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Croydon riots three years on: How our correspondents reported the mayhem

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OUR reporters were on the ground as the riots took hold back on August 8, 2011. Here, we re-publish three of their accounts...

GARETH DAVIES, at the time a senior reporter with the Advertiser, is now our chief reporter...

AS HUNDREDS of youths smashed their way into a supermarket, I sprinted towards a stationary line of police officers and realised something was seriously wrong.

Reaching a dog-handler I pleaded for him and his colleagues, who had formed a line across North End by Allders, to intervene to quell the beginning of rioting which would leave Croydon in flames.

I was stunned by his answer.

"We can't," he explained.

"There are too many of them."

As I looked down the hill and saw looters ransacking Iceland and forcing up the metal shutters protecting Albone Jewellers in Surrey Street, it was clear their earlier taunts to police of "we're going to run your town tonight" were not as childish as first appeared.

Within a matter of seconds the police, overstretched by rioting across London and restricted by orders to hold back, had surrendered any semblance of control over the roads surrounding the town centre.

The youths descended on Crown Hill after receiving a signal from a larger group advancing up Frith Road, who in turn were directed by older ringleaders in cars, who had used side streets to travel unrestricted across Croydon.

They fell on stores in Surrey Street like a pack of wild animals.

Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, I gave up on persuading the police to help and ran back down the hill with a similarly disguised colleague.

As we turned the corner, cameras in hand, we filmed the looters, many of whom were wearing face masks or bandanas, clambering in and out of stores, carrying away alcohol, food and jewellery.

The frenzy was only halted by a burglar alarm, leading to a stampede down Surrey Street before the youths turned back when it became clear the police were not reacting.

We followed the leading pack round the corner into Church Street, continuing to capture video footage.

It was total chaos. The mob rushed at James Jewellery, forcing up the shutters and smashing through the front door only to find the manager and two members of staff, who had remained inside after closing time, were prepared to fight them off.

Meanwhile smaller cells attacked other businesses; one breaking through the front window of Argos, ripping widescreen televisions from the walls.

As the youths looted unchecked, some became suspicious of my colleague.

They circled him before throwing glass bottles at his head as he fled to safety. He would later be attacked by a 15-year-old boy he was trying to treat for stab wounds.

My mistake was to react to what had happened. I knew that if they surrounded him I would have to help but a number of older looters noticed my reaction, advancing at me shouting "who the **** are you?"

Before I could respond I had been backed into a corner and punched in the face. I attempted to run but one of the masked attackers grabbed my hood and dragged my head back and then, thud, I had been kicked in the jaw.

With my nose bleeding the youths searched through my pockets, taking my wallet and phone and repeating their demands to know who I was.

Scared, I replied "no one" but then they noticed my camera which they dragged from my jacket pocket.

At this point I can't remember exactly what I said, other than I lied for my life. Whatever it was I managed to convince one of them to return my phone.

"He even tried to get my camera back before telling me to "run before you get murdered".

I fled round the corner into Old Palace Road with blood pouring from my nose. I passed a pair of young girls who I warned not to go into Church Street but they just laughed. By this point the looters were attacking Lidl.

When I got home I swore at myself for being stupid enough both to go out into the thick of it with a weak disguise and for taking my £380 camera.

However, I resolved to clean myself up and go back out there.

When I arrived back at the heart of the disorder it became apparent that the situation had worsened. Not only had rioters driven cars at the police lines near Tamworth Road, with youths as young as 10 pelting officers with bottles and bricks, but riot police had now cordoned off half of Church Street, though too late to stop the majority of the looting.

A large group of youths appeared at the end of the street, watching something along Drummond Road.

Suddenly, thick plumes of black smoke began to billow from behind a row of shops followed by a large explosion as a double-decker bus, torched by the looters, went up in flames.

I ran into an alleyway and turned a corner and was confronted by the burning shell of the bus, with flames spreading to the nearby shelter.

Several people who live in the area were wandering the streets in distress, looking for loved ones and desperately calling the Fire Brigade which had yet to respond.

What happened next marked not only the low point of the unprecedented levels of destruction but may also come to symbolise one of the darkest moments in Croydon's history.

Not satisfied with simply torching a bus, the looters set fire to House of Reeves furniture store shortly after 9pm.

The building, a town centre landmark, was engulfed in an unimaginably short time, spreading smoke and flames across a wide area.

With no sign of any firefighters the blaze began to spread across the road. As I ran back into Church Street it was clear a block of flats were alight.

House of Reeves was collapsing under intense heat, but the families inside the burning flats had not yet fled.

As the road became covered in smoke, ash rained down on us from the Reeves blaze, I desperately shouted towards a light in a third floor window: "You have to get out."

Several people living nearby joined me. One man threw stones at the window in a desperate bid to attract their attention, but without success.

Another man turned to the riot police stationed further along the road and screamed: "Are you just going to stand there and let them die?"

Four officers immediately ran towards us, with one helping to smash the front door of the store directly below the flats so we could attempt to reach the families above.

Bags of towels lined the door, which we dragged out and threw beneath the third floor window in case anyone had to jump, calling on those living nearby to grab anything soft to break their fall.

It soon became apparent there were a number of families within the adjoining flats, none of whom had fled to safety.

As the flames consumed House of Reeves the heat generated by the inferno felt like it was burning my face, even though I was over 30ft away. There was genuine concern the families would not make it out alive.

Eventually a number of people started to flee, using the building's only exit at the back of the property, but they had to dodge fire which had spread across their escape route.

One father carried a handful of his belongings while his wife held their sobbing children tightly by her side.

Once they were free, it looked as if the buildings were empty, so the riot police began to pull us back.

However, a light flicked off in the third floor prompting further pleas for anyone left in the house to run to safety.

At this point the smoke and ash in the air made it almost unbearable to remain outside the flats.

As my eyes watered and I began to choke, a woman climbed out of a first floor window, prompting us to gather below to try and cushion her fall.

With the flames now burning the first row of flats, the woman jumped to safety and was helped to the ground by one of the riot police.

We then retreated back down the road as the fire brigade arrived, before I crouched in a doorway and tried to catch my breath.

The bravery and selflessness of members of the public and the riot police in Church Street stood in stark contrast to the spite mindlessly thrust upon a terrified town by those who sought to destroy it.

But its spirit had not been broken. Mecca Bingo sheltered a number of elderly and disabled people throughout the rioting and staff at The Gun Tavern offered riot officers in Church Street the small but welcome thanks of a round of bacon sandwiches.

As fire crews battled the blazes and a now depleted police presence attempted to respond to the chaos, I wandered the streets, which were still being sporadically looted by opportunist thieves, and saw people stood outside their homes, some crying, others looking on in horror.

In just a few short hours Croydon had been torn apart with streets which had been full of anger and venom now replaced with utter disbelief. 

ROSS LIDBETTER was chief reporter of the Croydon Advertiser in August 2011...

AS RIOTERS armed themselves with everything from sledgehammers to guitars, Broad Green resembled a war zone on Monday night.

A van was left abandoned along the London Road, at the junction with Sumner Road, with its windows smashed.

But shops selling electrical goods and jewellers were seemingly the number one target for the masked raiders.

With their faces covered apart from their eyes showing, the area had simply become lawless.

The only time the rioters – some on bicycles – paused was when a police siren could be heard.

But already overstretched, the officers never arrived and the madness continued.

Tesco Express, in London Road, Broad Green, had its windows smashed, while across the road supermarket Somerfield was broken into.

Bottles of wine were being thrown in the air and the shattered glass landing on the streets was leaving frightened bystanders rushing for safety.

Looters were taking anything they could lay their hands on.

Although televisions and computers were popular, one was even spotted carrying packets of toilet roll.

One eyewitness said: "The store [Tesco] and many other local shops around was attacked by looters who smashed their way in and spent about two-and-a-half hours trying to break into the cashpoint outside.

"Looters were armed with hammers, metal poles, a mallet and what looked like a small axe.

"Later in the evening they started dragging stock and items out of the store to build a bonfire against a nearby building and set alight an industrial wheelie bin and pushed it into the middle of the main road.

"No police were to be seen until after 10pm.

"It was completely lawless."

Earlier a motorbike had been racing along the road doing a wheelie at excessive speed.

A van also pulled up in a side road, where one man jumped out of the back armed with a sledgehammer.

Shouts would sometimes echo down the road, calling the group together and leading them to the next target.

One woman summed up the feeling of the masses, when she kept repeating: "I'm so scared."

Senior reporter JOANNA TILL witnessed the chaos unfold in West Croydon...

THE air in Croydon town centre was thick with tension throughout Monday.

People were eyeing one another – and the police – with suspicion, and every few hours the tension would bubble to the surface.

By about 6pm, everyone knew a riot was building.

Police officers formed lines across Tamworth Road, across London Road outside West Croydon Station and across the top of North End.

From the flats above the former Safi Tix takeaway, a man spat onto a police officer.

"You're all murdering scum," he shouted.

A car then came speeding up London Road from Thornton Heath, driving straight at the police line.

They seemed to think the driver would stop, and shouted to each other 'Hold the line'.

The car sped up, and at the last minute the officers scattered to the pavement, watching as the car breached two lines and sped off down Tamworth Road.

The sound of screeching tyres and a crash came within seconds.

As dusk fell, the looting began.

Cars screamed past trailing ignition wires with the alarms still ringing, while young male passengers in balaclavas and bandanas laughed as they sipped spirits from bottles.

Stores along London Road were the first to be hit, with looters using stolen cars to ram the shops and smash through windows.

Some wore bandanas and scarves wound around their faces, stockings over their heads and surgical gloves on their hands, others wore black from head to toe and pulled up their hoods, while some strolled calmly around.

Down London Road the plundering continued, with Somerfield and Tesco Express smashed in.

The vandals grabbed large bottles of liquor and then began hurling them at random at people passing by, who had to take shelter behind walls as the glass smashed around them.

Reporters Rachel Millard, Ross Lidbetter and I took shelter in City House, a tall block of flats.

As we came in, a woman with tears streaming down her face was coming down in the lifts with a young child in either hand.

The people crowding in the building's lobby warned her against stepping into the chaos outside.

Breaking into sobs, she said she had watched youths hurling what she believed to be petrol bombs towards the top floors and others trying to light the bottom of the building on fire.

Eventually, we left and carried on up London Road towards Thornton Heath.

Broken LCD televisions, smashed guitars and packing from computers littered the road.

Plumes of smoke spiralled into the sky and people shouted, 'Croydon's burning'.

As we walked past a grocer's, a family waited behind the shutters.

A hand stretched out holding a piece of citrus fruit, and a man said, hopefully, 'Want to buy a lemon?'

Croydon riots three years on: How our correspondents reported the mayhem


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