The Manchester Arena terrorist attack – two UNISON members’ stories

Adam Williams and Joe O’Brien are just two of the Public Service Champions who were at the heart of the response to the Manchester bombing

ADAM WILLIAMS was in a corridor with a patient at the Salford Royal hospital when he heard news of an explosion in Manchester. Twenty minutes later he was at the scene.

As a paramedic with the North West Ambulance Service, Adam has been trained for this type of incident. But it was still a shock when he arrived. The sound of the scene is what hit him first. Screams of panic and pain, alarms, sirens from police cars, ambulances and fire engines. He saw people wounded and confused.

“It was devastation,” he says.

The hazardous area response team, police officers and other paramedics were already at work, so Adam and his colleague grabbed their equipment and made themselves known to an officer.

They were quickly given their first patient, a teenage girl with substantial injuries. She was losing blood quickly, so they put her on a stretcher and Adam got into the back of the ambulance with her to try to stem the bleeding. With sirens blaring they drove to Manchester Royal Infirmary, but one minute away from the hospital she went into cardiac arrest.

Adam has been a paramedic for less than a year. He completed his training in the West Midlands in June 2016, but before that he was working at the North West Ambulance Service for four years, as a technician and in the control room. He says he fell into becoming a paramedic. “I did a degree in politics, then got a job in the ambulance control room to save some money to move to London.” Luckily for Manchester, he never got to London. “I had the opportunity to go on the road and that made me want to be a paramedic.”

Adam took his patient into the Manchester Royal Infirmary, where doctors and nurses took over and tried to revive her. But sadly she lost her life. Adam says he must have looked shell-shocked, because a consultant looked at him and asked if he was ok. Another colleague handed him a bottle of water, and a porter patted him on the back.

His shift wasn’t over yet, though. Adam cleaned the ambulance, restocked and headed back to central Manchester where he waited at the ambulance rendezvous point. They got the call that more ambulances were needed and five of them travelled in convoy to the scene, where Adam received his second patient of the night.

This was another high-priority patient, a woman in her forties with substantial lower limb injuries. The sirens went on again and they took her to Manchester Royal. This time the patient was in a better condition when he handed her over to the doctors and nurses, and Adam again cleaned and restocked the ambulance and travelled back. By this point most of the critical patients were being seen to, and he waited on standby until around 4am, when all the paramedics were called for a de-brief.

“I’ve never seen anything like it”

JOE O’BRIEN was drifting off to sleep with the radio on when she caught the words ‘Manchester’ and ‘explosion.’ She shot out of bed, told her husband, and rang her son who lives in central Manchester. He was fine, so her next move was to ring Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport where she works as a senior nurse in the surgical department.

A colleague told her to be on standby, and a short while later called her in. Joe jumped in her car and drove straight to A&E. She knew that a major incident plan had been put in place  that would mean all entrances and exits other than A&E would be locked down. When she arrived, security staff wearing high visibility jackets were checking the IDs of everyone entering.

Joe works in anaesthetics and recovery theatre, so she got straight to preparing equipment for surgery on patients with major traumas – within half an hour she had four theatres prepared. She also had to organise staff; Joe knew the numbers of staff and combinations of skills she’d need, but she had to think ahead and check the rota to try to call people who were not on duty the next day.

“Always in the back of your mind is that you’re coordinating this response during the night, but you also have to run through the next day and the next night. You don’t know how many cases you’re going to have and how long you’re going to have to go for.”

Joe O’Brien

While Joe was upstairs preparing theatres for surgery, the patients were downstairs in A&E being assessed by consultants, anaesthetists and surgeons. Soon she received three patients with major trauma injuries to the lower limbs, and one who also had abdominal injuries.

One of the patients was a woman in her fifties. She was brought upstairs by an A&E nurse and before he left she reached out and took his hand and said thank you. Joe began getting this woman ready for surgery.

“She was absolutely amazing. She was smiling, and saying thank you, even though she was going through such a traumatic experience.”

Because she had been so busy preparing the theatres, Joe didn’t have a full understanding of what exactly had taken place at the Manchester Arena. It was when shrapnel was being removed from patients that it began to dawn on her.

“It was nuts and bolts, and at that point you think it can’t be anything else, because that’s typical of what you hear about injuries from a suicide bomber.” Even though Joe has been working in surgical theatres for 28 years and has been trained in major incidents, this was something new. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

She managed to stay calm by focusing on the patient, “This lady relied on me to do the best, and we owe it to her to do the best by her.”

The enormity of the tragedy hit Joe when they were coming to the end of the surgeries and received a message from the police on site. They weren’t to clean or throw away any of the shrapnel and they had to bag up all the victims’ clothing and label everything clearly for evidence. “We’d never had to do that before. We all looked at each other and realised how big it was.”

“I don’t think things can ever be normal again”

When her work was done, Joe went home to her husband and dog, and after his shift Adam went home to his flatmate.

Since that night they have both had support from family and friends, but also from their colleagues. Adam says: “It’s the cliché to say it, but we are all like a family. We all know each other socially outside of the work environment, so we all help each other pull through it.”

Adam has had trouble sleeping, and since that night he has been angered at the politicisation of the event. “If you’d have taken every single immigrant out of the A&E at Manchester Royal that night they wouldn’t have been able to operate.”

Since the tragedy the atmosphere has been emotional, says Joe, “but in a good way.” They are all still shocked but staying positive, and supporting each other.

Both feel grateful for the support of their colleagues and proud of how well they all worked together that night. Adam says that everybody knew what they needed to do. Says Joe: “You’re so used to doing it day-in day-out that you forget how well we work as a team, how we do cover and support each other.”

Last Saturday was Adam’s day off so he went with a colleague to get the Manchester bee tattoo, to mark the event.

“I don’t think things can ever be entirely normal after this, but you just have to get on with your life and get on with the things you enjoy, go to work, go out, go to concerts. The moment you start changing your life and hiding yourself away, they’ve won.

“I don’t think they could ever beat Manchester into submission anyway. Many have tried but failed.”

Find out about UNISON’s Public Service Champions campaign

In March, members of the public in Manchester thanked their public sector workers


“We will never be defeated by acts of terorrism” – Dave Prentis blogs