyo subway system, the hallways of most of the inner-city hospitals were jammed with dazed men in business suits and women in company uniforms. More than 4,700 people were treated for related ailments.

Yesterday began normally enough for tens of thousands of commuters as they stuffed into crowded cars for the trip to work. The potential for claustrophobia common to underground systems is alleviated in Tokyo by good lighting and ventilation.

Like hundreds of other international executives, Mr. Pearson got on the 8 a.m. Hibiya Line train in the wealthy neighborhood of Hiroo. The ride normally takes Mr. Pearson 20 minutes as the train passes under the most expensive real estate in the world on its way to his final destination across from the Imperial Palace.

But this was no normal day.

When the train pulled into the station in Kamiyacho, an area filled with expensive new offices, it made a pause that broke its clockwork routine.

People started to cough, Mr. Pearson noticed, and a man was taken off one car ahead. "My first impression was that he had a heart attack," he said. "No one knew to suspect nerve gas."

More potent than cyanide

In this case, the suspected nerve agent was Sarin, a straw-colored, odorless nerve gas that is 25 times more potent than cyanide.

An assistant station manager at the Kamiyacho station picked ++ up what appeared to be a box leaking a liquid but actually was a specially prepared container. He removed it from the train. The direct contact was fatal. He died soon after.

Unaware of the danger, Mr. Pearson considered staying on his train, as did many passengers, but he began to lose control of his legs and his vision started to diminish.

There was a scent in the air similar to warmed plastic, he said. Later, authorities said this was a stabilizing agent used to make Sarin transportable.

Disembarking from the train, he stumbled up a short flight of stairs, passing others who couldn't make the climb and were seated on the step.

"I thought if I kept walking I'd be OK," Mr. Pearson said. "I wasn't."

His vision and coordination got progressively worse. A cab took him to the office where a co-worker said he appeared almost intoxicated.

A doctor in the office building suspected poisoning and sent him to the hospital, where he was injected with an antidote. After several hours he began to recover a bit, but his vision and his balance remained poor.

Others had similar stories.

Masuo Konno, a construction company executive, boarded what might have been Mr. Pearson's train at Ebisu station, the stop prior to where the banker got on.

Mr. Konno said he encountered a small box wrapped in newspaper that appeared to be leaking a syrupy liquid. He remembered the package because the seat behind the box was empty, an extraordinary occurrence given the crush.

The riders on the Hibiya Line are well-dressed, and perhaps they feared staining their work clothes, he thought.

Smelled like paint thinner

As the train moved and shook, the substance oozed toward the executive. It smelled of paint thinner, a product he knew well because of his work. He switched cars and then disembarked at Roppongi, the stop before Komiyacho, feeling fine.

Mr. Konno's 8:30 meeting began well, but within 10 minutes his vision began to fail and it became hard to breathe. He thought it might be the onset of a heart attack. A co-worker told him about television reports of nerve gas in the subway system.

"I was stunned," he said. "I could talk and I could walk, so I didn't think I was going to die, but now I'm worried about aftereffects."

Rie Izawa, a young office worker, was riding the Hibiya Line in the opposite direction from Mr. Pearson and Mr. Konno, coming from a distant suburb. At Kodenmacho, a station on the fringe of the government and business district, an announcement came over the subway speakers that there had been an explosion on the train.

Still feeling well, Ms. Izawa tried to telephone her office from inside the station. There was no thought that the danger was in the air. But the line of callers was too long. She returned to the train, expecting that it would continue.

But after waiting inside the car, Ms. Izawa saw the poison begin to have an impact. People lay down on the station platform, unable to move. A few people screamed, she said.

Pressing a handkerchief around her mouth, she left the station and walked several miles to her office in the government district of Kasumigaseki, then to a nearby hospital.

Subways are a fact of life in Japan, allowing millions of people to move through a congested city in a congested country. Today, she will return to the hospital for another checkup, and then to work. "I have no choice," she said.

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