Civil Liberties

Former counter terrorism officer caught in Manchester Arena bombing says there was ‘failure on every level’ to ‘protect, plan and rescue’

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10 min read time

As a long-serving police and counter-terrorism officer, Andrea Bradbury was better equipped than most to cope with the horror of being at the centre of a terrorist bombing attack.

Yet more than five years since the events at Manchester Arena in May 2017, she says the painful memories linked to that day will never leave her.

Nor, just as significantly, will the feeling of anger that innocent people were so badly let down, as 22 were killed and hundreds more left physically and mentally scarred. Andrea, of Ribble Valley, Lancashire said:

This was preventable, I have no doubt.

It was a perfect storm of failures in terms of the security services, the event organisers and our policing and emergency services. They were unprepared and totally caught off guard. It was appalling. It left some brave individuals, the NHS and public support and fundraising to pick up the pieces.

It was just eight weeks after calling time on a career which had stretched more than 30 years with Lancashire Police – the final eight spent as a Counter Terrorism Officer – when Andrea was stood in the Manchester Arena foyer with a friend waiting to collect their teenage daughters.

When Salman Abedi detonated his device she was just a matter of feet away. The next thing she knew she was dragging herself off the floor, looking around at motionless bodies and a scene of total devastation.

She says she immediately ‘went into police mode’ – focussing not only on trying to get her friend to safety and finding their children but also alerting emergency services to exactly what had happened, hoping to ensure help would arrive as quickly as possible.

The Public Inquiry has since heard that such help didn’t arrive quickly at all, with ‘risk adverse’ commanders holding their teams back, fearing they would be sent into further danger.

The fire service delayed for more than two hours before their officers went in, and just three ambulance service medics attended at the scene itself.

It is that failure to respond to people in need, as much as the horrific visual memories of the night she retains, that Andrea says she will never forget.

Out of everything I’ve seen and been through in my life, this is the one thing I can’t put out of my mind.

It was horrific, but what has always frustrated and angered me is that fact that it was preventable in the first place, and after it did happen, people were let so badly let down by the police and the emergency services.

Despite many individuals trying their best, the response lacked effective planning and co-ordination. It was a perfect storm of failures which cost lives.

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‘I told police it was a single bomb and that a massive emergency response was needed’

Having worked in a community role, safeguarding young people from extremism, re-integrating convicted terrorists back into society and planning emergency responses at major public events with partner agencies, Andrea knew the importance of relaying information from inside the venue immediately to those coordinating the response and hoped her experience and knowledge would be put to good use.

As soon as we were able to get to our feet after the blast I was focussed on finding our children, whilst at the same time doing what I could to assist the police and the rescue operation.

I knew immediately it had been a bomb – with the blast hitting the ceiling but other than the noise of alarms going off, it was eerily silent and still.

I called the on-call Counter Terrorism Officer within minutes of the explosion on my mobile to give them a clear picture of what had happened in there, from somebody with experience, to help them quickly assess the situation, and I gave two further updates.

I made it clear that a massive emergency response was needed immediately, as I thought around 30 people had been killed by a single bomb but that there were no firearms involved.

As I left the arena I saw emergency vehicles rushing to the area and I believed they were heading in, in numbers, to help people, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. People were left in the time of need. It was so wrong, especially when experienced officers who did go in were demanding assistance and firearms teams had secured the building.

Having located her daughter and her friend’s daughter, Andrea says she went immediately to the Headquarters of Greater Manchester Police from the Arena, to offer further assistance and before attending hospital.

It was here she says she met the Gold Commander on the night – who she told the Public Inquiry was ‘like a rabbit in the headlights’.

I provided an immediate, first account of what had happened as I was at the gatehouse the Gold Commander arrived.

I wasn’t invited in. I could have provided so much more information, drawn a map of where it all happened, detailed where people were, and offered thoughts on how to get survivors out. They didn’t have a plan at all and were caught completely unprepared.

Physiological injuries led to the breakdown

Andrea was admitted to the hospital and had surgery but suffered relatively minor physical injuries compared to some, despite there being only one person between her and the bomber as he walked up behind them and detonated the device.

Tragically, the other person did not survive. Like many, Andrea’s body was ‘peppered and dotted’ with shrapnel, and she describes the pain at the time as like having her calves “strimmed with a wire garden strimmer.”

Those injuries have healed well over time, although she still has some ongoing issues, but psychologically, she says the atrocity will never leave her mind.

Out of all of my years in policing, in which time I have seen horrific deaths on the roads, had guns and samurai swords pointed at me, this is one of the very few incidents and events which won’t leave me. I know it is the same for many others affected by that night.

There was no escape from the enormity of what happened. A lady where I live was killed and her daughter was at school with mine. The funeral went through the village and there is a memorial. In a way, you feel a sense of guilt for surviving and you struggle to cope with seeing the families and individuals affected.

I got to about October of that year when I had a breakdown and admitted I needed help. In the police, when you put that uniform on, there is an understanding that you’ll see upsetting things and attending horrific events as part of the job.

I’d been an officer for a long time, and I was of an era where you’d talk things over with your colleagues, self-manage your emotions and dust yourself down and move on, but I couldn’t do that with this.  I realised I just wasn’t functioning day to day, and I couldn’t enjoy myself at all.  It was like someone had switched something in my brain which couldn’t be switched off.

It is perhaps because this was meant to be a happy event for young children. Many parents had bought tickets for their children as Christmas or birthday presents. Nobody can understand how children could be targeted in this way.

‘As survivors, we had to fight to be heard at Public Inquiry’

Andrea was introduced to another survivor, Martin Hibbert, who suffered a severed spinal cord which left him paralysed as he protected his daughter, who was also seriously injured. He had been speaking out publicly about the response.

The two of them had also spoken to many other frustrated survivors who believed that they had important information to share that hadn’t been captured in statements taken by hospital bedsides.

However, survivors were initially excluded from participating in the Public Inquiry, as they were not granted ‘Core Participant’ status, something Andrea says caused greater pain and resentment.

As a group of survivors, many of whom had been the closest to the bombing, we were the people who had seen the devastation and the emergency response as it unfolded, and several had helped those worst injured that night,” she said.

We were effectively told our specific evidence was not required and that the inquiry was about those who’d lost their lives. It was insinuated that we’d delay things, that some weren’t mentally strong enough to take part given what had happened, and that we’d all want to tell our story and it would cost too much money.

Andrea, Martin and others in the group were eventually invited to give key evidence around the emergency response, not as Core Participants, but as witnesses. Andrea said:

It was a fight to allow us survivors to be given a voice.

Our aim was always to assist, and to ensure that the families who did lose loved ones, and those catastrophically injured, got the answers they so badly needed as to how it happened, and as to what went wrong.

The survivors were the people who saw things as they happened that night. They were the people who saw the lack of emergency response, and tried with others to help those who were catastrophically injured.

Ultimately we were able to give evidence ourselves as witnesses and we were able to raise questions over evidence being heard. We hope that families of those who lost loved ones have seen that we have been able to contribute positively to the inquiry, in finding answers and exposing the unforgivable failings.

Andrea and Martin are part of a group of more than 150 injured survivors represented by Hudgell Solicitors’ Civil Liberties team, alongside the families of Sorrell Leczkowski, 14, and Philip Tron, 32, who were killed in the attack.

Civil claims are being prepared on their behalf of all seeking damages for physical and psychological injuries, to recover loss of earnings and cover the costs of ongoing treatment, rehabilitation and care.

Hudgells partnered with specialist rehabilitation and financial experts to ensure many survivors have benefitted from tailored packages of support over the past two years, including dedicated rehabilitation services and much-needed financial assistance.

Report criticisms reflect ‘failings on every level’

Andrea, who was awarded an MBE from the Queen in 2012 for community policing and spearheading the Government’s Prevent Strategy on Extremism, says criticisms of the event organisers, police and emergency services response are entirely justified.

Too many people have done all they can to avoid accountability. The organisers initially denied they were responsible for the City Room, police officers have changed their accounts, and the national security services held enough information about Abedi and his family to have done much more to prevent it happening. He had carried out three hostile reconnaissance trips of the Arena in the days before.

It has been highlighted that there were failings on every level to plan, to protect and to rescue. Everybody who had a role to play in ensuring the safety of concert goers to those responsible for emergency response failed, and that was due to a lack of communication, training, planning and preparation.

They didn’t have a plan as how to react to such and incident, they didn’t know the venue and the escape routes, and they had not considered this event to be a high terror threat.

All classed this as a kids’ event when in fact it was a high-profile American star with 14,000 in attendance, at a time when it was known there was a significant terror threat. It was entirely unforgivable.

Andrea said she would like to personally thank the Printworks staff, the NHS staff, in particular Dr Jason Wong, the Manchester Resilience Hub for their help, and Figen Murray OBE for campaigning for Martyn’s Law.

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