SYDNEY — Two people have been arrested after a car plowed into a crowd of Christmas shoppers in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday in what police are calling a “deliberate act.”
More than a dozen people were injured including at least one young child when the car hit pedestrians outside Melbourne’s iconic Flinders Street station just after 4.30 p.m. local time.
Victoria Police spokesman Comm. Russell Barrett told reporters it was too early in the investigation to determine the motivation. Police appealed for witnesses and advised people to stay clear of what they’re calling a “crime scene.”
Witnesses told CNN affiliate Seven Network they saw people being thrown meters into the air when the SUV drove into the crowd.
Flinders Street is one of Melbourne’s busiest pedestrian roads, running between a major train station and the bustling city center. It would have been crowded with commuters and shoppers making their final purchases in the days before Christmas.
Paramedics have taken 14 people to nearby hospitals, Ambulance Victoria said in a statement. Two others are being treated at the scene. Barrett told reporters several of those injured were in a critical condition.
Among them was a pre-school age child who was taken to hospital with a head injury, and is in a serious condition, Ambulance Victoria said.
Neither of the men arrested has been charged yet, Barrett said.
‘It just plowed into the crowds’
Jim Stoupas, owner of the Walkers Donut shop on Elizabeth Street, told CNN he saw an SUV going about 60 miles an hour (100 kph) down Flinders Street.
“It just plowed into the crowds,” he said. “We heard this noise and we looked up then we just heard bang, bang, bang and people flying everywhere. We had a lot of customers in our shop and they were traumatized.”
Stoupas said police arrived almost immediately and many officers were still at the scene.
Another witness, Cameron Von Borstel, said he assumed a car had crashed into a tram when he heard a loud bang from the direction of Flinders Street.
“I went down the street to have a look. I saw about two or three people lying still in the street. People were helping,” he told CNN.
Concrete bollards were erected along the side of some Melbourne city roads by the government in June, after a number of vehicle-related terror attacks around the world.
The streets and landmarks around Melbourne’s Flinders Street station have been the target of multiple attempted terrorist plots, all foiled by police within the past year.
Less than a month ago, a man was charged with terrorism offenses over a plan to shoot “as many people as he could” on New Years Eve at Federation Square, a large public space beside the station.
In December 2016, Australian police announced they had foiled a plot to blow up improvised explosive devices around Melbourne’s city center on Christmas Day, including Flinders Street Station.
It was described as “one of the most substantial terrorist plots that have been disrupted over the last several years.”
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement his thoughts and prayers were with the victims of the “shocking incident,” and pledged federal authorities would work with Victoria’s security agencies to investigate.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews described the attack on his official Twitter as “horrible.” “Stay safe. Check on your loved ones. And thank you to our brave emergency services,” he said.
Bill Shorten, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said there were “shocking scenes” coming out of Melbourne. “Credit to first responders who are doing us proud once again,” he said. “Thinking of everyone caught up in this atrocity.”
The incident comes almost one year after six people were killed when a car plowed into pedestrians along Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall in January, just a few streets north of Flinders Street station. Police said that incident was not terror-related.
Plans for a public memorial to mark that event were announced this week by Victorian Premier Andrews.