The ear-splitting explosion came first, seconds before the shattered glass began to rain down on terrified shoppers on the busy city streets. The sound of fire engines racing across the devastated streets entwined with the screech of burglar alarms as they wailed in protest; a noise that would continue for days, long after the dust had settled and the cleanup had begun.
It was a Saturday in June 1996, the day before Fathers Day and Manchester was buzzing. Thousands had taken to the streets to enjoy the sunshine; many were looking forward to the match that afternoon, when England would play Scotland at Wembley, in the Euro 96 football championship.
Manchester was hosting games in another group and the mood was both cheerful and upbeat. As a gesture of friendship to visiting fans, the Manchester Evening News had placed billboards saying ‘Welcome to Manchester’ in four different languages and the city was alive with people from all over the world.
Unbeknown to them, IRA bombers had parked a Ford box van containing 3,300 lbs of home made explosives on Corporation Street, outside Marks and Spencer, on double yellow lines, hazard lights flashing.
Within a few minutes an unsuspecting traffic warden slapped a ticket on the windscreen as the driver and his passenger walked away towards Cateaton Street, hoods up and sunglasses on.
A phone call was then made from the Piccadilly area to an IRA member in Ireland – giving a signal that everything was in place. The two men then left the city in a burgundy Ford Granada, later abandoned in Preston.
Just before 10am, a call was received at Granada Television; it was from the IRA who warned them of the bomb in a coded message. Special Branch confirmed this was a genuine threat and minutes later the evacuation of 80,000 people from the city centre kicked into action.
By 11.10am the police cordon was a quarter of a mile around the van – the amazing effort to clear the streets would mean that no one would die from the bomb, the biggest seen in peacetime mainland Britain.
The Army’s bomb squad arrived from Liverpool, sending in a robot to break through the van’s window in an attempt to locate and destroy the timer on the passenger seat –instead it triggered the explosion.
They were just seconds from making the bomb safe.
Here is a video of the robot approaching the van and the huge explosion that followed –
Barely a window survived in a half-mile radius of the blast and buildings a mile away were damaged.
A crater measuring 15ft-wide was left where the van had been parked and Greater Manchester’s hospitals were flooded with casualties. Marks and Spencer, being closest to the bomb, was destroyed beyond repair and other notable buildings were badly damaged too. It was the day Manchester was to change forever.
The damage was extreme and far-reaching. Longridge House, home to Royal Insurance was to be demolished and the Arndale bus station, underneath the shopping centre, would never open again.
The Corn Exchange was totally wrecked and although the Royal Exchange Theatre looked like it had escaped the worst, it was later discovered that the bomb had literally raised the roof, putting it back down almost 2inches askew.
The police investigation was headed by Detective Superintendent Bernard Rees and based at Longsight station and they liaised with the head of Special Branch in Manchester. The inquiry was called Operation Cannon, after Cannon Street – close to where the van had parked that terrible day.
With the incident room in full swing, priority was given to tracing the Ford Cargo’s history.
The registration plate was A214 ACL and, according to the Police National Computer, the van belonged to a man down south, who then told police he’d sold it to a dealer, Arthur Loveridge, who lived in Peterborough.
Detectives went to investigate while others checked motorway traffic cameras, in an attempt to pick up the van’s journey into Manchester.
They discovered it was driven to London the day before the bomb and had been picked up by camera on the M1. This link with the capital would become significant as the investigation progressed. That same evening the van had headed north, accompanied by the Ford Granada that was used as the getaway vehicle.
After an appeal for information and some detective work, police discovered telephone traffic between the home of a prime suspect in Ulster and a telephone on the mainland around the time of the bomb, while another call was placed to an IRA ‘quartermaster’ from Manchester just three minutes after the van holding the bomb was parked on June 15.
Police built up a picture of events that day, as well as confirming the prime suspects.
So why weren’t they arrested?
CPS said they did not believe there was a realistic chance of securing a conviction on the evidence available and, that if the suspect was charged his defence would point out the fact he had been to Manchester after the bomb and, despite the fact that police knew he was in the city, they let him go.
In fact, the only people ever arrested in connection with the bomb were Steve Panter, crime reporter at the MEN who named the suspect, and DCI Gordon Mutch, a senior police officer who faced a harrowing ordeal, accused of leaking confidential information to Steve.
Make of that what you will…
Steve said that during the summer of 1998 he received a series of anonymous phone calls from a knowledgeable source, offering information about the Manchester bomb. He says that the police had identified suspects in the bombing of ’96 and were not going to arrest any of them for questioning. There was suspicion amongst some of the police connected to the inquiry that politics were involved, and the decision to lock away the investigation file stamped “No Action” was partly to prevent upsetting Northern Ireland, where the plans to get the peace process were finally back on track.
After the bomb Manchester was dramatically rejuvenated in a citywide renaissance that today generates millions of pounds in revenue.
The modern day skyline is very different than before. From the glass icon that is Urbis to the breathtaking Beetham Tower, the flair and passion put into the redesign are clear to see. Ian Simpson is a Manchester lad, and architect – it’s him we have to thank for many of the buildings we see in our contemporary city.
No doubt pressure was added to the post-bomb development, the Trafford Centre was due to open in 1998 – at a cost of £600 million. The new design had to be modern, and break down the barriers that existed between the wealthy centre and the ‘poor’ areas to the North.
Market Street was where these two worlds merged but there was still the physical barrier of buildings to overcome.
Pre-bomb, The Printworks, then Maxwell House, was empty and abandoned, Urbis was just a car park and there was nothing but wasteland around the Cathedral.
Manchester city centre today is a thriving, cosmopolitan place to be – full of energy, excitement and pride. In 1995 just 300 people lived in the city, today that figure is over 20,000 and growing.
Some people say that without the bomb Manchester could have suffered the same fate as Sheffield, whose city centre was hit by the challenge of out-of-town shopping malls.
Others disagree with this, pointing out that Leeds and other areas have regenerated perfectly well without a bomb ever being involved.
I’m sure the people caught there that day won’t ever see it as a positive event at all. For me it was a very dark day in my home city, but also one that helped to focus minds on how Manchester could be improved; a tragic catalyst that sparked long overdue change.
Down but never out indeed…..
This article was originally written for Within Magazine, where it appears as the cover story in the June edition.