Passengers return to Tokyo's subway, with jitters

March 22, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Newly printed warnings asking for vigilance greeted Tokyo subway passengers today as the city tried to regain its confidence after a nerve agent attack Monday that has so far left 10 people dead and nearly 5,000 injured.

The attack remained a mystery, as authorities sought to determine the exact nature of the poison and waited for some individual or group to claim responsibility for the at tack or to hint at a motive.

The poison, tentatively identified as the nerve agent sarin, had leaked from at least five containers innocuously wrapped in newspapers, and the incident has introduced a note of terror into a part of life previously known only for numbing ordinariness.

Tokyo subway riders, who usually display uncanny abilities to snooze through lengthy trips only to awaken seconds before arriving at their station, have begun to display a nervous alertness more typical of commuters in Manhattan.

"I'm worried," said Umi Hasagawa, 19, who was disembarking at Kamiyacho, one of the train stations affected by the nerve agent. To leave the station, she had to step over the puddles left by detoxification activities conducted since Monday. Other passengers wore chemically treated face masks.

In each subway car, passengers heard the usual station announcements, but also a new, second recording, this one an apology for the disruption of service.

The recorded voice expressed sorrow for the dead and injured and offered passengers the following advice: "In case you find a dangerous or unidentified item, don't touch it. Inform the station staff."

A printed version of the message was posted at every station.

Trash cans were removed from every station to eliminate possible hiding places, and ventilation systems seemed to be operating at full force to provide a constant draft.

Thousands of riders telephoned station managers and were assured that conditions were normal.

That the three affected subway lines reopened yesterday defied initial forecasts by authorities, who had predicting a far longer cleanup. The government, aware of its disastrous failure to respond promptly to the January earthquake in Kobe, moved decisively, shunning its traditional reluctance to call in the military.

Authorities quickly called on troops with training in chemical warfare. And in an unusual effort to skirt the numerous restrictions imposed on Japan's defense forces, police escorted military vehicles through Tokyo traffic.

Most of the injured were meanwhile being discharged from the 85 Tokyo hospitals pressed into emergency service. Many of the injured were still suffering a loss of vision and loss of coordination.

Most of those affected will recover fully, doctors said, but at least 75 people remained hospitalized in critical condition.

When leaving the hospitals, patients were given plastic bags containing the clothes they had been wearing on the subway, and plastic bags with their briefcases and whatever else they had carried. They were told to throw everything away.

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