Manchester Arena bombing inquiry: Fire service apologises for two-hour delay responding to terror attack

·6-min read
'It's not national security that's the concern, but national humiliation,' lawyer tells pre-inquest hearing 
'It's not national security that's the concern, but national humiliation,' lawyer tells pre-inquest hearing

Fire chiefs have apologised for taking more than two hours to arrive at the Manchester Arena bombing, despite the fact that some firefighters had heard the explosion.

A public inquiry examining potential failings during the response to the 2017 attack heard they were partly held back by fears that “active shooter” or more terrorists were at large.

Peter O’ Reilly, the former chief fire officer at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) said he was worried that firefighters should be shot or hit by a second bombing, Wednesday’s hearing was told.

In the aftermath of the attack, he told Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham: “The Fire Brigades’ Union and the Health and Safety Executive would have had me in the dock if firefighters had been sent directly to the scene and had been killed by a terrorist.”

The inquiry previously heard that if firefighters had been deployed to the scene, they would have been able to help with the treatment and evacuation of casualties, who were carried on crowd barriers and advertising boards because of a lack of stretchers.

Andrew Warnock QC, representing GMFRS, said it accepted that its response was “neither adequate nor effective.

“It is unacceptable that it took over two hours for the fire and rescue service to attend the arena,” he added. “On behalf of GMFRS we would like to say to the families and victims that we are sorry that this happened.”

He said that many firefighters were “still have profound feelings of frustration and deep anguish that they were not there to help” after being held back by their superiors.

A key reason for the delay, Mr Warnock suggested, was the focus of emergency services had been on preparing for marauding terror attacks of the kind seen previously in Paris, where bombings were followed by gunmen.

The inquest heard that GMFRS received reports of an “active shooter” from both police and the ambulance service, and were not updated when they realised that Salman Abedi had carried out a lone suicide bombing.

Firefighters mustered at a station three miles outside the city centre and were operating under a “misinformed and skewed” understanding of an on-going threat, Mr Warnock said, while there was “silence” from the police.

Mr Warnock suggested the decision not to mobilise until further information from police about a possible active shooter “was not unreasonable”.

But he admitted that the confusion had “striking parallels” with a training exercise that saw a terror attack simulated in Manchester a year before.

Only one of the 22 victims’ injuries have been formally declared “potentially survivable” during the inquiry so far.

But Mr Warnock said firefighters could still have provided “practical assistance”, helped the ambulance service, casualties and witnesses.

He added: “The inter -agency liaison, communication and decision-making on the part of all the responding agencies fell very far short of what was expected ... and GMFRS regrets the part that its own shortcomings played in that overall failure.”

Greater Manchester Police and the North West Ambulance Service have previously admitted communications failures, which will be examined in greater detail later in the inquiry.

As well as the emergency response, it will examine the “preventability” of the attack, including what security services knew about Abedi before he struck.

A lawyer representing the Home Office admitted that he had been identified as an associate of six MI5 ”subjects of interest“, visited a terrorist prisoner twice and regularly travelled to war-torn Libya.

Cathryn McGahey QC said Abedi was investigated for five months in 2014 but the file was closed because there was “no intelligence indicating that he posed a threat to national security”.

Ms McGahey said some detail could not be made public for security reasons, and would be heard only in closed hearings, but denied that “secrecy was being used to conceal failure” amid relatives’ demands for openness.

“On two separate occasions in the months prior to the attack, intelligence was received by MI5 about Abedi,” she added.

“The intelligence was assessed at the time to relate to possibly innocent activity or to non-terrorist criminality on his part. In retrospect , this intelligence was highly relevant to the planned attack, but the significance of it was not fully appreciated at the time.”

Abedi first came to MI5's attention in December 2010 through his links to an address relevant to a subject of interest (SOI) but was not investigated, the inquiry was told.

Three years later, an investigation into an unnamed SOI A, suspected of planning to travel to Syria, discovered telephone contact with Abedi.

In March 2014, MI5 opened a dedicated investigation into the future bomber but closed that July” based on his lack of engagement with individuals of interest“ to MI5.

In 2015, MI5 found Abedi owned a telephone in contact with SOI B, who was previously linked to al-Qaeda and had been under investigation for helping others travel to Syria.

He also met B in person several times and Ms McGahey said he was likely to have influenced Abedi’s extremist ideology, but did not know about the planned attack.

Also in 2015, intelligence was received Abedi was in contact with a “longstanding SOI” C who was affiliated with extremists in Libya and “may have had some radicalising influence”.

A photo of Salman Abedi obtained from Facebook, which was shown to the Manchester Arena inquiry on 9 SeptemberGreater Manchester Police
A photo of Salman Abedi obtained from Facebook, which was shown to the Manchester Arena inquiry on 9 SeptemberGreater Manchester Police

MI5 had intelligence that Abedi regularly travelled to Libya and that from 2015 onwards the service received ”conflicting information“ about him espousing pro-Isis views.

Ms McGahey said that information was not judged to make him a security threat, and that MI5 believed there was “nothing inherently suspicious” about Abedi’s trips to Libya because he had family there.

Spies were also aware of his visits to terror offender Abdalraouf Abdallah, who had fought in Libya and was jailed for helping jihadis travel to Syria, but chose not to reopen him as an SOI.

Abedi was identified as a ”second level“ contact of three other SOIs who had links to Isis fighters abroad, in April 2016 and April and January 2017.

His name also hit a ”priority indicator“ during a separate review of former subjects of interest and MI5 was due to consider reopening their investigation nine days after the Manchester Arena bombing.

Ms McGahey said MI5 believes its decisions were “reasonable and understandable when judged in the light of the information available at the time”.

“In its rigorous review after the attack, MI5 did not identify any points where a different course of action would have been likely to lead to a different outcome,” she added. “It concluded that even if Salman Abedi had been re-opened as a subject of interest , successful pre-emption of his plot would have been unlikely.”

The inquiry, which is expected to continue into spring 2021, will resume on Thursday.

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