Madrid Train Bombings

Atocha Train Station, Madrid, Spain
March 11, 2004
Christopher Walker and John Hayden




On March 11, 2004, there were four bombings, simultaneously coordinated, at Atocha Train Station in Madrid. This was the largest act of terror that Madrid had seen in modern times, with 191 dead and 1,800 injured. The bombings came three days before Spain’s General Elections, possibly to effect the outcome of the election. The attacks were believed to be the work of an Al-Qaeda inspired terrorist cell, although no Al-Qaeda involvement was found. Bombs were placed on four separate trains, heading into Atocha Station, while stopiing at Alcala de Henares. Two bombs went off at Atocha Station, one went off at El Pozo Station, and the last one went off at Santa Eugenia Station. Spain had then been recently involved in a war in the Middle East, many believed as though the bombings were a result of Spain’s involvement. Soon after, Spain’s army retreated from the Middle East.


Where ever people go, they need to feel safe no matter what. How, through Architecture, can we help people feel safer? What is it about a structure that makes people feel secure or scared? Well, there are a couple of ways that architecture can change the mood of the people inside of the space. One of these methods is the height of the ceilings. When the ceiling is higher up, the more comfortable people are. In the world that we live in and all the technology that we have, there is no reason why we shouldn’t feel safe in the buildings we create. In case of an emergency, people inside the building need an easy escape route, one that is connected to a large portion of the building system.


The issue that John and I are investigating is the Madrid Train Bombing at Atocha Train Station on March 11, 2004. Can we prevent acts like these from ever happening through architecture? Our point is not to try and build a bomb proof building, but to create a space that evokes a safe environment and allows for easier navigation. Just like the width of the road controls the speed of the car, the width of the hallway controls the speed of the people walking through them. The wider the width of the hallways the slower people walk, and the opposite is true for thinner hallways.


BBC News covered the story, with the first broadcast on TV, on the day of the attack. In the video footage that was aired, there were photos of the trains after the attack, and interviews with people who either saw the attacks, or had a love one go missing or worse. Also, you were able to see parts of the tracks and the platform, giving you a sense of how much damage was really done. The platforms are very open with high ceilings and the walls are very far apart, held up by rows of columns. A lot of the trains run through the same platform. This creates large crowds of people who are just waiting for the trains. In the case of an attack, this can cause a large number of injuries and casualties. If the platforms were each separated, and had their own platform space, then in the case of an attack, there would be less casualties and less damage. For people commuting, navigation through the station would be easier and more direct, but for people who don’t know the station very well, say a terrorist, navigation would be more difficult and complicated to find your way around.


After the attacks on the train station, a monument was built to remember those who were lost on that fateful March day in 2004. The monument is both above and below ground, with a cylindrical shaped glass object with messages to the deceased along the sides, with an open roof. Underground there is a large square presentation room that is lit by the hole in the top of the monument, with small lights around the edges of the walls.  The two parts are connected by a round window. The connection between the three parts is supposed to represent the rising to the sky from the depth of the train station. At sunrise and sunset, the light from the sun illuminates the inscriptions on the wall.


In terms of safety, we can take tips from other buildings on how to use the architecture of the building to limit the damage inflicted by an attack. Take the 7 World Trade Center building; the architects who built it were clearly thinking of safety as their number one priority. One of the features included a thick concrete wall in the main lobby to absorb the shock from a possible explosion, keeping everything intact. The wall bends when hit with the shockwave and pushes it back the way it came from. Another architectural feature is the inner walls. The plan of the buildings is sort of like one square set inside of the other, giving each floor more strength to hold up the rest of the building, and preventing it from collapsing. The wall is 2 feet of reinforced concrete. The stairs in this shaft are wider than normal stairs to allow for faster flow down and up the stairs. Couple side notes about the design features in the building, 30% of the steel is recycled, rain water is collected to cool the building and for the park, and the building is designed to allow in plenty of natural light. What forms of architecture can absorb the shock blast of say a bomb. Could a rounded ceiling work? Could a flat ceiling? How about the walls, what does it matter if they are rounded or perpendicular to the floor? Through architecture we can create a sense of security.  Make the people inside of them feel as though they are completely safe. Whether through scale of different aspects of the building, or the structural loads that hold up the building, we as architects need to take into consideration what the safety aspects of what we’re trying to build, because if we can’t provide a place of safety for those who inhabits its space, then we have failed at what we are supposed to do.




DC Metro Smithsonian Station Platform. Google (Flickr).


Atocha Train Station Platform.


General Layout of First Floor at Atocha Train Station.


7 World Trade Center Lobby with Blast Wall.


Atocha Train Station. Alfio Garozzo.





ELAINE SCIOLINO, “Spain Struggles to Absorb Worst Terrorist Attack in Its History” New York Times, March 11, 2004.

  • This is an important article because it provides a primary source of information about what happened in the Atocha Commuter center that morning of March 11. Primary Sources are always the strongest, most valid accounts of an event, the farther away from a primary source you get, the more the story tends to change.

BBC News Europe, “ 2004: Madrid Train Attacks” BBC News, September 7, 2011.

  • This video brought to us by BBC gave me a sense of what the population was feeling at that time. Also, the ability to see the attack sites was very helpful.

Al Goodman, CNN Madrid Bureau Chief, “7 charged with aiding Madrid train bombers” CNN World News Online, November 2, 2009.

  •  This article talks about several of the involved terrorists and how they were involved in the bombings in Madrid. Something that has become somewhat of a reoccurring piece of information in many terror attacks is the fact that many terrorists move freely throughout their target country without detection.



Scholarly Articles

Glenn M. Segall, “Intelligence Methodologies Applicable to the Madrid Train Bombings, 2004” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 2005, published online February 15, 2007.


  • This article discusses security techniques that, if used may have been able to stop the bombings. Architecture is sometimes a key component in security large public areas. It can be used to either contain, control or keep people out of places they shouldn’t be.


Alejandro López Carresi, “The 2004 Madrid train bombings: an analysis of pre-hospital management” Disasters, Volume 32, Issue 1, pages 41–65, March 2008

  •  This article pertains to the issue because it has to do with the medical response to such a horrific event. Architecture can either make a process like this very swift and easy or very hard and full of obstacles.


Encyclopedia Entries

Wikipedia, “2004 Madrid train bombings” December, 2010

  •  Wikipedia is always a good place to start research on a topic. It may not always be reliable, but it will help you gain a general knowledge of who, what, where. From there you can further your research with a better knowledge of the event.


Orthographic Documentation

The Guardian “Interactive. Bomb Attacks in Madrid” The Guardian, March 11, 2004.,,1167380,00.html

  •  This website was very useful because it was interactive. The interaction on the website allowed me to get a better sense of the layout of the attack, giving me an understanding of what happened.

“ Madrid Spain Train Station”, 2006

  •  This article showed a lot about the inside of Atocha Station looks like. There were manay pictures and a map of the inside.


Design Ideas, “Madrid Train Bombing Monument, Atocha Station | FAM Arquitectura”, 2007

  • This website was about the Memorial that was erected after the attacks on the Atocha Train Station. Its an incredible two floor memorial both above ground and below, showing us that through architecture we can create a positive moment out of such a negative situation.


Video and Audio

DrWilmU, “2004 Madrid Train Bomings”, October 10,  2010

  •  This video showed us great shots of the attack sites and more. We were able to see what the Platforms looked like at Atocha Train Station, and also inside the main building.

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