15th June 2016

Twenty Years on from the Manchester Bomb

On 15th June 1996 – 20 years ago today (unbelievably!) – I was woken up by my home phone, mobile phone and pager all ‘going off’ at the same time and I knew – as was the vernacular at the time – ‘we had one’.

At the time I was working at a small, specialist crisis management consultancy in Manchester and we ran 24/7 press offices for all sorts of emergency services, national pub retailers, hospitals and the like – in short, anyone who was likely to have things go wrong in a public way, on a regular basis.

On this particular morning, our ‘hat’ was the Greater Manchester Ambulance Service NHS Trust and my boss informed me there’d been a bomb in Manchester city centre.

I immediately went into that strange calm state I naturally assume when something major has happened – anyone who does and loves crisis management will know what I mean – got dressed, got in the car and headed to Gold Control, which at that time was in Belle Vue.

On the way I did wonder if my boss was pulling my leg – as was his way sometimes – as Key 103 (I think) was playing music and I was convinced they’d be reporting if there’d be something as ‘relatively significant’ as a bomb going off just around the corner from them…surely? Then a voice came on and said something like: “We apologise for the break in our programming – we’ve been evacuated from our offices due to the bomb – we’ll get to an alternative studio as soon as possible and be back with you!” …at which point I increased the pressure under my right foot and got a wiggle on.

While everyone else was being evacuated from the city, we were briefed and taken into the city in an ambulance car with flashing blues and twos (yes I have to admit – that was pretty cool!) and deposited on Albert Square where the world’s media was being corralled.

Because we were hosting Euro96 at the time, only a couple of weeks before we’d been involved in a full scale emergency exercise – someone in the city knew what they were doing! – and so we all knew each other, our roles, our contact details, where to meet and what was expected of us, which was obviously superbly helpful now that something had actually occurred.

Also because of the Euros, the world’s media got to the rally point before the UK nationals, so we immediately began answering myriad questions of interest to their particular viewers, listeners and readers – the strangest one I was asked, by the Italian TV journo was: “What denomination is the church that’s been most badly affected?” Err….?

For several hours, as the situation unfolded and more journalists gathered and probed, we answered questions, did interviews, liaised with other emergency services and authorities and generally tried to be helpful by giving the media something to point their cameras at.

(The funniest story I heard after the event was from our FD who was on holiday on the other side of the world and was suddenly treated to our MD’s face on her TV screen first thing in the morning!)

Then, when the media gradually realised there was nothing more to be gleaned from the centre of town and had moved its vans and people to the hospitals where the walking wounded were being treated, we were stood down, thanked and told to report back to Gold for a debrief.

We had to find our ‘rides’ again and were informed they were over by the Cathedral and so, because we had our ambulance tabards on – I’ve no idea if this was ‘allowed’ but – we walked through the cordoned off area, right up Cross Street and down Market Street so got a full on view of the devastation immediately surrounding the bomb’s location.

Obviously all people and cars had been evacuated from the centre and so an unearthly quiet had settled and it was quite chilling. I remember, just as we rounded the corner down onto Market Street, a globe fell out of a shop window and rolled down the hill – talk about the end of the world!…funnily enough, we decided to quicken our pace at that point.

I often talk about a crisis being an opportunity – some people have said that the Manchester Bomb was the best thing that ever happened to our city and, while I wouldn’t go that far (remembering some people lost their businesses and many people were injured) I believe it was certainly transformational.

Because of the swift and professional way in which the incident was handled following the coded warning from the IRA, there were no fatalities. This is seriously impressive when you consider it was a busy shopping Saturday, the blast radius of one mile and the sheer devastation of the city centre.

Anyone who’s ever earned their living trying to get journalists to listen to them in ‘peace time’ will know it’s not the easiest job in the world. But in the middle of things going wrong, the tables are turned and they are calling you; they need your information and support. And so, given swift, careful and professional handling, a crisis can often be an opportunity for brands, companies and organisations of any stripe.

For Manchester, we had the eyes of the world on us for days – they saw how professionally we handled ourselves as a city and they came up trumps with funding and support in the days, weeks, months and years following. It’s estimated anything up to £15bn has been pumped into Manchester since the bomb – not to mention the Commonwealth Games etc, and we’re a very different place now to what we were back then. Who knows which parts of all of the changes would and could have happened had there never been a bomb?

And the Ambulance Service also gained on the day and following, winning many accolades and awards for the way it handled itself and the media – and we made many friends in the media on that day, which sustained us through many years following – and as it’s so important for people to trust its ambulance service, this can only be a good thing.

And now we’re 20 years on and Manchester continues to grow and thrive and I look back on that day as one of the most memorable of my career to date. I still love a good crisis but am happy that they tend to be on a much smaller scale nowadays – at least physically.

So, well done Manchester and everyone involved – it was a hell of a day and different people have different recollections but it could so easily have had a very different outcome.

By Sandy Lindsay MBE, Tangerine Group Chair