Monday night in Vienna was supposed to be a last chance at freedom.
The weather was mild, and as the hours ticked down before a nationwide coronavirus curfew largely shut down the city for a month, the bars and restaurants of the “Bermuda triangle” – a network of narrow, fashionable lanes in the old city’s 1st district – were busy.
Diners and drinkers sat at tables outside, enjoying a last moment of revelry before another pandemic lockdown amid the full blast of winter.
Without warning, at 8pm on Seitenstettengasse street, a winding cobbled boulevard a block back from the Danube Canal, the shooting started.
“They were shooting at least 100 rounds just outside our building,” Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister recalled in the aftermath of the attacks which have left at least two civilians and one suspected attacker dead. He told reporters he saw, from his window above Vienna’s main synagogue, at least one person shooting at people sitting outside in the street.
“All these bars have tables outside. This evening is the last evening before the lockdown,” he said. “As of midnight, all bars and restaurants will be closed in Austria for the next month, and a lot of people probably wanted to use that evening to be able to go out.”
Another witness told Austria’s public broadcaster ORF that a gunman had started to fire at random at groups of people sitting at tables.
“It sounded like firecrackers, then we realised it was shots.”
The shooter “shot wildly with an automatic weapon” before police arrived and opened fire.
Footage purportedly showing the attack and shared by European counter-terrorism officers showed a puddle of blood by the entrance of a restaurant.
Another unconfirmed clip showed a man carrying a rifle and wearing a white shirt and beige trousers firing shots towards a building. A male voice can be heard shouting “Asshole, motherfucker” at the suspected attacker from one of the buildings.
The shooting quickly spread to what police said were six different locations nearby.
At least three people have been killed – one of them a suspected attacker shot dead outside St Rupert’s church, his reportedly body strung with an explosives belt and a bag of ammunition.
Another 15 people were taken to hospital injured, seven of them reportedly critical.
“We are victims of a despicable terror attack in the federal capital that is still ongoing,” Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, said hours after the gunfire erupted.
“One of the perpetrators was neutralised, but several perpetrators appear to still be on the loose,” he said. “They seem to also, as far as we know, be very well equipped, with automatic weapons. So they were very well prepared.”
‘We were in shock’
Student Chris Zhao was in a restaurant on Seitenstettengasse when the attack took place. He told the BBC he heard between 20 and 30 bangs that sounded like firecrackers just after 8pm.
The manager locked the door to the restaurant at first, but when he left Zhao says he saw several people injured and one body. “We didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “We were in shock.”
Gernot Gruber, a 25-year-old student, was caught in the Hard Rock cafe, less than 100m from the first attack outside the synagogue.
He initially thought the bangs he heard outside were fireworks.
“If you hear these noises in Austria you don’t think they’re gunshots, you really don’t,” he told the Guardian. Restaurant staff locked the doors and told people to get away from the windows before special forces police entered the building and told everyone to leave, and run towards Schwedenplatz, away from the initial attack.
Gruber said that when they emerged from the cafe, they saw police on the street corners pointing their weapons. Once the crowd had arrived at Schwedenplatz, the police asked them to raise their hands and to show they were not carrying weapons.
“That is the first time police ever aimed at me with their guns,” he said.
“I think that this is an experience that almost nobody who lives here has ever had before,” he said. “I’ve been to several countries and have heard and watched about these attacks [in those countries]. But I’ve never been close to one. It was really frightening.”
Lea, who only gave her first name, lives in the neighbouring 2nd district of Vienna. She said she normally spends evenings in the bustling city quarter targeted by the gunman. Instead, she was at home, as helicopters circled overhead.
“The situation right now is really scary, my phone is ringing all the time because everyone is so worried. It’s heartbreaking. Hopefully the police can find all of the shooters and no more people have to die.
But she said the Viennese would “rise stronger than ever”.
“There is no place here for terrorism, neither left, right or from a religious point of view. There is a reason why everyone is saying ‘Wien ist anders’ [Vienna is different].”
As the night wore on, authorities searched for at least one gunman still on the run and Vienna was placed under a new kind of lockdown. Office workers were told to sleep overnight in their buildings, while restaurants were shut and barricaded.
Patrons at cinemas, the opera and theatres were held inside for hours before it was declared safe for them to go home. But public transport, by then, was not stopping in the first district, and taxis would not come into the quarter, making the journey, for many, long and difficult.
The motive for the assault remains under investigation, but Kurz said it was possibly an anti-Semitic attack, given that the shooting began outside Viennas Stadttempel synagogue. It was closed at the time.
Interior minister Karl Nehammer said the army had been asked to guard key locations in the city as hundreds of heavily armed police hunted for the gunmen. Frequent sirens and could be heard across the city centre.
Nehammer urged people in Vienna to stay indoors and avoid the city centre. Schools in Vienna will be closed on Tuesday.
Kurz praised police for killing one of the suspected attackers and vowed: “We will not never allow ourselves to be intimidated by terrorism and will fight these attacks with all means.”