Terrorist Attack in Barcelona: An Overview

The view from inside Restaurant Núria after the terrorist attack on August 17, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Jikatu.) 


By George H. Potter

Barcelona is the capital of the Spanish autonomous region, Catalonia, situated in the northeastern Mediterranean Sea coast. The region is composed of four provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Taragona.

The city of Barcelona is a very compact municipality, approximatly 38.9 square miles in size with a population of 1.6 million. It is Spain’s leading tourist attraction, receiving millions of visitors through its international airport, ample seaport, international high-speed railway, and extensive highway network. The population of what is termed Metropolitan Barcelona—the city plus surrounding cities and towns—is a little more than five million, nearly 70 percent of the region’s total population.


The Attack

At 4:50 PM on Thursday, August 17, 2017, a delivery van jumped a curb and raced down the central pedestrian walkway of the Rambla, one of the city’s major thoroughfares. The van hit and ran over dozens of people before coming to halt some 500 yards from where it had accessed the Rambla. The driver left the van and escaped amidst the confusion and chaos, leaving 13 dead and more than 80 injuredl; two of the critically injured died later.

A week after the incident, nearly 50 were still hospitalized, including eight victims who were still in critical condition. One of the immediate victims was a U.S. citizen vacationing in Barcelona with his wife. This attack was followed about eight hours later by another attempt to impact a car against a crowd of people in the coastal town of Cambrils around 65 mles south of Barcelona. In this incident, several people were injured—at least four critically, but none fatally. Two weeks after the two incidents, the death toll was 16 with the possibility that one or more of the critical victims might not survive.


Emergency Services in Barcelona

Police. Catalonia has a regional police department called the Mossos de Escuadra. The name goes back to the 18th Century and after many years during which the service was disactivated, it was recovered in 1983. The Mossos have replaced the Spanish National Police and the Civil Guard in nearly all regional law enforcement activities. Barcelona has a municipal police department whose principle activities include local law enforcement and traffic control.

Fire and Rescue. Catalonia has two public fire and rescue services: the regional service with four brigades—one for each provicince with 145 stations and 6,400 firefighters and officers—and the Barcelona municipal brigade with seven stations and around 425 firefighters and officers. This particular service has been steadily reduced from 1,010 personnel in 1980 to its present critical level. At this time, minimum staffing during any one day is established at 97 operational firefighters and officers. A major emergency incident would be severly affected by this limited staffing, even with recall procedures for off-duty personnel. The municipal brigade can request assistance from the regional service if and when considered necessary. The fire brigade also has several ambulances including units with advance life support capabilities.

The city also maintains an extensive ambulance service called Sistema de Emergencias Médicas (SEM) (Emergency Medical System), a consortium of several private ambulance operators. Many of these units are also equipped with advanced life support and staffed by qualified medical personnel.


Emergency Services Response

Almost immediately after the attack, Barcelona’s emergency coordination center was swamped with calls from police and people in the area. The municipal police and the Mossos de Escuadra mobilized hundreds of officers into the Rambla and surrounding areas in part to aid the injured and maintain order as well as search for the van’s driver, who had escaped. Within minutes, about 80 ambulances responded to the scene, nearly all from the SEM fleet. Only three ambulances and one fire engine were dispatched, staffed by only 12 fire service personnel.


Related Incidents

The night before the Barcelona attack, an explosion in a house near the coastal village of Alcanar in the extreme south of the Tarragona province destroyed the house and damaged several surrounding houses, killing two occupants and injuring another as well as injuring seven neighbors. Firefighters responded from the nearby Tortosa fire station along with several officers of the Mossos de Escuadra.

On arrival, the firefighters extinguished what remained of spot fires while the police began searching for indications as to the possible cause. During this time, significant odors of acetylene, acetone, and butane were encountered. The initial hypothisis was that the house was a clandistine narcotics factory as acetone is used in several drug-making processes. Only several hours later, some 100 butane gas cylinders and remains of other explosives were discovered, and the investigations rapidly changed course, reorienting to terrorist activities.

During the investigations of the explosion, it was determined that one of the two victims was the instigator and organizer of the Barcelona attack. Testimony by the survivor of this explosion included the initial plan to use the explosives to attack Barcelona’s most important shrine and tourist attraction, the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) basilica, one of the world’s most significant examples of modernist architecture.

The remaining members of the terrorist group had to activate their Plan B: using motor vehicles to attack selected locations with large crowds. The Rambla in Barcelona was the first choice, while another location had to be rejected because of a road accident involving another of the group’s vans. The driver of this van abandoned it and escaped, later joining other members of the group. The group of five decided to try to run over a group of people in the port area of Cambrils, a vacation town around 65 miles south of Barcelona. The car hit a police car and some bystanders, causing serious injuries to several people.

When the van went onto the curb, it flipped over. The five occupants were able to get out, and then threatened the police officers with knives and suppossed bombs strapped to their bodies, which were later discovered to be fake. One of the police officers shot four of these men, while the fifth was able to escape a short distance away (a few yards), killing a women in his path before being killed by another policeman. The investigations into the attackers established that all were members of an Islamic State cell that had been recruited and indoctrinated by one of the two fatal victims of the Alcanar explosion. It turned out that this person was in fact the imam of the muslum community in the town of Ripoll, where nearly all of the attackers lived.


Postincident Considerations

This incident was the most serious islamic terrorist attack since the massive multiple bomb attacks on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004 that left 192 dead and more than 2,000 injured.

In this report, I have purposely ommitted several political questions affecting the country, although some of these “differences” contributed to certain discoordination amongst the distinct police entities during the initial stages. The Tarragona provincial fire service responded according to their specific standard operating procedures, taking into account the presence of several potentially dangerous chemical agents in the Alcanar explosion.

As for the Barcelona municipal fire brigade, it can be considered that the nature of this particular incident did not require a full fire service response. However, if a major explosives-related incident occurs with widespread fires, the intervention capabilities of this service could be seriously compromised.

The mayor of Barcelona was severely criticized afterward for having disregarded advice from the national Interior Ministry to place bollards or other obstacles in several streets similar to the Rambla to impede undesireable vehicle access. One of the principle arguments against these obstacles was the possible interference with emergency vehicle access. Several days after the Rambla incident, obstacles were being placed in several streets and avenues.

A critical aspect of this tragedy was the apparent warning from the U.S. to the national police service, the Guardia Civil, and the Mossos de Escuadra almost three months prior to the attack regarding Islamic terrorism. This information was considered to be of doubtful veracity, and no preventive actions were taken.

The Barcelona attack, along with the Paris, Marseilles, and London incidents, where motor vehicles were the principle “weapons,” have created new and potentially extremely dangerous consequences in terrorist actions. Although physical obstacles  can limit motor vehicle access to streets and areas where large crowds could gather, they can also affect access by emergency vehicles. There may well be no completely effective solution that would reduce or eliminate this kind of incident, but whatever measures can be taken must be put into action.


George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 47 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County (MD) volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructorand a hazmat specialist, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters’ Association (ASELF).


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