Gothenburg blast: Here’s what we do (and don’t) know so far

UPDATED: Two people remained in intensive care on Wednesday after an apartment block explosion in Gothenburg the day before, which police said was likely not due to natural causes. Here's what we know about the incident.

Gothenburg blast: Here's what we do (and don't) know so far
Emergency services on the scene on Tuesday morning. Photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall /TT

What happened?

The first reports of an explosion and fire came at 4.48am, according to police. The incident took place in a residential apartment block on Övre Husargatan in Annedal, central Gothenburg, and led to at least 16 people requiring hospital care and more than 100 needing to leave their homes.

Firefighters, police and emergency services were on the scene quickly, but it was only by midday that the fires were brought under control.

Police have opened a preliminary investigation into ‘destruction causing public endangerment’, and also opened a so-called special incident, meaning the standard police force requires extra resources.

Who was hurt?

After initial reports that up to 25 people had been injured, Sahlgrenska University Hospital confirmed late on Tuesday morning that 16 people were admitted.

“In total there are 16 people who have been admitted, of which four are seriously injured and the rest have minor injuries,” said hospital spokesperson Ingrid Fredriksson.

She said the four who were seriously injured included three women, aged in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and a man in his 50s.

The majority were able to leave the hospital by Wednesday morning, but two were still being cared for in the intensive care unit, according to the Göteborgs-Post.

In addition to those who were injured, residents of the 140 apartments in the building were evacuated from their homes, and had to spend the night with family or in hotels. More than 50 people had gone to the nearby Saron Church for assistance, several of them in shock or cold, having fled their apartments in only pyjamas and dressing gowns.

What was it like for those in the apartment block?

Eyewitnesses and residents of the building told the TT newswire how they were woken by the explosion and had to escape through smoke-filled stairwells.

“At first I thought I was dreaming. Then came the smell. I walked around the apartment to see if anything was on fire. Then one of my daughters woke up and we heard screams in the yard,” a woman living in the building said. “I took my three-year-old under my arm and my six-year-old in my hand, took a deep breath and ran through the dark and smoky stairwell out into the yard.”

Some residents were rescued from their buildings by firefighters, while others made their way down using homemade ropes.

“We live on the second floor. My husband tied together sheets that we could use to get down,” one woman told TT.

What caused the blast?

As of midday on Tuesday, it was not clear what caused the explosion, partly because police have not yet been able to access the building fully.

However, a police spokesperson did tell a press conference they did not believe it was due to natural causes.

Are there any suspects?

As of Wednesday morning, police had not shared any information about potential suspects.

What are the next steps in the police investigation?

According to a police statement, they are currently working with questioning witnesses, accessing surveillance footage, and will carry out a technical investigation of the scene when they are able to access the building, which is expected to be on Wednesday. First, a bomb squad will secure the site, then dog patrols and technicians will enter.

“There are always remnants [from an explosive] and we want to try to secure and analyze them in order to hopefully arrive at what type of materials may have been used. There may also be DNA on cigarette butts and the like,” police press spokesperson Christer Fuxborg told the TT newswire.

Police are also looking into whether any threats had been made against building residents. Several media outlets have reported that a police officer who worked against organized crime and testified in several trials lives at the address.

“These are just hypotheses so far. We turn every stone in such matters before we find a track that is the most interesting,” said Fuxborg.

What’s the political reaction?

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven held a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, in which he said the explosion “affects our whole country”.

Although it has not been confirmed that the blast was the result of criminal activity, Löfven said he understood that members of the public were worried. “It is obvious that people will worry and feel scared and shaken. That is why it is so incredibly important that we come together as a society,” he said.

How common is this type of incident in Sweden?

It is not common, and Sweden has a low crime rate. But in recent years, there has been a rise in the use of explosives by criminal gangs, as well as in gun violence. Criminologists have previously spoken to The Local about a pattern of increasing violence and recklessness among gang members.

Most of the explosions target empty buildings or vehicles, suggesting that causing harm to people is not the intention, and indeed injuries are relatively rare, but they do happen.

The most recent explosion on the scale of the Gothenburg incident was in Linköping in June 2019, also affecting an apartment block. In that blast, around 20 people were injured, none of them seriously, with police saying the lack of serious injuries was “absolutely incredible”.

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Why is Gothenburg known as Sweden’s ‘Little London’?

With ties to Britain dating back more than 200 years, the city of Gothenburg has long been known as Sweden’s Little London.

Why is Gothenburg known as Sweden’s 'Little London'?

Grey skies, rainy days, a wide-mouthed river, and a love for English pubs. At first glance, it’s no wonder that Gothenburg has long held the nickname of Sweden’s own “Little London”, or Lilla London

But what are the origins of this British title?

“The nickname ‘Little London’ was first used in a newspaper in 1766,” explains Håkan Strömberg, educational officer at the Museum of Gothenburg.

“The Brits were the largest immigration group during the 1700s and early 1800s, mainly because Sweden was a country close by, it was economically underdeveloped compared to England and Scotland and had a lot of raw materials. To put it simply, could make some money here.”

The city’s reputation as a British enclave dates back to the 1700s when trade brought many foreign influences to the Västra Götaland region.

As merchants and shipbuilders like Charles Chapman, David Carnegie, and James Dickson moved to the area, local residents began to notice a growing list of similarities between the Swedish port city and the British capital.

Indeed, even one of Sweden’s most renowned scientists, Carl Von Linné, is said to have commented on the similarities between the two cities when he visited Gothenburg in the 1700s.

 “Being a group of upper-class immigrants, the British merchants made sure they had access to all the good things from their home country. But the feeling of Gothenburg as a Little London was most likely something the Swedish citizens had, rather than the Brits,” adds Strömberg. 

The historical roots that connect the UK and Gothenburg are still evident today, with many spots in the city still alluding to British names, like Chalmers University – founded by the son of a wealthy Scottish industrialist, or Chapmans Torgnamed after a family of sailors and shipbuilders once well-established in the area. 

Catriona Chaplin, a British expat turned Gothenburger, only began to see the similarities and know of the nickname after relocating to the region for work. Growing up in Leicestershire, central England, she’d never heard of London’s Swedish sibling city.

“We came to Gothenburg 17 years ago. We’d never heard about [the nickname] until we moved here, but there is a bar on Avenyn called Lilla London, so that’s when we started to know about it,” she says.

Today, as the membership secretary of the British Club of Gothenburg, she brings a taste of the British Isles to life in Gothenburg.

The Club, which organises social events like concerts, quiz nights, and theatre performances, has a membership base of nearly 200 families. And although less than 0.5 percent of Gothenburg’s population today was born in the UK, the club welcomes members from a range of nationalities.

In fact, the only membership requirement is having some kind of interest in the UK, be it from a cultural standpoint, a past tourist experience, or a love of the language. 

“People come to the British Club just to socialise in their native language. It’s also about the culture, like the banter, the jokes and playing on words,” she says. 

Although the city’s British roots run deep, questions remain about modern-day Gothenburg’s status as “Little London”.

To some, the west-coast maritime hub’s industrial legacy, strong working-class culture, and amiable nature are reminiscent of a different English city. “They ought to call it ‘Little Liverpool’!” says Chaplin, with a smile. 

Lasting Landmarks

Evidence of Gothenburg’s British connections can be found in many of its landmarks, shops, and of course, pubs. Some of the historical hotspots still apparent today include:

Haga – The British ‘hood 

The area of Haga, just outside the old city, was once considered a slum, but changed character thanks to British philanthropist Robert Dickson (1782-1858), who built public baths, a library, and other landmarks with the typical red bricks found in Britain at the time.

St Andrew’s Church 

A key part of the British community is the Anglican church of Saint Andrew’s, also in Haga. Dedicated to the patron saint of Scotland, it was built and to date funded by ‘The British Factory’, a British society founded in the 1700s to help expats in Gothenburg that remains active even today.

The Victorian gothic style of the church is in line with the architectural trend in Britain at the time. 

John Scott – a legend among Gothenburgers

One of Gothenburg’s most well-loved establishments is John Scott’s, a local pub chain named after Pastor John Henry Scott, an Englishman and prominent landowner in 18th century Gothenburg. 

The “English quarter”

The square of buildings delineated by Teatergatan, Storgatan, Kungsportsavenyn and Vasagatan was once known as the city’s English Quarter. The buildings in this neighbourhood are influenced by British design, and the original landowners were in fact English pastor John Henry Scott and his wife, Jacobina.

By Alexander Maxia, Lisa Ostrowski and Sanna Sailer