Just as many people of a certain age can remember where they were when they heard about the assassination of America’s President Kennedy back in 1963, the IRA bombing of Manchester city centre will be forever etched in the minds and memories of the many people and their families who were affected by it. In one of the darkest and most defining moments in Manchester’s history the huge explosion on Saturday June 15th 1996 ripped through the heart of the city centre, tearing buildings apart and hurling glass and rubble a mile into the air before it rained down on hundreds of terrified shoppers and workers.
Later referred to as ‘the bomb that went round corners’ the blast hit people well out of its sight-line with a brute force that sent them flying. Windows were momentarily sucked inwards before being blown outwards a split second later, glass rained down from the high-rise Arndale tower and the bottom fell out of the escalators on Market Street, while outside Kendals people sheltering under the store’s canopy were showered with shards of broken glass when the windows blew out. Alarms shrieked from every street and hundreds of people on the edge of the inner cordon were terrified into a stampede down Deansgate, while others wandered round dazed and confused or lay on the ground in pools of blood, injured by flying glass and debris.
However, where there was great terror there was also great heroism. An incredible operation by emergency services staff who put their own lives at risk to clear 80,000 people away from the immediate bomb area, treated many of the wounded afterwards and went in search of others who may be trapped in damaged buildings made sure that in spite of the devastation caused by the explosion no-one died.
Immediately after the blast the fire crews kicked into action; reinforcements raced into the city from across the Greater Manchester region and the initial 5 fire engines and 30 firefighters turned into 20 fire engines, 11 special appliances, 115 firefighters and 26 supervisory officers. With 60 calls in the first five minutes to the ambulance control centre just over three miles away 81 ambulances and their crews from across Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Lancashire, Merseyside and Yorkshire were drafted in to tend to injuries and take casualties to hospital, while an off-duty doctor on the outskirts of the city rushed to assist staff at Manchester Royal Infirmary. He was later issued with a speeding ticket but was let off because of the circumstances.
Firefighters wearing heavy breathing apparatus sprinted up shattered stairways and down into cellars, searching for anyone trapped or injured inside abandoned shops and offices; the bomb had set off the sprinkler systems in many buildings and water was trickling down through the floors. A man suffering from severe cuts was led to safety from the Corn Exchange while an aerial platform was used to rescue an injured security guard from the third floor of the Arndale Centre. In the Royal Insurance building 100 yards from the blast cries for help were heard coming from the second floor where firefighters found 15 people suffering from shock, cuts and blast injuries, while on the third floor they found a woman lying among the debris with horrific facial injuries.
That woman was Barbara Welch, the most seriously injured of all the bomb’s victims. In the split second following the blast she took the full force of a blown out window – her face was shredded by thousands of shards of glass, most of her teeth were lost and she also suffered a damaged retina and ligament damage to her hand. Unconscious for three days, she woke in hospital with more than 250 stitches in her face and her head swollen to three times its normal size. She was allowed home after two weeks but needed more than 50 further hospital appointments, extensive surgery to repair damage to her jaw and to reconstruct her face, and months of physiotherapy.
A Kendal’s security guard and his colleague, on duty in the store, were knocked off their feet by the force of the blast. Despite having been hit by flying glass he went to the aid of a shopper crying hysterically and covered in blood from injuries to her neck and hand; he got her to the safety of one of the ambulances then went back to help as many more people as he could. A while afterwards that lady wrote to thank him.
On the edge of the inner cordon fifty staff working in the Co-op building had been told to stay inside and away from the windows but that didn’t stop them from feeling the force of the bomb. Part of the explosive-laden van landed on the second floor roof garden, its impact sending ceiling tiles showering down onto the workers, however following a couple of previous bomb attacks in the city all but two of the windows had been covered with protective film so they stayed intact. Thankfully none of the workers were injured and they were allowed out of the building an hour and a half after the bomb exploded.
By 3pm the heart of the city centre was desolate. Buses had stopped at the beginning of the evacuation and the streets were littered with stranded and destroyed cars, while dazed shoppers and workers made their way to the edge of the city to try to find phone boxes or transport home. The streets closest to the bomb site were just a sea of rubble and broken glass while added to the continual wailing of alarms music still played in some of the abandoned shops. Mannequins hung eerily out of shop windows where glass had once been and for hours afterwards pieces of masonry continued to fall from damaged buildings.
It took three years to rebuild and redevelop the damaged parts of the city centre and looking at the modern buildings today it’s hard to believe what happened there in 1996. Sadly though, for many people the sight of those new buildings will never erase the memories, evidenced by words from a couple of Manchester Evening News readers in a feature published twenty years later –
”As one of the 212 people injured that day, the physical injuries healed a long time ago. The mental torment I’ve had ever since will never leave me”
”The following day I went into Manchester and stood at the top of Market Street looking down towards the devastation. Tears were rolling down my face and I heard the woman next to me draw a ragged breath so I held her hand – complete strangers silently holding hands and weeping for our city. I will never forget that moment or that woman.”
16 thoughts on “Out of sight – but not out of danger”
It was a terrible day for Manchester, but you’ve written the account exceptionally well Eunice. These atrocities can never be fogotten, but I do wonder how our emergency services would be able to respond if a similar thing was to happen today. That’s not a reflection on the brave people who will always go above and beyond the call of duty, but the way our country is being run at the moment. That’s not a political statement, just an observation and comparison. Well done Eunice for providing us with another great post!
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Thanks for the comment Malc, your observation and comparison are very relevant. It’s taken me several days and many hours of reading and research to get this together so I’m pleased you like it 🙂
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I’ve read your two posts with interest Eunice – like you Manchester is “in my blood” as one of the two cities where I have a very strong connection (Liverpool being the other, of course). I remember the day the bomb went off very well and the consequences with the damage to many buildings meaning they were closed for years – including the Royal Exchange Theatre where we were regular visitors – the explosion lifted the “moon module” inside the Victorian building a few inches leading to structural damage. Thank goodness nobody was killed (unlike another terrorist attack just a few years ago).
Well researched and well written
Thank you. I’ve never really been a great lover of cities – my last visit to Manchester before this was in 1994 and I didn’t go again until four years ago when I became interested in street art. Since then my regular photography visits have inspired me to find out more about places within the city centre and I’m now beginning to feel quite fond of it 🙂
In 1974 I travelled home through Birmingham the day after the IRA bombings. That was interesting.
I don’t remember much about those so I’ve just looked it up – that was certainly a dreadful atrocity. At least in Manchester nobody was killed but that’s not the point, it should never have happened in the first place.
The bravery of the police clearing the area should never be forgotten. They saved so many lives that day.
They certainly did. I recently watched a cctv clip of part of the evacuation, a couple of police officers, one female, walked right past the van even after they knew that was the bomb – that took some courage.
I certainly remember where I was when I heard about it. My first thoughts on reading this were the same as Malc’s. And I thought that last quote was very moving.
I thought so too Anabel so I had to include it – to be honest it made me cry.
I’d not heard of the bombing and I had wondered why – so checked the date and realised that I was in Africa – had only left the uk a couple of months ago and the news I was used to – very uk-centric – was completely different. Everything was South African and American.
Having lived through bombings in Africa – I could relate to it – these sort of terror attacks are awful.
I didn’t know anything about this at the time as I was away on holiday in Italy. I hadn’t been to the city centre for two years before the bomb and never went afterwards until just four years ago so I don’t remember much of what it looked like before the attack. I don’t know what these people hoped to gain from planting the bomb but I’m glad that no-one was killed.
Those awful days when the UK was held to ransom by the IRA. You wonder why it couldn’t all have been resolved earlier and what was achieved by wrecking so many lives- the horror of being Barbara Welch! – or, indeed, her family. No wrongs could justify the action, could they?
I guess some people across the water just didn’t want peace and were trying to make a point but you’re right, nothing could justify what happened that day. It’s just a miracle that no-one was killed.
Poor Manchester, and I say that as a proud Yorkshire lady… Did this achieve anything other than misery?
This came towards the end of ‘peace talks’ in Northern Ireland so did it achieve anything? – I don’t know. The city centre may have been rebuilt but the emotional cost to those involved doesn’t justify actions like this.