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Lancaster mum and son to perform in anniversary choir a year on from Manchester bomb attack

Cath Hill with her son Jake.
Cath Hill with her son Jake.

A mother and son who escaped the Manchester bomb physically unscathed but emotionally traumatised will perform in a choir on the anniversary of the attack today.

For Cath Hill and her son Jake, singing as part of the Manchester Survivors Choir is about being with other people who understand what they went through.

But it was not only the terror attack in Manchester in May that Cath, 43, from Lancaster, and Jake, 11, lived through last year.

They were also in Spain in August when terrorists went on a car rampage in the small fishing village of Cambrils following an earlier attack in Barcelona.

The two of them were profoundly emotionally affected by their experiences.

Cath, who set up the Manchester Survivors Choir in January, said: “Naively after the Manchester attack we had said to Jake that it wouldn’t happen to us again, the odds of it happening to us again were so small.

“But what happened in Spain was so close to us it was awful, he couldn’t sleep in his bed that night. Cambrils is very small and there were lots of police and media there.”

Cath and Jake had escaped the suicide bomb at the Ariana Grande concert partly because they had left the Arena by a different exit from where the bomb was detonated.

Afterwards both of them were badly shaken but did not access help, feeling that it should be reserved for the people who had been bereaved and injured.

Now returning a year later to sing in a choir to mark the day that changed their lives, Cath feels that the performance is about making a stand in solidarity against the two terror attacks which were designed to break them.

She said: “We realise that a lot of people like to sing. It’s for people who were involved in the attack. We’ve been running it since January and we have 40 members. We’re performing at Manchester Voices and performing at the children’s hospital in Manchester.

“There’s something wonderful about being with people who completely get what you’ve been through. It’s about having a positive activity to focus on.

“It’s not going to divide us, we are going to carry on.”

Describing what happened a year ago Cath said: “I went with my 10-year-old son, it was his first concert and we were given tickets from my husband’s company.

“We only decided we were going on the day. Jake had a great time and loved the concert and I remember thinking what an amazing first concert.

“We left via a different exit. As the bomb exploded everyone was running out and screaming, it was chaos in the Arena.

“Unknowingly I walked us back round to where it had happened.

“At first people were shouting that a speaker had exploded and I kept telling my son that was what happened but really I knew that it was something serious. People were shouting that there was a gunman.

“I phoned my husband to say something awful has happened, we are safe, just keep your phone on. Driving home we watched all the sirens go in the other direction. I still to this day don’t know exactly what Jake’s seen. He does struggle to talk about it. I’m really hopeful that he didn’t see anything awful.

“Jake slept in bed with his dad. I didn’t sleep that night. It was awful telling him the next day – telling him that people had died. He didn’t really know about terrorism.”

Cath went to visit her GP two or three days after the attack where her doctor offered her sleeping tablets because she had been unable to sleep.

She and her husband John, 45, also took Jake and their older son Tommy, 13, to Scotland for a break.

“We went to Scotland and looking back now I can see we weren’t alright,” said Cath.

“My feeling was that we weren’t bereaved so we just had to get on with it. And we did get on with it until Spain.”

The Hills had booked a holiday in August 2017 to a little fishing village called Cambrils, about 70 miles south of Barcelona.

Cath said: “Two or three days into our holiday news started to come through that there had been an attack in Barcelona.

“Jake had seen it on the TV screen and was crying. He was scared to go to the beach that night but we talked him through it and he was sort of alright.

“Some of the attackers in Barcelona had managed to get away.

“But it turned out that they escaped to Cambrils. The police found them but as they were trying to get in to where they were staying they escaped and drove a van down the high street.

“They were shot although one still managed to get away.

“It was in the early hours of the morning at about 1am.

“When we woke up the whole of the hotel was devastated. We had to tell Jake again, it was devastating.”

The pair suffered from “survivor’s grief”. Flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety in crowds became regular occurrences.

When the Hills returned to the UK Cath, who felt physically unwell after the second attack, went to the doctor again.

“They said if we can get someone to speak to Jake it might help me,” said Cath, who felt that talking to Jake herself was a catch-22 situation.

She said: “I would get upset when he spoke to me about it so he didn’t want to upset his mum.”

However she did manage to get Jake help eventually and one of the organisations which were able to be there for her son was Lancashire Nest, a scheme set up to support young people aged between 10 and 18 who have been affected by crime or subjected to bullying, threats or harassment.

The youngster was told his reaction to being in a crowd - numb legs and heart-pounding - was a natural response.

Since then Jake has made considerable progress and this, in turn, has helped his mum.

Cath said: “Indirectly, the help for Jake helped me. Through knowing he had someone professional and trained to hear these types of things, made me feel better.”

Diana Fawcett, chief officer at independent charity Victim Support said: “Following the Manchester Arena attack we had contact with over 700 people seeking information and support and we are still receiving requests today.

“For many people the impact was life changing and the support needed is long-term. One year on, we’re still supporting around 100 survivors and will continue to do so for as long as needed.

“The majority of requests for help from survivors of the Manchester attack were for psychological support and common issues include struggling to cope, difficulty sleeping, flashbacks and a fear of being alone.

“We know that occasions such as anniversaries can be difficult for survivors and want to highlight that support is still available. We provide specialist practical help and emotional support to victims of all crime, including terrorism, no matter where or when the incident took place.

“Anyone seeking help can call our free 24/7 Supportline number on 0808 16 89 111 or get in touch via the website – www.victimsupport.org.uk”

* In the aftermath of the bomb attacks, Nest has offered a package of practical and emotional help to anyone caught up in the terror, including those who were badly injured or who lost relatives in the attack. To get help from Nest call 0300 111 0323.