10 February 2006

How `triple thumbprint man' was finally run to ground

Irish Independent

The massive Canary Wharf explosion in February 1996 killed two people, injured dozens and caused £150m of damage in east London

Fri, 26 Jun 1998

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usFOR more than a year the London Docklands bomber was an anonymous figure known to police as "the triple thumbprint man" because they were the only clues he left behind.

It was only when armed RUC officers hunting an alleged IRA gang arrested five men in an isolated farmhouse near Crossmagalen in Co Armagh that the thumbprints were matched to James McArdle.

McArdle, whose nose was broken during the police raid, was flown to London but refused to answer questions about the South Quay explosion.

"Until then he had been the triple thumb print man, but afterwards we were able to match 14 palm and fingerprints,'' said Commander John Grieve, head of the anti-terrorist branch.

Police had no prior intelligence of the bomb made up of over a ton of homemade explosives.

Four days after the blast, and in response to police appeals for help, an inquisitive lorry driver, Arthur Ward, reported seeing an unfamiliar lorry and trailer parked in River Road, Barking, nine miles from Docklands, on the day of the explosion.

He had stopped to look because he was "nosey''.

He was the 199th of the 850 people who rang the anti-terrorist hotline and provided what Cdr Grieve described as "the golden nugget'' of information. "There is no better example of what we are about than this case, of the public helping us. The hotline worked.''

The site at River Road was "like a quarter-mile rubbish tip, and officers crawled on their hands and knees picking up every bit of paper''. Because they were not sure what they were looking for every filthy, rain-sodden scrap had to be examined.

In an old tyre were tachograph records and a trucking magazine bearing the first thumbprint.

Nearby were discarded pieces of false number plates. On a trailer and ramps abandoned by the bombing team, forensic experts discovered traces of explosives commonly used by the IRA and paint scrapings which finally led to the lorry being identified as a former British Gas vehicle.

From the tachograph records its route through England from Northern Ireland and Scotland was traced and CCTV footage unearthed most of its journey south.

McArdle's second and third thumbprints were found on an ashtray at a truck stop in Carlisle where he stayed under a false name, and on a ferry ticket stub at Stranraer bought on a dummy run the month before.

Callers to the hotline also reported sightings of the lorry as it made its way to River Road with its deadly cargo. It was there the bomb was primed just hours before it was taken to South Quay by two men, McArdle almost certainly the driver.

Once it was in place with its two-hour time clock ticking away, "inaccurate and wholly inadequate warnings'' were given to agencies using recognised IRA codewords.

The same codeword has been used since a warning of a bomb at Victoria in 1991. It exploded, killing one person, because of the vagueness of the message about its location.

The word was again used in coded warnings of the Baltic Exchange bomb, which gave the location as the Stock Exchange; Paddington Station when the bomb exploded outside the police station; and the Grand National, which proved to be a false alarm.

The South Quay bomb was already in place when the first of five calls, again using the same word, came at 5.38pm, warning of a massive bomb at South Quay station.

It was little short of a miracle that more people were not killed and injured when it exploded at rush hour, scattering debris for hundreds of yards and leaving a crater 33ft wide and 10ft deep.

After the coded warnings, the lorry was spotted by Pc Roger Degraff. He was just about to try the handle of the door when some sixth sense stopped him.

It saved his life because police believe, from a piece of debris the size of a 50p piece, that a mercury tilt switch anti-handling device was in place ready to detonate the bomb at the slightest touch.

Pc Degraff went to warn Inam Bashir and his assistant John Jeffries. They told him they were just shutting the shop. But moments later the bomb exploded, killing both men. Pc Degraff was knocked to the ground and suffered cuts and bruises.

Others sustained a variety of injuries. Barbara Osei needed 300 stitches and has lost the site of one eye. Zauoi Berezag, who was with his family in a car near the blast, still suffers memory loss and his 17-year-old son's eardrums were perforated. Another man needs constant care because his injuries have reduced him to a child-like state.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us McArdle admitted driving the lorry to southern England but said he had no idea it contained a bomb. He did it as a favour for a man he called The Boss, whom he refused to name for fear of reprisals.

Cross-examined by John Bevan QC, he admitted being an IRA supporter but claimed he did not agree with violence.

Police, who have liaised closely with the RUC and gardai, are continuing the hunt for other members of the highly trained bombing team, thought to number four or five men. The families of his two victims remain grief-stricken. Mr Bashir's father died of a heart attack months after his son, and Mr Jeffries's father, with whom he lived, is said to have become a recluse.

Out of respect for the families' wishes police are not releasing video footage of the explosion.

Cdr Grieve said: "It is essentially a film of murder and we think it would be in bad taste. Our first duty is to support the victims and their families.

"They are two extremely nice, quiet, ordinary south London families who just don't understand why two people can go to work during the ceasefire and not come home again.''

(Daily Telegraph, London)

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