A white van jumped up onto a sidewalk and sped down a pedestrian zone in Barcelona’s historic Las Ramblas district Thursday, swerving from side to side as it plowed into tourists and residents. Calling it a terror attack, police said at least one person was killed and 32 were wounded, many seriously.
The attack left dozens of people sprawled out on the ground in the city in northeastern Spain, some spattered with blood and others coping with broken limbs. As witnesses and emergency workers tried to help the wounded, police brandishing hand guns launched a search of side streets amid reports that at least one perpetrator and maybe more were holed up in a nearby bar.
A few hours later, Spanish public broadcaster RTVE announced that one suspect in the Barcelona van attack had been arrested. Authorities provided no immediate information on the person or on who might be behind the attack.
“We can only confirm one death and 32 injured, some seriously, so unfortunately the number of fatalities will likely rise,” Joaquim Forn, the regional interior chief who is in charge of the police, told reporters Thursday evening.
Local media reported up to 13 dead. They did not name their sources.
Police immediately cordoned off the city’s broad Las Rambles avenue, which is popular with tourists, and ordered stores and nearby Metro and train stations to close. They asked people to stay away from the area so as not to get in the way of emergency services. A helicopter hovered over the scene.
Quoting unnamed police sources, the El Pais newspaper said the two perpetrators of the crash were holed up in a bar in Tallers Street. Armed police ran down adjacent streets and through a market, checking into stores and cafes, presumably in search of them.
Las Ramblas, a street of stalls and shops that cuts through the center of Barcelona, is one of the city’s top tourist destinations. People walk down a wide, pedestrian path in the center of the street but cars can travel on either side. A taxi driver who witnessed the attack, Oscar Cano, told TV3 the van jumped onto the central pedestrian area at a high speed and swerved from side to side.
In photographs and videos, at least five people could be seen lying on the ground in the street Thursday afternoon, being helped by police and others. Other video recorded people screaming as they fled the van.
Keith Fleming, an American who lives in Barcelona, was watching TV in his building just off Las Ramblas when he heard a noise and went out to his balcony.
“I saw women and children just running and they looked terrified,” he said.
He said there was a bang — possibly from someone rolling down a store shutter — and more people ran by. Then police arrived and pushed everyone a full block away. Even people leaning out of doors were being told to go back inside, he said.
Fleming said regular police had their guns drawn and riot police were at the end of his block, which was soon deserted.
“It’s just kind of a tense situation,” Fleming said. “Clearly, people were scared.”
Carol Augustin, a manager at La Palau Moja, an 18th-century place on Las Ramblas that houses government offices and a tourism information center, said the van passed right in front of the building.
“We saw everything. People started screaming and running into the office. It was such a chaotic situation. There were families with children. The police made us close the doors and wait inside,” she said.
Spain has been on a security alert one step below the maximum since June 2015 following attacks elsewhere in Europe and Africa. Spanish police have also been involved in the arrests of more than 200 suspected jihadis since then.
Cars, trucks and vans have been the weapon of choice in multiple extremist attacks in Europe in the last year.
The most deadly was the driver of a tractor-trailer who targeted Bastille Day revelers in the southern French city of Nice in July 2016, killing 86 people. In December 2016, 12 people died after a driver used a hijacked trick to drive into a Christmas market in Berlin.
There have been multiple attacks this year in London, where a man in a rented SUV plowed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing four people before he ran onto the grounds of Parliament and stabbed an unarmed police officer to death in March.
Four other men drove onto the sidewalk of London Bridge, unleashing a rampage with knives that killed eight people in June. Another man also drove into pedestrians leaving a London mosque later in June.
Barry Hatton in Lisbon and Ciaran Giles in Madrid also contributed.