Sunday 7 February 2016

MANCHESTER JUNE 15th, 1996 by Adèle Geras

  Twenty years ago....a long time ago...once upon a time...back in the day, terrorists had much better manners.  On the morning of June 15th (a most beautiful, sunny day in Manchester) the IRA rang up the police and gave them notice that there would be a bomb in the city centre.  Remember that: the police had notice of the bomb. They sent in robots to find it, and they had time to evacuate the 80, 000 people working in shops and office in the area.

       Meanwhile, four  miles down the road, in leafy West Didsbury, I was getting ready to go to town. I was in search of a wedding present and I intended to go to Debenham's to look around their rather good cookery store. 

I took the 42 bus and as this was long, long ago in the days when most people still didn't have mobile phones, I gazed out of the window at Manchester looking rather lovely. As I say, the sun was shining. There was a some exciting sporting event going on...was it the Olympics? European Cup? In any case, there was something happening that was lifting this normally vibrant city to even more vibrant heights.

I didn't think anything of it when I got off the bus at Piccadilly Gardens and saw crowds filling the space. I was pondering jugs, possibly lovely glasses, or maybe even some kind of coffee pot for my friends who were getting married. I crossed the square to get to Debenham's, making my way through lots of (now I'm remembering) very quiet people. On the pavement in front of Debenham's stood a policeman. Behind him, the street was cordoned off. There was no traffic, I noticed,  on Market Street. I said to the policeman: "Can I go into Debenham's, please?"
 "No, sorry," said the policeman. "The whole area's cordoned off. We've just had a bomb threat."

In that instant, the bomb went off.  A huge, loud, fiery explosion which shook the ground and hurt the ears and which I could see, rising above the buildings. I saw it. I was standing about three minute's walk from where it detonated. Smoke, and alarms going off and everyone in the square still not saying a thing, and not moving. I will never forget it. The policeman didn't bat an eyelid. Cool doesn't begin to cover it.
 "You'd better go and stand over there with the others," he said. And so I did.

I went to stand with everyone else. There were suddenly lots of police everywhere. People from Debenham's and other shops nearby, still in their shop uniforms, were standing in tight groups. Buses appeared: lots and lots of buses, and someone from the police guided  thousands and thousands of us towards them as they left  Piccadilly Gardens going south. They didn't charge anyone for the ride.  People lined up at the bus stops. There wasn't one person I saw who pushed, or shoved or made any fuss of any kind. They simply lined up and got on the buses. There were long, long queues at the phone boxes. One at a time, everyone stood there, waiting to phone someone to tell them they were okay and not to worry. I didn't see a mobile phone that day, though I guess there must have been some early ones around. 80,000 people were behaving as well as any group of people I've ever seen has ever behaved. Calm police persons, calm bus drivers, silent passengers looking over their shoulders, back at the centre of town, which was now changed forever. Every pane of glass within a very wide radius was shattered. The hundred or so injured people were hurt by broken glass.  Not one single person was killed. That's worth saying again: NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON WAS KILLED. And that's because terrorists in those days behaved differently  from today's killers. A phone call made the difference.

When I got home, my husband, who'd heard the noise of the explosion from four miles away, dismissed it as a lorry backfiring or something. He'd been reading. There was no Twitter, nor  any internet  connection to tell him the news. We turned on the tv and watched the reports. We listened to the radio. We read the newspapers.  And that was it.

A short while later, we went into town to see the damage for ourselves. I remember a pub with a big chalkboard in front of it and on it in big letters was the legend: F*** YOU, IRA! We're open!" That was the attitude of the whole city. The centre was rebuilt to be even better than it was before, and there were jokers who persisted in saying that the IRA had done us a favour.  Nevertheless, I can still remember how I felt that night as we walked around in streets full of broken windows and twisted traffic lights: bereft. Sadder than I thought it was  possible to be about the physical fabric of the city. To see the buildings destroyed hurt me in a way I'd never have thought possible. "No one was killed," I kept telling myself. "This can be rebuilt." As indeed it was, and in record time, but the wounds to bricks and mortar were very sore that night and I can recall how it felt whenever I see pictures of war zones, so much, much worse than anything Manchester suffered.

There are many clips on Youtube which show film of what I've been describing. Just put in Manchester IRA Bomb on the site and that'll get you there.  But what these clips of film can't describe is the people, who were amazing and brave and in every way admirable.  And that's one thing that hasn't changed in the twenty intervening years. For the most part, people behave admirably when things get tough. 


Susan Price said...

A beautiful account, Adele. And valuable, since you were actually in the town centre that day.

But I suppose this is why modern terrorists are so ill-mannered. Being polite doesn't achieve what they want to achieve - it only makes people defiant and resilient.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for posting this, Adele - chilling and uplifting in equal measure.

Sally Prue said...

This makes me think of all those lives well-lived that might have been destroyed.
No tragedy can ever be quantified, can it.
Thanks, Adele.

Y S Lee said...

Very powerfully written; thank you. A friend of mine who was evacuated from the John Dalton Cafe (on Dalton St) remembers it a bit differently: breathless policeman appearing in the doorway, people streaming down Deansgate "like a scene from Ben Hur", all-round panic. But certainly, the evacuation was handled magnificently. I lived in Whalley Range in 1997-98 and the scale of reconstruction was incredible.

Marjorie said...

I had moved away from Manchester not long before this happened, and remember hearing about it on the news and calling friends who still lived there to check they were OK. I moved back later the same year. The reconstruction was pretty impressive.

I'm not sure that the lack of deaths is the only reason people were defiant and resilient. ]

I recall similar reactions following the Warrington bombs, and more recently, people have not let the 7/7 bombs stop them visiting or travelling in London

Penny Dolan said...

What a powerful story, Adele!

Katherine Clements said...

Thanks you for posting about this, Adele. I lived in Manchester at the time (I had just graduated from the University that summer) and though I was out of town when the bomb went off, that time has strong memories for me. I love your recollection of the open pub; that sums up Manchester's reaction at the time!

Freyalyn said...

Excellent post, thank you. I felt a shiver down my spine, and remembered the television coverage that evening.

Now I find myself wondering how people would behave in these days of mobile phones? How many would refuse to evacuate, or would fall over as they were walking backwards, filming? Would people hear about it on Twitter and make the journey in to see?

But as you say, terrorism was different then. I don't think we'd be given the chance to evacuate now.

Catherine Johnson said...

Thank you Adele.