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Manchester attack: "I don't know how I got through it"

I WAS working in Manchester when a suicide bomber snatched the joy out of the lives of thousands upon thousands of innocent young lives. It was truly dreadful.

From the moment my colleague, Paul Bond, one of the best journalists at the BBC, discovered the first comments on social media about what seemed to be an explosion at the Manchester Arena, he understood the severity and knew the implications, if the reports were to be confirmed. This was at 10.45pm. Barely minutes after the bombing, and before the emergency services had even arrived at the scene.

It takes a truly courageous journalist to decide at that stage to divert the attention and scant resources of a skeletal team of just two people (with Ian Leonard, another brilliant journalist) from the radio programme we were preparing to broadcast, in order to focus on unconfirmed and, by now, a confused mix of speculation and fake news that was filtering out of Manchester City Centre, Istanbul, Azerbaijan and anywhere else on the trail of disingenuity.

If the reports of an explosion turned out to be fireworks or a blown speaker at the Ariana Grande concert, the judgment call would have been questioned and, perhaps even, ridiculed. At the same time, though, if the reports turned out to be correct the implications were unimaginable and, as news broadcasters, the very essence of our job is to gauge the likely impact of any situation and to prepare listeners, in the most responsible way, for what may be the most terrible news. We have a duty to maintain the very highest professional standards that you rightly expect of us.

But when you’re a parent, another instinct kicks in. Let’s call it panic. Even though you know your children are safely tucked in bed miles away from the Manchester Arena, the very suggestion of something untoward happening at a concert where thousands upon thousands of (mostly) teenage girls are attending makes your heart race and puts you right there at the epicentre of the events as they unfold, moment by unbearable moment.

And yet, as journalists, we have to put our personal instincts to one side. We are messengers – on this occasion, sadly, of doom. We have to report the facts, unemotionally, taking due care to wait for the grim details to emerge by way of official confirmation rather than hearsay or speculation. Even when we know from eyewitness accounts that this will be one of the saddest days of our lives.

BRUTAL

Sadder, of course, for those who were caught up in it. Saddest, it goes without saying, for those who lost loved ones. The rest of us can only imagine what they are going through and what they will go through for the rest of their lives.

Sad also for every young girl in this country and around the world who, as Virginia Woolf so eloquently declared in her essay, need A Room Of One’s Own in this often brutal and violent man’s world. That Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena was such a ‘room of one’s own’ for those many thousands of girls who, like my own daughters, find a place of ecstatic joy in the concerts that they go to. A place where they can be happy and creative and where they can express themselves.

For that generation of young girls, things may never be the same again. The horror of that night will remain etched on the minds of those who were there. Their parents will, I’m sure, burst into tears in private moments every now and then as the enormity of what their children went through sinks deeper and deeper into their consciousness.

I do not know how I got through that night of broadcasting. On reflection, the hours that I spent on air anchoring my programme was like a nightmare. The kind of nightmare that I used to have as a small boy where you fall off a cliff and you just keep falling towards a certain doom. Before you hit the ground, the nightmare would start all over again, with you falling off a cliff to a certain doom.

You see, those first few hours of a tragic story are the worst few hours. They are the hours when the story is unfolding for the first time. They are the hours when you have little if any context as to what is going on. The hours when your guess is as good as mine, and I genuinely don’t know what horror is around the corner waiting for me. The sound of screaming girls running for their lives from the venue is still ringing in my ears. It is a sound I will never forget. And even though, somewhere in the recesses of my mind my inner voice was saying, ‘This is not good, this is not good… this will haunt you for ever’, I got on with the job. Almost unemotionally. I cannot explain it.

The only thing I can compare it with is being an emergency first responder. We often wonder, do we not, how the police and paramedics cope with the horror that awaits them at the scene of an accident. And as much as they say that they just get on with it because it’s the job they do, we know, do we not, that no amount of bravery, selflessness, devotion to duty or otherwise could prepare them for what they saw and had to deal with in the aftermath of the bombing at the Manchester Arena. While everybody else was running way from the horror, they ran towards it.

I would not dream for a moment of comparing myself to these amazing men and women, but on that fateful night I was the broadcasting equivalent – albeit from my relative safe studio 5.8 miles away in Media City, Salford.

As the overnight presenter, it was down to me to respond to the horror first, so by the time my colleagues on the breakfast programme picked up the mantle, they were already prepared. As were listeners waking-up to the grim news.

As I said, I don’t know how I got through it. I don’t know how the emergency services got through it. I don’t know how you got through it. I wonder if you all had a little cry afterwards. I did.

Dotun Adebayo is Britain’s most listened-to black radio talk show host. He presents Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 live Thursdays through Sundays on 909/693 MW, The Sunday Night Special on BBC 94.9FM and Reggae Time on BBC London 94.9FM on Saturday evenings. Tune in if you’re ranking!

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