Sunday 16 June 2019

‘I realised my fingers were hanging off’ – survivors talk in BBC's harrowing Manchester: Night of the Bomb documentary

Manchester: Night of the Bomb, BBC 2, 9pm tonight

Manchester: Night of the Bomb, BBC2, 9pm
Manchester: Night of the Bomb, BBC2, 9pm

Pat Stacey

What were the young girls thinking and talking about before they headed out to see Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena exactly one year ago today?

The usual things, I suppose. The ordinary, everyday things you’d expect young girls of between 12 and 17 to talk about when they have a big event just a few hours away.

What clothes and shoes to wear. What make-up to put on. Should their hair be up or down? Braids or a ponytail?

At the start of Jamie Roberts’s hour-long documentary Manchester: The Night of the Bomb, some of the girls who survived that horrendous night  —when 22-year-old Mancunian Salman Abedi, who’d been radicalised in Libya, detonated a bomb filled with nails, nuts, bolts and other metal objects that tear through flesh and bone like it’s tissue paper in the foyer, killing 22 and injuring 100 more — recall what they were thinking and feeling.

Girls — some teenagers, some barely beyond the playing-with-dolls stage — with names like Amelia, Acacia, Ella, Emilia, Eve, Tegan, Ashley and another Eve. So many girls, so many names; it’s hard to keep up, hard to remember who’s who. They blend into one sometimes.

The excitement, the anticipation they felt before the gig is still palpable, the memory of it still makes their eyes light up.

“They were really sad that they didn’t get to go,” says one of how her friends reacted when they heard she was going to see Ariana.

“Everybody was trying to copy her dance moves whilst trying to video,” says another over shaky mobile phone footage of the young star walking onto the stage. “I was really excited and pumped.”

Long before the end of this heartbreaking, blood-boiling film, the light has gone out of those young eyes, to be replaced not by tears, but by a kind of haunted blankness.

The talk has turned away from clothes and hair and make-up to blood and death and flying body parts and floors awash with blood and body tissue. One of the girls recalls removing another person’s finger or ear — she’s not entirely sure which — from her hair in the aftermath of the blast.

When the girl’s mother washed her blood-soaked hair over the bath, the viscera coming out of it clogged the plughole.

Another girl remembers trying to use her phone and noticing something was wrong. “I realised my fingers were hanging off. I still thought it wasn’t real.”

“I saw my legs on fire,” says another, “then I went unconscious.”

As a film-maker, Jamie Roberts has done an extraordinary job, weaving together the testimonies of bomb victims young and old (there were quite a few parents among the casualties and fatalities) into a powerful, harrowing hour that takes the viewer closer to the heart of carnage and tragedy than any documentary I’ve seen.

But there’s room, too, for tales of selflessness and heroism: the first-hand accounts of ordinary cops and bystanders who tried to help the dead, dying and injured by improvising tourniquets and bandages from Ariane Grande T-shirts, and using mats, crash barriers and whatever else they could lay their hands on as makeshift stretchers to ferry the victims down flights of stairs to ambulances 60 metres away.

Somebody had to take the initiative. In the midst of the visceral horror, what screams angrily out from the film is the sheer ineptitude of the official response in the wake of one of the worst terrorist atrocities in living memory.

It was 11 minutes after the blast before the armed response team arrived. A minute later, the paramedics came, but were forbidden to enter what was designated a “hot zone”.

Victims were left without expert medical help for 40 minutes. It took two hours before the fire brigade got there. Neither they nor the Greater Manchester Police were willing to talk to Roberts. Surprise, surprise.

VIDEO: Grenfell tributes as youngest victim's photo and man's recorded words shared 

Manchester: Night of the Bomb is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight (Tuesday)


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