Life after the bomb

Survivors of the Manchester Arena bomb attack will never forget the tragedy of 2017 – but many are also keen to show that they are getting on with their lives, as a new documentary reveals

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Four years on from the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, an unofficial memorial remains at Victoria train station. The collection of photos, teddies, balloons and messages occupies a corner of the concourse, serving as an important reminder of the 22 people who lost their lives on 22 May 2017, when terrorist Salman Abedi detonated a homemade device in the foyer as Ariana Grande’s concert drew to a close.

‘I love concerts so much, I’m not going to stop going because of what happened.’

It’s all the more poignant that commuters and revellers pass by it as they go about their business. Life goes on, after all, but what about the people behind the headlines once the news crews have disbanded, and the reality of the devastation kicks in.

The subject matter’s explored in the new feature-length documentary A Manchester Story by debut filmmaker Anton Arenko, 23. He interviews those directly affected, such as Figen Murray, who lost her son Martyn Hett, and Adam Lawler and Eve Senior, who were injured in the blast, as well as those who set up support groups and memorial events, including Cath Hill, Petra Jordan and Michael Cox.

Tellingly, not one image from that night is shown during the 90-minute run time. Instead the emphasis is on the people, and a city, affected by the event, as well as the life-affirming stories that emerged from the horror.

“For a lot of people, especially people our age, it was a JFK or 9/11 moment. Everyone remembers what they were doing when it happened, but so much of the news, especially over the last couple of years, has been focused purely on the tragedy. People are obsessed with it,” says Lawler, 19, from Bury who suffered two broken legs, as well as head and facial injuries in the attack. His friend Olivia Campbell-Hardy didn’t survive.

“I want to share my experiences in terms of getting through it, dealing with things like survivor’s guilt, and trying to live a normal life. What’s brilliant about Anton’s film is that it focuses on the survivors and how they’re doing and the good things that have come from it. That’s what I found intriguing, and that it wasn’t a big media outlet with money and endless connections and knowledge behind it – it was just someone like me.”

Lawler’s established a close relationship with Arenko, as well as DJ Clint Boon, “a wonderful man” who’s become something of a mentor and also appears in the film, highlighting the unexpected friendships that have been forged.

The day before our chat, Lawler attended the funeral of Darron Coster, the man who tended to him in the direct aftermath of the explosion.

“Darron kept a cool head, and sat with me until the ambulance came. I owe so much to him. Without him I might not be here. He was a true hero,” acknowledges Lawler.

Coster died in a road crash in July, another reminder of the fragility and transience of life, but from the outset, Lawler has refused to live in fear, which is why he’s returned to the arena numerous times “and enjoyed myself” since the attack.

“I was only 15, so I’ve got a lot of life left to live and, for me personally, you’ve just got to go back to the things you love. I love concerts so much, so I’m not going to stop because of what happened.”

Although he’s made a full physical recovery, he says he still has flashbacks.

“PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] can be a sporadic thing. You’re not constantly living it. I think that’s a misrepresentation of what goes on, but when it does hit, it hits hard. That’s how I’ve experienced it.

“Concerts, football games, nightclubs, pubs – they don’t actually faze me but sometimes it can take you off guard and happen when you least expect it, like when you’re at the supermarket. You get a random episode of remembering something so vividly you have to leave places and almost isolate yourself to get through an episode of it,” says Lawler, who stopped going to therapy in early 2019.

“I thought just carry on as you can, and rather than dwell on it, deal with it when it hits you, but then it did become worse during lockdown and then the court case,” he says, referring to the proceedings that took place as part of a public inquiry.

It was opened last year to investigate the deaths of the Arena victims, and the first of three reports, published in June, criticised the British Transport Police, the arena operator SMG, and its contracted security providers, Showsec, for missed opportunities to minimise the impact.

“I think for a couple of weeks, it did eat me up a lot. I was enraged and still am at the mistakes and callousness and carelessness of the institutions that failed me and so many other people that night. But again, I’ve got to move forward and live my life,” notes Lawler.

He hopes to have a career in sports or entertainment journalism.

“Yes, I can hold a grudge and be angry and do all of that but at the end of the day I push it to the back of my mind and think what’s next, what’s now, for me, and just live my life.”

Murray is also striving to look forward despite the heartache of losing her son Martyn, 29. She wanted to take part in A Manchester Story in his memory.

“I’m not just saying it because I’m his mother, but on the whole Martyn was one of the most positive and life-embracing people I’ve ever met. He would’ve loved the fact Anton was doing something so positive. So many people concentrate on the negative side of the attack, and Anton didn’t. Martyn would’ve done the same,” says Murray who lives in Manchester with her husband and has four remaining children.

Asked how she and the family are doing, she admits, “It’s a mixed bag”.

“There are people looking after us families very well, but I don’t feel the need to talk about the arena attack constantly. I have therapy when I feel I need to. My kids have therapy when they feel they need to, and other than that, we just move forward, which is important and what Martyn would’ve wanted,” says Murray.

She’s campaigning for Martyn’s Law, legislation to protect the public from terrorist attacks by requiring venues to improve their security measures.

“The public consultation came to an end at the beginning of July, but I don’t envisage anything happening until the middle of next year. So while it’s going very well, I appreciate these things move incredibly slowly and I’m okay with that because I keep myself busy with other things.”

Murray’s spent the last two years studying for a master’s degree in counterterrorism “to look at the bigger picture, and to understand why bad things like this happen”.

She also visits schools and colleges to talk about the warning signs of online radicalisation, and the need for greater tolerance within society.

“A terrorist wants to evoke hate and anger, and all these negative emotions, and I feel it’s really important to break this cycle of hate. It’s why I decided to forgive the terrorist, and his brother [Hashem Abedi], and those who may have made mistakes,” she says.

“Although Martyn’s dead, I’m doing it for him. I can’t bring him back but I can hopefully try in his name to stop other mothers and families going through what we’re going through. I want to learn everything there is to learn about the security industry, and I’ll carry on as much as I have the energy. I don’t know what the future holds, but life goes on and you cope as best you can.”

There were, of course, thousands of people in attendance that night, many of whom weren’t physically injured but have been left mentally scarred.

In July, Eve Aston, who’d been struggling with depression following the attack, was found dead. In the ensuing days, Petra Jordan, who founded the Manchester Arena Survivors Group, was inundated with requests for quotes from reporters.

“My inbox just went mad from reporters asking if I wanted to comment on it, and no I don’t. I don’t want to get involved in other people’s lives in that way,” says Jordan, who was inspired to take part in A Manchester Story because of Murray’s participation.

“I’ve been approached by so many different newspapers and reporters and just ignore them all really. I’ve not done what I’ve done for anything other than helping people, and I don’t want any glory, but I’ve become quite friendly with Figen and trust her, so I decided to go with it.”

Jordan attended the Ariana Grande concert with her two children. Although understandably shaken by what she witnessed that night, she returned to work the next day. As a pastoral care worker at a high school, she was keen to check in on the students.

Soon after, she set up an online group to ensure everyone had tickets to attend the One Love Manchester concert in June 2017 as a way to aid the healing process.

“That was initially what the group was for,” explains Jordan, but then someone in the support group tried to take their life.

“I thought, you know what, I’m not happy with this. I didn’t know anyone who was psychologically injured that had got any help, so I wrote a letter to Manchester mayor Andy Burnham to explain the situation.”

Jordan, “ready to fight the fight”, presented a case study, reminding relevant figures across mental health and social care that “we’re individuals, not statistics”.

“When you’ve been through something like that, you’re not going to walk away from it unscathed. Everybody deals with things differently and when you’re asking for help, you need it then, not be told to wait so many weeks. The world can’t work like that.”

As a result, the Greater Manchester Resistance Hub, set up to coordinate care for those mentally affected by the terrorist attack, extended its support.

“People had come from all over the UK to the concert, and then they went back to their hometowns and just couldn’t access any help at all, so the Hub started contacting boroughs to ensure people could access the help they need,” notes Jordan who became a mental health first aider two years ago.

“When we did the training, they said ‘You can’t solve everybody’s problems’ and it’s true. I can’t solve anybody’s problems. All I can do is try and fight for the right services to be put in place and help people in that direction. Moving forward, I just want to see improvements in mental health services.”

Notably, the online survivors’ group continues to provide support.

“You can go on there and share how you’re feeling and realise you’re not alone. It’s just that acknowledgement. Yes, we walked away from there that night but actually, we really are still hurting.”

A word from the filmmaker

Anton Arenko (pictured above, left), 23, from Stockport reveals what it means to see his vision for A Manchester Story come to fruition.

Anton Arenko (pictured above, left), 23, from Stockport reveals what it means to see his vision for A Manchester Story come to fruition.

“I came up with the idea in 2018. I’d just finished my first year at university and was watching a few documentaries that had come out in the year since the attack and I just thought a lot of them were very focused on the horrific aspect of what happened. Tragedy and horror are easy things to sell. Of course, they’re going to recount that but for me, coming from the city, I saw a different approach.

“I saw what people were doing in the aftermath, and how they were trying to heal, and what people were trying to build from such a devastating blow to the city.

“Adam Lawler was the first person to reach out, and was so supportive, but the real game changer was Figen Murray, who I though was integral, and she’s been so positive.

“It is a passion project made with a small team. Although the pandemic posed challenges, I was lucky to have all the footage and was determined the film exists, for the people in the film, and for those they lost, to know that their legacy lives on in the positive actions of the people of the city.”

A Manchester Story is available to rent or buy on Vimeo

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