WAITING to collect her daughter from the fateful Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena, Andrea Bradbury felt her body slam to the floor.
She had been within 15ft of suicide bomber Salman Abedi as he carried out the attack that killed 22 innocents and injured 1,017 on May 22, 2017.
In an exclusive interview to mark the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, retired police inspector Andrea, 58, who was there with pal Barbara Whittaker, said: “I don’t know anyone alive that was closer to the bomber than Barbara and I. And almost everyone around us was killed.
“His arms went this way and his legs that way and Barbara watched his torso flying over her head. Shrapnel was flying out at different angles and you could hear the pieces scuttling along the floor, and my legs felt they were being hit by garden strimming wire.
“But it was his body that stopped most of the shrapnel from hitting us.”
Watching pop star Ariana should have been a night of fun for Andrea and Barbara’s teenage girls, who they do not wish to name because they are now adults recovering from the trauma.
‘TWELVE SHRAPNEL INJURIES BELOW MY WAIST’
Instead, it turned into an evening of unimaginable tragedy.
Andrea’s daughter was 15 while Barbara’s was 14, and both managed to escape uninjured.
Their mums, who had gone together because their daughters were friends, were waiting for them in the lobby when the bomber detonated his device.
It was not until August 2020, when they were about to give evidence to the inquiry into the attack, that their lawyer showed them a CCTV image of the bomber standing behind them — a fraction of a second before he detonated his device.
Most read in The Sun
Andrea, who spent 30 years in policing, including eight with the North West County counter-terrorism unit, recalls: “I can remember hearing this massive explosion that took the ceiling down and deck-slapped us to the floor.
“I had 12 shrapnel injuries below my waist, two in my back and a bit of the battery in my right leg. One bolt hit my handbag and another went through the strap — it was a miracle I wasn’t killed.
“But I thought I’d seen the bomber and I was mortified. I went to the ground shouting, ‘You f***ing bastard’. One of the other survivors, Daren, thought it was someone shouting, ‘Allahu Akbar’. But it was me shouting, ‘You f***ing bastard’.”
Andrea added: “We knew we were fairly close, but we guessed about 30ft.
“He was actually no more than 15ft from us — and a young girl, who we later learned had died, was by my side.
“We weren’t good at all when we saw that, and most of the people you can see in the picture were killed.”
The photo shown to them has never been made public.
Andrea, who retired from Lancashire Police eight weeks before the concert, said:
“I finally had some free time so I said to Barbs, ‘Why don’t we get some tea while we wait for the girls, and get to know each other better’. At 9.45 we then headed back to the arena.
“But I never would have gone to the concert had I known how bad security was. My background is in contingency planning and there was a lad that was escorted out by two stewards at two minutes past ten that was not making me happy. He didn’t look right. He wasn’t the right age profile to be at that concert.
His arms went this way and his legs that way and Barbara watched his torso flying over her head. Shrapnel was flying out at different angles and you could hear the pieces scuttling along the floor, and my legs felt they were being hit by garden strimming wire.
“But the stewards seemed to be doing their jobs so I made a positive decision not to get involved. I later found out this lad was not shown out and came back downstairs. He looked at the stewards, used his phone then walked off and was never seen again. We were told by the inquiry that he was with a girl and wasn’t involved, but he has never been traced and the police have not eliminated him.
“As a former detective, I can’t be satisfied that he was not in any way involved. I didn’t see the actual bomber, as I was focused on spotting my daughter coming through the door.
“After the bomb, people were crying for help and it never came.
“The bomb went off at 10.31pm and I rang Special Branch from the first floor, inside the foyer, at 10.36pm. I said, ‘There’s been an explosion and I’m not ringing 999 as the phones will be inundated — just get it through the chain to senior people’.
“Barbs says I became like Robocop. I went to work and tried to drag her out of there, knowing there might be a second explosion. I feel really guilty about that now as Barbs was very concerned about a girl whose skirt had gone up and she wanted to make her decent.
“It took about 40 minutes, but we eventually found our girls at the back of the Arndale centre.
‘I WAS COVERED HEAD TO FOOT IN SOOT AND BLOOD’
“Barbs was struggling with her legs and we both had so much blood and glass in our shoes we were debating taking them off. I was covered head to foot in soot and blood.
“Her daughter took one look at me and became hysterical, asking, ‘Where is my mum?’.”
Andrea was dismayed by the slow response from the emergency services.
She said: “When we finally found the girls, they were dodging ambulances as they came running over. I told them, ‘Don’t get killed by a flipping ambulance’.
“The place was littered with emergency vehicles but the responders all stood around prevaricating and did not go in.
“The police have given themselves medals for their actions on the night. But it was the workers at the Printworks entertainment complex that helped Barbara and gave her first aid. Those guys were amazing and they’ve not received any medals for what they did.”
Andrea, who in 2012 received an MBE for community policing, joined other survivors to fight for a voice at the 2019 inquiry into what she dubs the “top-to-bottom” failings of the authorities that were supposed to keep them safe. She has also called for Martyn’s Law — named after Martyn Hett, 29, one of the 22 victims — which would force all venues and public spaces to have security plans.
Andrea, from Ribble Valley, Lancs, added: “The strange thing is that Barbs and I barely knew each other before the attack. We were just mums dropping off that would say, ‘Hiya, you all right?’.
“But I’m madly into ancestry and later, when we were talking about our family histories, Barbs kept mentioning the surname Clegg. I told her, ‘There are Cleggs that keep turning up on my family tree and we are both from farming families in the same area, we might be related’.
“Barbs bought me a DNA test for Christmas and I bought her one for her birthday. It came back — ping, cousins. Distant, but cousins all the same. We actually feel like sisters. We talk all the time and have become best friends.”
To mark the fifth anniversary next Sunday, she will be singing with the Manchester Survivors Choir, which she helped create in 2018. When they rehearse, Andrea stands side by side with Barbara in the same positions they did when the bomb went off.
Barbara, 58, said: “It was almost as if it wasn’t happening to you. It was weird. I remember walking through and seeing what was left of him (the bomber) on the floor.
“The sad thing is, you will never be the same person again. You go somewhere now and think, ‘How can I get out, where should I stand?’.
“Even if you’re shopping, you are looking at things you can pick up to defend yourself if you need to.
“That’s the life we have had to come to terms with since the attack.”