A public inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing will consider whether more lives could have been saved but for a two-hour delay in firefighters scrambling to the scene.
Paul Greaney QC, counsel to the inquiry in Manchester, set out a number of questions which need to be explored involving the response of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) to the deadly terror attack which left 22 dead and hundreds injured.
Problems with communication and confusion over whether an “active shooter” was on the scene after the bombing meant fire engines and their specialist equipment and stretchers did not arrive on the scene for another two hours and six minutes after the blast at 10.31pm on May 22 2017.
The public inquiry, chaired by Sir John Saunders at Manchester Magistrates’ Court, is looking at events before, during and after the suicide bombing by jihadist Salman Abedi at the end of an Ariana Grande concert.
Mr Greaney, continuing his opening statement on the third day of the hearing, said the inquiry will have to consider: “The impact, if any, of GMFRS’s absence from the scene on those affected by the bombing, whether that absence contributed or may have contributed to the loss of life that occurred.
“We need to know whether a better response by the emergency services would have saved more lives or even a single life.
“No single agency has the necessary capability to resolve a major incident on its own, due to its complexity, number of casualties and other associated risks and threats that may be present.
“There can be no doubt there was a need for such joint working on the night of 22nd of May 2017 in Manchester.”
The inquiry was told North West Fire Control was first notified at 10.34pm, three minutes after the bomb had gone off, that there had been an explosion and mass casualties and police were looking for a second device.
They also received reports, wrongly, of an “active shooter” and some casualties with gunshot wounds.
But there appeared to be confusion about whether GMFRS should follow procedures based on the incident being an explosion or a terror bombing.
Station manager Simon Berry, of GMFRS, was told a rendezvous point was arranged with police at Manchester Cathedral nearby, but this was rejected in favour of a different “muster point” for just four fire engines at Philips Park fire station three miles away from the arena.
This decision would be “critical” to the understanding of how the fire service was delayed so long in deploying to the arena, Mr Greaney said.
British Transport Police (BTP), who had declared a major incident within nine minutes of the blast, were calling the fire service asking how many fire engines had been deployed to the arena.
But North West Fire Control still believed there was an active shooter and people had been shot.
GMFRS also set up a command room at its own HQ in Salford, rather than gathering with the heads of the other emergency services at Greater Manchester Police HQ in east Manchester.
An expert report on GMFRS’s response to the attack found it “inadequate and ineffective” and said there was a lack of effective leadership, strategic direction and “operational grip”, though “no single individual” was responsible for the failings.
The inquiry, scheduled to run into next spring, continues.