While riot police were firing round after round of tear gas to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters in Sheung Wan at around 10.40pm on Sunday night, a more terrifying drama was playing out in Hong Kong's northern town of Yuen Long.
In a shockingly violent rampage of unprecedented lawlessness, a mob of men in white T-shirts stormed into the Yuen Long MTR station, indiscriminately attacking people with sticks and iron rods.
Their target appeared to be black-clad protesters returning from Sunday's major march against the government's now-suspended extradition bill, but the assailants beat up anyone they came across, including passengers on trains, passers-by and even journalists at the scene.
Some were waving Chinese national flags and placards reading, "Defend Yuen Long, defend our homeland."
Police later said more than 100 men were involved in the attack and a second one at midnight, including members of the notorious 14K and Wo Shing Wo triad gangs.
Six men were arrested, as of the early hours of Tuesday.
Word of the imminent trouble on Sunday had spread earlier through Apple's airdrop file transfer service and social media, warning protesters not to get off at Yuen Long station amid reports that a crowd of suspicious men had gathered near Fung Yau Street East.
Protesters had placed clothes of every colour except black at ticket-vending machines at Central station, along with written warnings for those heading back to Yuen Long to get changed first.
A message had been circulated the day before among closed circles, calling on Yuen Long residents not to wear black, the preferred colour of the protest movement.
Villagers in the district also said they were reminded by their rural leaders not to venture out on Sunday if they could.
The warnings went mostly unheeded, amid a climate of rumours and false alarms, and the sheer scale and ferocity of the bloody violence that followed stunned the city.
"Don't come in!" passengers in the paid area of the station yelled at the invaders. And to fellow travellers: "Everyone, please don't retreat or else these men will storm in!"
They tried to protect themselves with open umbrellas, sheltered young pupils, and called on each other to stop provoking the uncontrollable mob.
Some put on a brave front, chanting in unison at their attackers and hoping to keep them at the scene until police arrived.
Little did they expect that officers would not attend the scene in force until 40 minutes later, when the first attack was over.
"I saw a woman lying on the ground and some white-shirted people around her with their faces covered. Some of them were brandishing sticks and metal rods, some of them were not," one witness recalled.
"She was the one later referred to as the injured pregnant woman online. Her condition was stable but she did not know the whereabouts of her husband, who was chased after and beaten."
Around 100 to 150 men in white T-shirts were stationed at different parts of the station at the time, he added.
Some tried to fight back with a fire hose and an extinguisher they found at the station, but they were overwhelmed by the assailants who storming into the paid area and onto the platform where trains were pulling in.
"Ladies, please move inside the carriage," some of the men on the train shouted as they tried to protect them by standing near the doors and making sure no one was left behind on the platform.
For 10 minutes, passengers on the train were indiscriminately assaulted with sticks and rods.
One man was seen kneeling at the train door, imploring the mob to stop.
Video footage showed traumatised women standing on their seats and pleading for mercy.
"Please don't beat us, I beg you."
"I'm only trying to head home after a day of work."
"We are just civilians."
The MTR made an announcement declaring train services suspended and asking everyone to alight.
The railway operator later explained that the train driver was only aware of the doors being obstructed and did not see the violent attack.
It was past 11pm when the driver, responding to passengers' pleas for help, pulled the train away from the platform after the doors could be closed.
Trains, which had been bypassing the station since 11pm after word of the violence spread, only resumed stops at Yuen Long some 20 minutes later.
The shocking violence was broadcast live on Facebook by Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, who also suffered injuries and needed 18 stitches for a mouth wound.
Vincent Lo, a fourth-year university student, said he had called 999 at 10.28pm when he saw the huge crowd outside the station, where he could hear women speaking in Mandarin while standing next to the men in white T-shirts.
"The officer (at the control centre) noted my request coldly and only said police would arrive in 10 to 15 minutes when I asked," he told the Post. "That, to me, was already too long. It was totally unreasonable for them to arrive at 11.20pm."
Other witnesses, along with the management of the Yoho Mall linked to the station, said police could not be reached when they tried to report the case. Police later explained the call centre in the New Territories North was overwhelmed by hundreds of 999 emergency calls made between 10pm and midnight.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung said on Monday that two officers had arrived at the station at 10.52pm, seven minutes after they received a report about the violence, but decided to call for help after realising they did not have enough protective gear.
A police source defended their strategy, saying weeks of mass rallies and protest violence had put a serious strain on manpower and resources.
He said more than 10 per cent of manpower had been drafted in from each of the five police regions to deal with Sunday's mass march.
The source admitted there was not enough manpower in Yuen Long to deal with a series of emergencies the same day. Officers from the Emergency Unit, who have anti-riot gear on board their vehicles, were busy dealing with fights, assaults, and a fire in the district before the violence broke out at the train station.
More than 500 officers from a regional response contingent, who were carrying out a clearance operation against protesters in Sheung Wan at the time, had already been redeployed to Yuen Long to deal with chaos there, the source added.
He said the Yuen Long and Tin Shui Wai police stations were besieged by more than 100 protesters each, and fights had broken out in the streets in different areas, including one in the Yuen Long town area.
By the time more than 30 officers arrived as reinforcements at 11.20pm, most of the attackers had already fled.
"I really witnessed a lot of people in white shirts running right past them, and they did not even stop them," said the man who saw the pregnant woman in trouble. "They only raised their batons and roared, but did not arrest anyone."
An angry crowd, joined by local residents who headed to the scene after finding out about the violence in the news, surrounded the officers when they arrived.
"Where have you been? You are supposed to protect us," they shouted, yelling profanities in frustration. "Why would you allow those men to leave so easily?"
Police later explained that they had to let people go because they did not see them breaking the law and could not arrest someone simply based on the colour of their clothing.
Shortly before midnight, more than 200 people confronted the white-clad men at the entrance of nearby Nam Pin Wai village. Police reinforcements were then sent to the village to investigate.
Some had hurled objects, including road construction lights, at dozens of protesters who were standing on the staircases outside the MTR exit, forcing them to retreat.
No police officers could be seen inside the station, except one who was briefly spotted in the station control room.
Desperate people had been banging on the glass window of the room and pressing the intercom button, urging MTR staff to close the gate of the exit leading to the village. But their calls were only entertained at around 12.25am.
It was then that the men in white launched a second attack, with more than a dozen of them suddenly appearing at the gate, forcing open the shutters and rushing inside.
People in the station tried to fight them off through the shutters, then fled when they stormed in, running towards Yoho Mall 1 through another station exit.
Those who could not escape in time were viciously attacked and beaten without mercy.
Others, having given up hope that police would intervene, eventually triggered fire alarms with their umbrellas in the mall to alert firefighters.
A team of 100 riot police officers went to Nam Pin Wai village, where most of the men in white shirts had gathered, at around 1am. But no arrests were made as police said they did not find any weapons or come across anything suspicious.
In a statement, the MTR Corporation said in a statement it was deeply upset by the violence and stressed that staff had handled the situation as best as they could.
"The fact that at the time there were only three MTR staff and one contractor staff, who are all civilians, they could not handle the situation and had to rely on the assistance of law enforcement authorities," the statement read.
In a joint petition, a group of MTR operating staff demanded management and police come up with measures to guarantee the safety of passengers and railway employees, warning they might consider going on strike.
Additional reporting by Michelle Wong
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