Two years ago today, 22 people travelled to Manchester Arena to watch Ariana Grande perform, never to return. Another 250 were left injured, while others were psychologically scarred by the terror attack, the deadliest the UK had seen since 2005's 7/7 London bombings. The horrific incident was interpreted by many as an attack on women and girls in particular (who made up most of the 14,000 concertgoers), and on Britain's values and way of life.
Two years on, the 22 people who lost their lives – 17 women, 10 of whom were children and teenagers, and five men – will be mourned and celebrated at a private memorial service in Manchester for the families of those killed and injured, and the first responders at the scene. Members of the public have been asked to reflect when the clock strikes 10.30pm, the time just after the bomb exploded.
"We know anniversaries can be a very difficult time for people, so it’s important that anyone who needs some support knows there is still help available to them," says Rachel Almeida from the charity Victim Support, which provides assistance to survivors, witnesses and families affected by the incident. That includes emotional support and help with practical issues like navigating the benefits and compensation systems and personal safety planning.
"We’re still supporting survivors and witnesses who are struggling with flashbacks from the attack, anxiety and trouble sleeping," Almeida adds. The charity was instrumental in organising peer support groups where those affected could talk about their feelings and coping strategies in a safe space, while also educating parents and teachers on how to support young people through the trauma.
One young person who was there that night is Becca Higginson, a 17-year-old college student from Stoke-on-Trent. She was standing in the arena with her mum near where the bomb went off. Had they stayed where they were for 30 seconds longer, their story could have been very different, she says. The teen, who will be taking time to reflect on the experience with her mum this evening, told us how it changed her life.
"Ariana had been off stage for about three minutes, and we were stood on the concourse that goes around the arena, when there was this massive sound, like a rumble. Everyone looked at each other for a couple of seconds in complete silence, and then we realised what had happened. Everyone started screaming and running towards the nearest exit, but we went backwards – we went back to where we had been sitting because my mum said they [the attacker] would want us to run, and there was every chance we could run into more danger.
Ten minutes later someone came on stage and said there had been no incident, everything was fine, leave as normal. But the staff were quite clearly shaken by what had gone on, so me and my mum decided to leave – we left through an exit and armed police chased us into the carpark shouting, 'This is a terrorist attack!' with their guns out. When we got into the car, we saw a lady holding a scarf to her neck that was covered with blood. We saw people lying on the street with T-shirts pressed onto them to soak up the blood. We listened to the radio all the way home and heard people telling their stories, which confirmed what we thought had happened.
While it was happening – and I don’t remember this – my mum clearly remembers me asking if we were going to die. In that moment I thought, I don’t know if we’re going to get out of this unscathed. That’s the only way I can describe it. In the weeks that followed, I had my GCSEs and I went to a festival. It was terrifying and the overall feeling I had was fear, but there was also a lot of strength in the way that people in Manchester rallied around the victims.
My mum clearly remembers me asking if we were going to die.
I’ve always noticed a lot of community spirit in Manchester but it's been heightened since that day. I was there a few weeks ago to watch Catfish and the Bottlemen at the same arena. I still think about it every single day. My mum will back this up – every day we think about what happened and how lucky we are, and the people who weren’t as lucky. There are signs up saying, 'We love Manchester'. You feel like you’re a part of something even if you’re not from Manchester. Saying that, going back was scary and standing in the foyer, even though it’s been done up, it still feels like something has happened there. There was a sense that everyone was very vigilant, but every time I’m there, the positives really outweigh the negatives.
I still think about it every single day – about what happened and how lucky we are, and the people who weren’t as lucky.
The strength of the victims' families is absolutely amazing. Saffie Roussos' mum [whose daughter was the youngest victim and who herself was badly injured] just ran a 10km in Manchester and I think she’s incredible. They are the strongest people. You just can’t imagine being in their situation. That will definitely be on my mind on the anniversary. Me and my mum are going to make sure we’re on our own when it hits 10.30, which we found quite triggering last year.
Overall, I’ve got my guard up a lot more since the attack. I'm more vigilant and I’m very aware of trying to make the most out of every situation. Every day I think, This might be your last day. You never know what’s going to happen. In a lot of situations I’ll be looking around me to see what’s going on. I struggled to not think about it intrusively for a while, but then the one-year anniversary brought me a lot of closure. I’m hoping the two-year anniversary is just going to bring that even more.
It’s changed my life – I’m so much more grateful for everything I’ve got, and I appreciate being alive so much more. Going forward, I want to finish college, go to university and then hopefully go into teaching. I’m hoping to get involved in as much charity work as possible and will try to pay tribute [to the victims] as often as I can."
Victim Support provides practical help and emotional support to victims and witnesses of crime and major incidents, no matter where or when the incident took place. Anyone seeking support can contact the charity’s free 24/7 support line on 0808 16 89 111 or via www.victimsupport.org.uk