MANCHESTER, England — Manchester was a city in shock on Tuesday, after a terror attack at an Ariana Grande concert the night before left 22 people dead and 59 injured.
Survivors of Monday’s attack spent the day piecing together what had happened as more information came to light, counting their blessings that they had managed to escape, and wondering if their city had been permanently changed by the attack.
Carolyn Yeoman barely knew who Ariana Grande was before Monday night. The business psychologist had stepped in to chaperone her 13-year-old niece Alysha to see one of her favorite artists because Alysha’s mother, Yeoman’s sister, was too unwell from cancer treatment to attend.
The pair were seated near the front of the Manchester Arena and had just stood up to leave after the final number when there was a loud bang.
“People were saying the balloons she’d used in the show were popping,” Yeoman told VICE News. “To me, it sounded like a gun. I thought it was like previous terror attacks where they come in with a gun.”
Although it was unclear what was happening, Yeoman knew they needed to escape, so they made a beeline for an exit sign at the rear of their section.
“I said to Alysha, ‘Hold my hand.’ We were literally climbing over chairs to get there. I don’t know how we did it.”
The scene was pandemonium. “There were kids everywhere on their own, screaming, frozen, and standing still. My niece was sobbing, I was as well. She just hung onto my hand and we ran and ran and ran until we got to the car.”
Georgina Lopez was also at the arena, escorting her 8-year-old daughter to her first concert. When they heard the blast, she told VICE News, “nobody knew what it was – people were saying it was a speaker blown or something because the concert had only just finished.”
“But then the screaming started, and the panic; it spread like a plague. It was just mass panic and a stampede really trying to get out. Everybody screaming, trying to climb over chairs.”
Mohammad Iqbal, a taxi driver, was waiting outside the venue to take concertgoers home, when there was a sudden rush of people from the arena. A woman and her daughter, a young teenager, approached his cab screaming.
“The mother was injured and the girl was crying. I did not see the blood, but she was crying so much,” he told VICE News.
“The mother said: ‘I need the emergency room, I’ve been shot in my leg. Take me to hospital’.”
He said he ran all the red lights on the way to the hospital and gave her his mobile phone to try to call her husband “because she’d left everything in the arena.” Iqbal’s colleagues swiftly mobilized on the scene to rush people to hospital or get them out of the area.
“You can’t explain what happened,” he said. “It’s not a usual city today. It’s totally changed from last night.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attack — there is still blood from the injured woman on the door of Iqbal’s taxi — he fears that his city may have been changed, or that it will change perceptions of his religion (Islam) in the city where he has lived happily for 37 years.
“Those that have done this, this is their personal act, not a religious act. They are causing a bad name for us and it doesn’t help.”
Manchester remains on high alert. The local shopping mall was evacuated early Tuesday after reports of a suspicious package, and the main hospital treating victims of the attack also faced security alarms as people struggled to carry on with daily life after the biggest terrorist attack to hit the U.K. since the 7/7 bombing a decade ago.
Despite this, the city has put on a show of defiance to demonstrate that “Manchester stands united.” Blood banks had to turn away donors, cafes gave out free food to the emergency services, and the city turned out in force for a vigil on Tuesday night in the city center.
Meanwhile, survivors of the attack are still struggling to process what happened. Yeoman said she stayed up until 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning, “watching the news and drinking tea.”
“I woke up again at 5 a.m. and immediately burst into tears. All I could see was those groups of 14- and 15-year-olds wandering around not knowing what to do. Every time I see on the news the poor little girl who died, then I’m crying again.”
She hopes the attack won’t change her city. “The north of England is a friendly place. But then there’s that thought that it was aimed at children,” she said. It remains to be seen how the attack will impact her niece Alysha, who she said was already “someone who worries about terrorism a lot” and had been slightly nervous to attend the concert in the first place for that reason.
Lopez said her daughter had been “very subdued” following the attack.
“She didn’t sleep at all last night, and she thought they were going to come after her because she’d managed to get away. Obviously she knows what happened because it’s all over the news, but she can’t process why anyone would want to do such a horrific thing to innocent people – and children, especially. I mean, we can’t understand it. It’s very difficult to help her come to terms with it.”
Given her experiences at her first concert, she’d said she didn’t want to go to another.
“That’s something I can totally understand, and yet she’d had an amazing night, danced and sang all night. To have that happen just shattered her.”