On May 22, 10:33 p.m. local time, a suicide bomber outside an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester detonated a bomb that claimed 22 lives and injured nearly 60 others. The casualties include an eight-year-old girl and several parents waiting to pick up their kids after the show.
In the days following the attack, Billboard has spoken to several survivors. Below, Jeni Wardley — mother of 9-year-old Roxi-Blue — shares her account of the explosion and their escape.
My little girl was really looking forward to seeing Ariana Grande. She loves her so much, but it was a big deal to get her to go somewhere like the arena because she is autistic and doesn’t like big crowds and loud noises. We got the train to the gig and walked through the foyer [in Victoria train station] and we were in there before the concert started.
We were seated in the disability area, at the back, next to the [foyer] exit where the bomb went off. It happened almost literally just after Ariana Grande walked off stage. The lights came up. There was a bit of background music and then there was a really loud bang. You felt the building shake and then there was silence for a couple of seconds while everyone just kind of looked around thinking, “What was that?” Then there was loads of screams.
The scary thing is because Roxi has got autism, we kept going in and out [of the arena] during the gig to get fresh air and not be crowded by all the people. We were near the foyer five minutes before gig ended. We’d just gone back in and sat down when the bomb went off.
When everyone started screaming I immediately got up to go with Roxi, but I didn’t know which way was safe. From one of the exits loads of people where running back into the building, so I went up the other side. I got hold of Roxi and we got into this little staff room with some of the staff. Nobody knew what was going on and you could start to smell the smoke. Roxi looked white and she started being sick. She kept passing out, so I put her ear defenders on her and told her we were going to be okay. But, to be honest with you, I didn’t think we were going to be. I thought we were going to die.
I had hold of her and thought of my husband and two boys. Everything was going through my mind. I rang him and said, “A bomb’s gone off. We’re trapped in a room. I don’t know if I’m going to see you again but I love you. Please tell the boys I love them and look after them.” Next minute, this lad in the room said, “We’ve been told we’ve got to evacuate the building.” So I just focused on Roxi, held her and said, “We’re going to run and we’re not going to stop running.” I didn’t know what I was going to go out into.
As we came out of the room I could see and smell smoke and I could see loads of bits of metal all over the floor. I glanced to the left, where the bomb had gone off and it was really smoky and deadly quiet down that end. I didn’t know what they were, but there were bits of something on the floor. I didn’t want to look as I didn’t want Roxi to see what was in there. So we just ran to the exit on the right of the arena and just ran and ran and ran. Roxi’s legs started to drop and she was crying. People were petrified. It was awful seeing their faces: children clinging onto their parents in tears, all done up in lovely little tutus and bunny ears.
I remembered my husband saying to me just get to where there isn’t big crowds, so we ran for half a mile until we were out of all the chaos and sat and waited for him to come and collect us. While we were waiting you could see all cars pulling up with desperate parents on the phone saying, “My 12 year-old is down there.” All the roads started getting closed around the arena and all you could hear were helicopters, loads of sirens and just people crying everywhere. I heard people saying they’d see people covered in blood, so I realized how it serious it was.
We were actually supposed to be getting the train home, so we would have walked right through were the bomb went off. But we held back for a couple of minutes because Roxi didn’t want to be going out through the big crowds. If we’d have gone straight away, I don’t think we’d be here now.
When I think about it today, I keep bursting into tears. I keep thinking of these two lovely young girls who were next to us throughout the concert and left just before us. I don’t know if they’re okay, but I keep on picturing their faces. At the time, I just went into mummy-bear mode. If I’d been on my own, I probably would have collapsed, but my main focus was on getting my little girl out of there. I didn’t cry until I got home. My mum hugged me and I burst into tears.
I don’t know how it’s going to affect Roxi, to be honest. She wouldn’t let us leave her on the night in happened. We had to go to the toilet with her. She had to sleep in bed with me and then she kept jumping up in the night. I’ve never seen my little girl look so petrified. She said to me this morning, “Mummy, I really thought we were going to die. When we were in that room hiding, I kept seeing really nice memories of us all as a family.” I thought bloody hell. That was her life flashing before her eyes.
She said to me this morning, “I hope Ariana Grande is okay. Mummy, do you know if she’s okay?” I’ve had to tell her about how many people were hurt because she’s going to hear about it and I’d rather her hear it from me. We’re just very, very lucky and very grateful that we’re safe.
— Jeni Wardley