It’s 4.40pm on the Thursday afternoon before Christmas when the white Suzuki roars on to the Flinders St tram tracks in Melbourne, Australia.
After sitting in traffic four cars back, the SUV pulls out to its right and into the clear as it accelerates towards an intersection packed with shoppers, commuters and tourists.
The corner of Flinders St and Elizabeth St is the city’s only example of what traffic engineers call a “scramble” crossing, where pedestrians can walk safely in any direction as all cars come to a stop.
CAROLINE KILLEEN/FAIRFAX AUSTRALIA
But now they are scrambling for their lives as the rampaging vehicle speeds towards them, seemingly out of nowhere. It strikes one, two, three people … no-one knows how many in the first few moments of madness.
Glenn James hangs up the phone to his partner and is about to step on to Flinders St when he hears an almighty bang followed by some smaller thuds.
“I look up straight away and just see all these bodies flying everywhere,” the aquarium educator recalls. “Like literally flying everywhere.”
The car ploughs into a white pole stationed at the front of a tram stop in a screaming crush of metal.
Its front right quarter is crumpled in and the windscreen is a spider’s web of cracks. Fluid from the destroyed engine pours on to the ground.
There’s a woman stricken on the asphalt trying to sit up. James tells her to “just lay down, stay down, don’t move”.
“My partner is a nurse so she taught me a little bit about triage so if they’re breathing, they’re usually pretty good so move onto someone who isn’t moving,” he says.
The next person James sees is a man lying face-down, but two other people are heading to him so James keeps moving.
He decides to concentrate on the car, “the guy that did it”. Two other men walk towards the car too.
They open the door to find a man in a white T-shirt and blue jeans sitting upright in the driver’s seat. He is unconscious.
James can’t get to him from the driver’s side, so he goes to the passenger side.
“I could smell fumes,” he says. “I thought, ‘Is this a terrorist attack? What if there’s a bomb in the car that hasn’t gone off yet?”
His companions try to pull the man out of the driver’s side but are having a hard time of it. James starts to push him out from the passenger side.
“Another guy said, ‘Leave him in the car, leave him in the car’.”
A member of the public jumps in and starts helping, and that’s when the first uniform police officer arrives.
“Where’s the guy? In the driver’s seat?” the officer asks.
Within 15 seconds, members of Victoria Police’s critical incident response team are there. In total 70 officers will respond to the attack. Incredibly, 16 of them are new recruits on their first day.
They begin to clear the scene, telling people to evacuate and cordoning off the area.
One of the more experienced responders is an off-duty sergeant who injures his hand and shoulder after rushing to detain the driver.
Two officers drag him out of the car to the gutter of Flinders St. One checks for his pulse before they put him into handcuffs.
A bystander yells at them: “He should have no right to be alive, that a……”. In the din of sirens, another man calls out asking if anyone needs a doctor.
It feels natural for people to get out their phones and start filming. A bearded man in a red checked shirt does this and is searched by police, who find three knives and some marijuana.
Those watching on think he must be involved but police later rule out any connection between him and the driver.
The sight is so awful that Melbourne artist Godwin Bradbeer can hardly bear to look too closely. He can see six or seven people scattered on the ground, perhaps more.
He is scared to see too much.
The first two victims in front of him are middle-aged men lying in the foetal position. Both are bleeding from the head. He thinks they look unconscious and close to death.
He sits down beside one of them and holds the man’s feet and hip, trying to give him comfort, as other people tend to his head.
It’s a scene replicated across the intersection, groups of people coming to the aid of strangers.
There is a woman, perhaps in her 40s. She calls out, wanting them to call someone for her, but she can’t remember their number.
“I wasn’t even able to call their friend, so I felt a bit useless,” Godwin says.
He wanders across the road picking up possessions that have been scattered everywhere – a handbag, a couple of shoes, some sunglasses. With another bystander, he puts them in a pile, trying to do something helpful.
He takes one photo. In a moment, he looks to the west down Flinders St and sees the man in the white T-shirt and blue jeans as he is being arrested.
“Because the officer had an automatic weapon, I assumed he was the perpetrator,” he says.
“I wasn’t there being a voyeur but I thought, ‘I should photograph this’.”
It felt like walking in the eye of a hurricane, a calm scene amongst the chaos.
“It was really like skittles – over in one hit,” he says.
After police tell him to get back, James also starts filming. Then he switches his phone off, walks to the station and jumps on the train to head to the police station to make a statement.
Ambulances flood the area and start transporting the injured to emergency rooms across Melbourne.
Many of the victims are travellers from overseas, visiting Melbourne from New Zealand, South Korea, China, Italy, Indian, Venezuela and Ireland at Christmas time.
The streets surrounding the incident are put into lockdown as the city wonders how something like this could happen twice in one year.
“I broke down crying on the train,” James says. “It was impossible not to after seeing all those bodies. Everyone just went flying.”
Later, reality kicks in for the father of two. “I’m feeling pretty s… to be honest,” he says.
“I know what I did was a huge thing. It took a lot of balls to go and approach the driver without knowing.
“But I still feel like I could’ve done more. You feel helpless because this happened.”
– The Age