Victims still bear the scars of IRA atrocity 20 years on
As terrorist bombs go, it was a monster.
One-and-a-half tons of Semtex and homemade explosive packed into a wagon and parked on double yellow lines near Manchester’s Arndale Centre was always going to have a devastating outcome if detonated.
But the scale of the damage inflicted on the city by the Provisional IRA that warm Saturday morning was almost beyond comprehension.
Not one building within half a mile survived unscathed. Every window in the area was blown out, sending thousands of shards of glass arrowing in all directions.
The blast could be heard from 15 miles away and left a crater in the road which was 15 metres wide.
A total of 212 people were injured, some cut down by razor-sharp debris, others blown off their feet as the shock wave spread out and even turned 90-degree corners.
Yet, incredibly, no one was killed thanks to a combination of amazing luck and a remarkable evacuation operation carried out by heroic emergency services.
Twenty years on, Manchester has been transformed into a vibrant city centre and bears none of the scars of that fateful day.
But the same cannot be said for some of the victims whose lives were changed in an instant and who must live with the consequences of what happened on June 15, 1996, knowing no one has ever been brought justice.
Victims like Barbara Welch who lives in Loctock Hall, Preston. She was the most seriously injured of all the casualties after taking the full force of a window blown in as she sat at her desk in a city centre office, 100 yards from the explosion. The fact that no one died in a city centre packed with around 80,000 shoppers owes much to the swift action of police, firefighters and paramedics.
The Ford Cargo truck had been left with its hazard lights flashing at 9.20am by two men in hooded tops. Within three minutes an eagle-eyed traffic warden had slapped a parking ticket on it.
But it was 9.38am before a man with an Irish accent phoned Granada TV, Sky TV, the North Manchester General Hospital and the Garda in Dublin to issue a warning.
His message was chillingly simply: “You’ve got one hour – clear the city centre.”
He gave the location – Corporation Street outside the Marks and Spencer store – and the code word which told police the threat was genuine.
The first police on the scene noticed wires running from the truck’s dashboard through a hole into the back.
An Army bomb disposal was called in from Liverpool and police began the huge job of evacuating crowds of shoppers and workers from the surrounding area, many of them either reluctant to leave or sceptical that it really was a bomb and not one of the many hoax calls which interrupted life in city and town centres in the eighties and nineties.
It was estimated that at 10am there were between 75,000 and 80,000 people in the vicinity. By 11.10am a cordon had been established a quarter of a mile from the truck in all directions.
As the bomb squad worked to defuse the device using a remote controlled robot the bomb went up at exactly 11.17, just over 90 minutes after the alarm had been raised.
In the blast people were injured as far as half a mile away as a mushroom cloud rose 1,000ft into the air and showered the streets with glass and masonry.
A dozen buildings closest to the bomb were so badly damaged they later had to be demolished. Nothing within half a mile escaped unscathed. In all 700 businesses were affected.
The footbridge between M&S and the Arndale Centre was blown up. Damage to property totalled more than £700m. Victims received more than £1m in compensation.
The two hooded suspects fled from the area and headed for Preston. Their getaway car, a burgundy Ford Granada which had accompanied the lorry up from London, was parked for five days in Mount Street, just 200 yards from the town’s railway station, before it was discovered and linked to the bombing.
The men had been seen dumping the car and then boarding a train “at haste” out of the city. Police discovered the vehicle had been bought three months earlier in London by a man with an Irish accent.
But why was Manchester chosen as the target of what could potentially have been the worst IRA atrocity in history?
At the time of the bombing the city was one of the host venues for the Euro 96 football championships. As such it attracted thousands of visitors and hundreds of media.
The Provisionals had only four months earlier abandoned a 17-month ceasefire by blowing up a lorry in London’s Canary Wharf, killing two people. The Manchester bomb was three times the size of the one which devastated the capital’s financial district.
But it wasn’t the first time terrorists had targeted Manchester. In April 1991 a number of incendiary devices were planted in the Arndale Centre, but were discovered before they went off. Nine months later seven more incendiaries ignited in the Arndale Centre, but no-one was injured.
Earlier, in 1974, 12 people were injured when a bomb went off at the city’s magistrates court. The following year a man was sent to jail for 15 years for firebombing the city centre. And bomb factories were discovered in Fallowfield and Salford.
Police hunting the 1996 bombers believed they had identified six suspects, but a decision was made by senior officers not to pass the case to the Crown Prosecution Service. It was two years before the CPS finally received the file and the matter was not taken any further.
There were those who believed political expediency was the reason the guilty parties escape punishment. At the time negotiations which led to the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement were at a delicate stage.
Now, 20 years after the bombing, police have said they intend to re-visit the “cold case” to see if they can finally bring someone to justice.