Tens of thousands of pilgrims evacuated after anonymous call

Tens of thousands of pilgrims were evacuated from the Lourdes complex after a bomb scare on one of the shrine’s busiest days.

A bomb threat at the French Marian shrine on the feast of the Assumption caused police in the town in the Hautes-Pyrénées to clear the entire shrine complex as they searched for explosive devices.

The police moved 30,000 people from the Basilica of the Rosary, the underground basilica of St Pius X, l’Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes as well as the grotto where St Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary and the baths where pilgrims seek cures. At around midday pilgrims were asked in six different languages to make their way to the nearest exit via loudspeakers.

One English pilgrim from London said the evacuation was conducted quietly and without panic.

She said: “People were remarkably quiet and there was no rush or panic. Of course we didn’t know what was going on at the time. We sat in one of the local cafes and had a good chat. I noticed lots of people availing of the opportunity to take the tourist ‘train’ and see Lourdes and the outskirts.”

Police in the Lourdes commissariat received a threatening phone call at 11.39am, which was traced to a public telephone box very close to the Sanctuary.

The anonymous caller said four bombs were due to explode at the Sanctuary at around 3pm.

René Bidal, prefect of the area of Hautes-Pyrénées, said: “The phone call came from a phone cabin very close to the Sanctuary by a man with a thick Mediterranean accent who seemed very determined.”

He said: “We need to envisage the hypothesis seriously. In a site as symbolic as Lourdes one had to take such calls seriously.”

The police combed the area for explosive devices with dogs and found nothing. John Tangney, a British pilgrim tour operator, said he had 300 pilgrims at the Sanctuary on the day of the bomb scare but they had not been too inconvenienced by Sunday’s events. He said the incident might have negative consequences for the shrine, such as increased security.

He said: “I am quite certain that this sort of threat is not a unique occurrence. They must get threats which they discount quite regularly. The question is, why on this occasion was the bomb alert taken seriously?

“It was taken as quite a serious alert. Why out of all the alerts did they respond to this one? There are already security guards and cameras.

“What would be a tragedy for Lourdes is if this event resulted in higher security measures with security arches and such things for access to it,” he said. He added that such measures would make it more difficult for disabled pilgrims to access the shrines.

In the late afternoon the shrine was reopened for pilgrims taking part in the Eucharistic procession – the high point in Lourdes celebrations – and normal events resumed.

Jean-Pierre Artiganave, the mayor of Lourdes, said: “Lourdes has the good fortune to welcome dignified and respectful people who waited quietly and then entered into the calm.”

Oblate Fr Brian de Búrca, the English-language coordinator for the shrine, said he was first alerted to the news of the bomb scare through text messages and a phone call from England and Ireland asking if he was safe two hours after the sanctuary had been evacuated.

“Some time after 4pm,” he said. “I was called to the studio along with the other Oblate Language Coordinators to record a message saying that St Joseph’s Gate would open at approximately 4.45pm and that the Blessed Sacrament Procession would take place at 5pm starting from the Grotto. This message was relayed continuously over the Sanctuary in six languages. Pilgrims returned and there were between 8,000 to 10,000, including sick and disabled, present at the Blessed Sacrament Procession.”

Most pilgrims scheduled to be in Lourdes for the Assumption were from France, Spain, Italy and Germany.

Police have launched an investigation into the origin of the threat and have searched for fingerprints in the phone booth, according to La Dépeche, a French newspaper. Unfortunately the police will be unable to use CCTV cameras for their investigations because these were out of order after a thunderstorm over Lourdes shortly before.

Bomb threats such as last Sunday’s are not a new occurrence at Lourdes. In October 2002 another explosives alert caused the police force to evacuate the underground basilica of St Pius X. Nothing was found.

Two days before Pope John Paul II visited the Marian shrine on the feast of the Assumption for the first time in 1983 a bomb went off and destroyed the statue of Pontius Pilate on the first station of Station of the Cross near the Basilica.

La Croix du Midi, the regional Catholic newspaper, also suffered an arson attack shortly before the Pope’s visit.