Acid attacks: Police stage gruesome mock-up at Cargo to get Hackney nightclubs to plan for the worst
PUBLISHED: 14:33 23 November 2017 | UPDATED: 14:53 23 November 2017
The horrific aftermath of an acid attack was demonstrated to hospitality managers at a real nightclub to make them think about the new and emerging threat - and how they would react if one took place in their venue. Emma Bartholomew reports on Project Diffuse.
A crowd of 150 was listening to counter terrorism officer Neil Parham explain how crucial the first few minutes can be following an acid attack. Then the man struck.
Using a Jiffy lemon squeezer he sprayed a liquid around the packed Cargo nightclub in Rivington Street. Three men fell to the floor, shouting and writhing in pain from the horrific raw injuries to their necks, backs and faces as the acid ate away at their flesh.
Bouncers rushed in to help, pouring water on the injuries before police, fire and ambulance crews arrived minutes later.
Although the injuries looked real, they had been created by professional make-up artists.
Neil organised the mock-to encourage businesses to consider and plan for the new emerging threat, following the rise in acid being used as a weapon on our streets.
“The beginning of an acid attack is terrible,” he told security staff and managers of nightclubs, bars, pubs like the Old Blue Last and hotels like Nobu and the Marriott.
“The beginning of a response to an acid attack doesn’t start with the fire brigade or police or ambulance service. It starts with you.
“Plastic surgeons say they can’t fix damage from an acid attack at hospital – the ability to minimise that injury starts with what happens at the scene, and it might be two, three or six long minutes until we turn up.”
Water is key.
It flushes away and dilutes the acid that reacts with fat tissues under the skin. The club was virtually flooded when the enactment finished after 20 minutes.
Afterwards, police borough commander Simon Laurence urged the delegation to think of how they could have “copious amounts” of water on hand to deal with the situation before emergency crews arrive.
But people need to be careful not to make the injuries worse by spreading the acid, he warned – as his teams had learned from the case of Arthur Collins, who wounded 16 in the Mangle E8 nightclub earlier this year.
“You need to bend down and let it drip off naturally,” he said. “People went to bathroom and washed their face and reapplied the acid. One lady had water poured over her and the corrosive substance settled in her underwired bra and caused burns to her chest. Acid will pool in folds of skin and that’s when serious injuries will happen.
“If the argument is between dignity and third degree burns or worse, I would think most of us would rather a bit of indignity for a few moments.”
But he added: “What can you do to stop it from happening in the first place? What are your search regimes like?
"Plastic surgeons say they can’t fix damage from an acid attack at hospital – the ability to minimise that injury starts with what happens at the scene, and it might be two, three or six long minutes until we turn up"
“In Collins’ case, the acid was clearly in a bottle small enough that you couldn’t see it in his hands in the CCTV.
“People are allowed to carry fluid into clubs like perfumes or lighters but are they prepared to do a skin test?”
Businesses were advised to stock up on kits with goggles, gloves and scissors, which can be used to cut off victims’ clothes.
Hackney’s fire borough commander Rodney Vitalis said, if clothes have melted into the skin, the best thing is to pour on water rather than pull them off, which could take skin off too.
He warned first aiders they must be careful not to become victims themselves, and that three pairs of gloves layered up could provide protection for a few minutes.
“The acid searches out fats in body cells and keeps corroding the longer it is there,” he said.
“Acid will keep burning so keep irrigating as mush as possible. To get pH neutral of 7 you need thousands of litres of water.
“People who have had acid in the face will try and get it out by vomiting or spitting or coughing, which expels it out. You know if they sneeze, the first liquid which comes out could contaminate you, and then you become a victim who has an injury to take care of, and it cascades into a bigger incident,” he said.
An expert in corrosive substances from the Met described how he had seen detailed photos of victims who had been treated in the first few minutes after an attack and another who hadn’t.
“One of them had had early treatment with water after they ran into a shop, and the other didn’t get access for at least seven minutes until emergency services arrived,” he said.
“While the injuries were the same at the start, one year on while the first had visible injuries the scarring and impact was so much less.”
Although acid attacks only account for 0.5pc of all violent crime across London, the Met is treating them with the same severity as knife and gun crime. There have been 450 acid offences so far this year, an average of eight a week.
“The impact will always be severe on the victim both physically and mentally, and that’s why it’s so important you guys are prepared and aware,” he said.
He has been tasked with looking how to change legislation to prevent future attacks.
“We did see acid being used in the UK back in Victorian times with women throwing it onto unfaithful men in the 18th century.
"This is the worst nightmare you could possibly have to encounter."
“There is certainly a deep history in Asia and Bangladesh, up until two years ago, but they reduced offending from 700 to 60 or 70 a year – by bringing in strong sentences of 15 years for shopkeepers selling acid.”
Manager of The Nest in Stoke Newington Road, Dan Proxy, told the Gazette an acid attack is the “number one fear we face as a business”.
“This is the worst nightmare you could possibly have to encounter, being the person who is responsible for everyone’s safety in a venue,” he said.
“These are actors so you can only imagine trying to deal with the panic and fear in a real life situation.
“Seeing it is pretty horrific but straight away we are formulating operational plans with the layout of the venue and how to best respond.
“We are going to add more bottles ready to go, and designate someone to be a tap person to start the chain so there is a constant supply, but these are very early thoughts. It’s clear one of the managers is going to have to evacuate while the other is dealing with the incident.”
Neil said acid is an emerging threat “we are all getting our heads around”. “It takes time to develop counter tactics and it takes law time to adjust to counter that new issue,” he said.
“The world as we know is a changing place, and the closer we work as a community the safer we will be.”