Five years on from the Manchester Arena bombings during an Ariana Grande concert, Bec Oakes reflects on the ways her city has been shaped by the tragedy.
What happened in Manchester?
On 22 May 2017, moments after Ariana Grande finished the final song of her sold-out concert at the Manchester Arena, suicide bomber Salman Abedi detonated an explosion that killed 22 innocent people and injured 1,017 more.
The attack shocked the nation to its core—it was the country’s first suicide bombing since the 7/7 London bus bombings of 2005. Its impact, however, was no more palpable than in the city of Manchester itself as Mancunians struggled to come to terms with the atrocity.
I remember the night like it was yesterday. I was a first-year student at the University of Manchester. It was the middle of exam season and I was getting ready for bed in my student accommodation in the south of the city when I received a message through a group chat for the student newspaper saying a loud bang had been heard at the Arena. After a few messages back and forth, it was quickly passed off as a blown speaker and I fell asleep thinking nothing of it. It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned it was a bomb.
"It was inconceivable that this place that held so many childhood memories was the site of a deadly attack"
The news hit me hard. Hailing from West Lancashire, I’d grown up going to the Arena to see my favourite artists perform. Like many young attendees of the Ariana Grande concert, I’d also attended my first concert there when I was just four years old. It was inconceivable to me that this place that held so many of my greatest childhood memories had become the site of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in UK history. My heart broke for every single person there, whose picture of the Arena would forever be tainted by fear.
Singer Ariana Grande at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Image via Cosmopolitan
Later in the day, I went to a local Starbucks to revise for an upcoming exam and was met by an eerie silence in the usually bustling coffee shop. Like me, everyone was in utter shock. We just sat sipping our coffees, refreshing news sites, and desperately trying to comprehend what had happened. I barely did any work before packing up and heading home.
Photo by Chris Curry
The time that followed was a scary time for the people of our city. Just one day after the attack, Manchester’s Arndale Centre was evacuated, security guards and police shouting for people to get away. Shoppers were seen running away screaming and witnesses saw a man being arrested by armed police. It was later reported that police did not think the incident was related to the Arena bombing. But everyone was on edge, constantly in fear of another attack. I almost cancelled a concert I was travelling to Liverpool for a few days later because I was scared the Manchester Arena bombing would be the first of multiple attacks.
But, despite great fear, our city showed strength and resilience in the days, weeks and months that followed, coming together in a way I’d never seen before.
"Huge queues formed outside blood donor centres"
Huge queues formed outside blood donor centres as Mancunians did whatever they could to help those injured by the explosion. It was reported that by 11am, Give Blood NHS had been so inundated by people offering to give blood that donations were no longer needed.
And, less than 24 hours after the attack, a vigil was held in Albert Square; a show of defiant solidarity. Manchester poet, Tony Walsh recited This Is The Place—which has since become synonymous with the strength of the city—to a crowd of thousands. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said, “And he then set that tone, that we’re not going to be divided by this, we’re not going to blame each other, we’re not going to hate each other, that’s what terrorists want.”
“We saw the worst of humanity and then we’ve seen the best and I’m proud to lead a place that has the very best of people always on show.”
Five years later
Five years later, the city is coming together once again to commemorate the tragedy. Candlelit vigils are being held throughout the day at Manchester Cathedral, the bells ringing at 10.31pm to mark the exact moment the bombing took place, and the Glade of Light memorial, which was opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge last week, will offer people a place to pay their respects. Further tributes are taking place at Victoria Station below the foyer where the attack took place, Spinningfields’ Everyman Cinema and the Great Manchester Run.
But, beyond fifth-anniversary events, Mancunians remember 22 May 2017 every single day. I see floral tributes and the names of the 22 innocent lives lost as I pass through Victoria Station. This Is The Place is printed on the wall of my workplace’s staff entrance. The permanent tributes spread across the city show that Manchester hasn’t forgotten that night. We never will.
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