16 Years Ago

Hard to believe it was 16 years ago this month but strange how time moves on. Following the shootings in Cumbria yesterday I had a conversation with someone about random acts of violence. I ended up replying with this story. I guess that it shows these attacks are random, but it can happen anywhere.

June 17th, 1994

Usual exam weather, warm, sunny and I am doing one of my first written papers for my French A-Level. The GCSE kids had got up and left 10 minutes ago, leaving only the 30 or so A-Level students sitting their French and Technology papers. Three and a half rows of small desks, I am in the 2nd row towards the back of the exam hall.

I look up from my paper, to my left by the window, Jenny Dunlop is working her way through one of the questions, she looks up and shoots me a half-frown as I crack my knuckles. Glancing past her out the floor-to-ceiling windows I catch a glimpse of a man in overalls, he looks like a Fire Extinguisher engineer, canister in one hand, duffel bag in the other. He looks lost. My eyes return to the room, catching Jenny’s, exchange a smile and get back on with the exam.

The doors at the front of the hall open. The guy with the fire extinguisher has walked in and is standing there, I look up again as I hear the sound of a Zippo lighter opening. Then suddenly, a large ball of flame engulfs the guys at the top of the first two rows and shoots down the room. Dead for sure.

It’s an exam though. Everyone is so pre-conditioned to sit there that no-one does anything. My brain is screaming at me “Get the f*ck out”. Then it kicks in and I find myself getting up and running for the exit to the right at the side of the hall. A smell of petrol and burnt everything in the air and up my nostrils. Charging through the double doors and jumping over the chairs that are left in the corridor to prevent people walking down the side of the hall during exams. Tripping, falling to the floor and back up in a heartbeat I smash the fire alarm and run out through the changing rooms into the bright sunshine.

The rest of the school is wandering slowly out towards the front of the school to be counted off before heading back to class after what they think is a drill. I try to explain it’s not a false alarm, running into friends from the year below, I explain what just happened. Still unsure of how and why. I wander in a daze for several minutes before realising I am still holding my pen and paper from the exam. An irrational fear of allegations of cheating sweeps over me and I give them to Mr Halliday, a maths teacher.

Very quickly the Bomb Squad, Police, Fire Brigade and several ambulances are on the scene. Everywhere gets cordoned off. I have no idea what on earth has just happened. Only that a bunch of people I know must be dead.

We wait for news, then a stretcher is brought out, the first of the victims, then more. We can’t make out who is who – a mixture of bandages and blankets, blood and confusion – shouting messages of hope to them as they are loaded in to the ambulance.

I really wanted a cigarette. They were in my pocket, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it in case I got into trouble. Strange what happens to your rational thought in times of extreme stress.

We were brought up to the school Staff Room where I phoned my sister – “Hey sis, how’s things….yeh fine, fine…listen, there’s been a bit of an incident, can you call mum and dad…yeh I’m fine….”

After that, it was police statements. All the detail I can muster. Trying to fathom what went on. Piecing together what I had seen. Reliving the moments. Eventually I am free to go. My sister warns me there are journalists and cameras at the gates. I walk out, cameras in my face, Sky News, BBC, UTV, Press photographers. A hundred questions in 5 seconds. Flash bulbs. News logos on microphones. I said my piece and went home.

A year later I went to Antrim courthouse every day of the trial. Listened intently. I wanted to hear him speak. Make a human of him. He was vulnerable. Unhinged. Blew his own case to shreds in a matter of 3 or 4 sentences. You could see his defence team, heads in hands.

Garnet Bell died in prison, a slow and probably uncomfortable death from cancer.

I’ve suffered flashbacks, struggle with a heightened sense of risk but overall I moved on pretty quickly. My family still wonder if I get scared at the sight of flames and fireballs on TV. It triggers a memory sometimes but nothing much more.

I do find myself consumed by stories of sudden and extreme violence. 9/11, the Tube bombings in London, school shootings and in particular Dunblane (the first of note after my own experience) had me frozen to my seat as I watched the news unfold. I needed to know everything. Somehow I crave the detail in order to deal with my own experience. This still happens. I hate it, yet something in me still needs it.

Updated: Video Report from the evening news below. All images courtesy of UTV.

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14 thoughts on “16 Years Ago

  1. It’s been many years since I read a first-person account of this. I was there that day, although I was in the year below you so I didn’t see what you saw. But all the same, I tried for a long time to get to grips with it and to find some way of understanding what happened. I think it’s why I also feel the need to know everything about similar events, especially school shootings. Thanks for writing about it.

  2. 16 years ago, my mate Andrew King were working in a Kibbutz in Israel, having finished at Sullivan the year before. This in itself is noteworthy in that Israel is also back in the news. I gather they’ve closed down all the Kibbutzes since our time as Israel has strengthened its resolve to become a tight knit force to be reckoned with. The town in which we lived 16 years ago was totally annihilated about 5 years ago.

    Anyway, we happened to be out and about 1 day in a little town called Akko when I stopped off to buy cigarettes (which were bizarrely Government subsidised so cheap as chips AND apparently contained sugar to make them more addictive). The front page news of all the papers was the Garnet Bell attack at Sullivan Upper. As the papers were in Hebrew and Arabic we couldn’t read them but the pictures of the familiar uniforms etc immediately alerted us something very bad had happened.

    I’ve since spoken to some of the most seriously affected people from the incident who all seem to have come to terms with it well. As the years have gone by, in spite of flashbacks as you mention as well as unpredictable reminders like this Cumbria thing, it’s comforting that people can find peace and move on with their lives.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Michael

  3. Thanks for posting this Nico, seems like a very long time ago for me as well. However I do have a few moments remembrance every June 17th just to reflect on how my life was changed. I have never really dwelt on what it must have been like “outside the flame” so to speak as my perspective of it was, of course very different.

    One of my abiding memories of that day were teachers who I previously may not have had the due amount of respect for covering themselves in glory with very alert and competent action (Ms Lynas, Mr Magee, Mrs Nutt) and a very lasting legacy of distaste for the reactions of John Young, who most certainly did not cover himself in any glory whatsoever…but one mustn’t dwell on other people’s shortcomings.

    My wife asks me about this event quite frequently as the scars are fading and she finds it hard to believe that I endured such an ordeal. She asks about the mental scars and lasting issues and I always confess to there being no negative ones, time is a great healer and self confidence is not something I have ever lacked. However I sometimes reflect on the reasons for such a settled perspective on this incident and its aftermath. Maybe it’s because I will never have to deal with Garnett Bell’s parole, although I never took it personally, I only ever considered it a random act by a deluded and disturbed person who had no idea who he was targeting. Maybe it’s because, other than some areas of wrinkled skin and redness I’m physically unscathed, all limbs present and correct. Most all I feel it is the fact that I have been imbued from an early age with an almost pathological sense of optimism – if it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger is a very well worn cliché, but I feel that never a truer word was said

    Darran Crawford

  4. Like everyone else it feels like a long time ago. For me, the positive that came out was a sense of perspective. I don’t worry about trivial things. When you see and feel something like that, it changes you.

    However, Darran, we were good mates but I could never bring myself to come and see you in the hospital. I made the journey once, even parked the car in the car park but I could not bring myself to actually enter the building. Guilt, I think, why you and not me?

    Anyway, I hope you are all well and it would be great to catch up some time soon.

    Take care.

  5. I was sent this link by a friend and couldn’t wait to read it, keen I suppose to find out what other people’s memories of that day were. What happened in Cumbria last week brought back memories of the 17th June for me too and I again found myself trying to make sense of such a horrific act of violence. After leaving Sullivan I did a psychology degree at Stirling uni, motivated hugely by the need to find answers and make sense of what had happened. Two years later, and only 7 miles down the road, the Dunblane massacre took place. One of our lecturers lost his 5 year daughter and I remember thinking how ‘lucky’ we were that no one died at the hands of Garnet Bell. I also attended the trial, which definitely brought some closure for me, but the

  6. …………thing that helped me most was seeing how Darran coped and got on with his life, determined not to let it hold him back in anyway.

    Yes thanks for posting this Nico………I guess its a link that will always be there in our pasts and I hope everyone is well and enjoying life to the full.

    Gail

  7. My wife and I were talking about this on Friday night, how random things can happen that change your life or those around you, instantly and irrevocably.

    I’ve always admired all of you with regard to how you dealt with this. I remember coming up to the RVH with Scott to see you Darran, (I think he was really struggling with it too Gordy), and thinking what a brave
    bas£?$d you were, I can’t really use any other term! What’s even more impressive is how you and your families dealt with it in the years after, once people’s attention moves on and you’re left to get on with things.

    In 1973 my wife Katherine’s dad was shot in the head twice by two guys robbing his Off-License, he survived but was permanently disabled; whilst a Bucanneer Jet on a test flight out of RAF Sydenham crashed into my dad’s office in 1972, missing him by about 15 seconds (Darran your saying about what doesn’t kill you is also one of his favourites).

    I think this is the reason my wife is as positive a person as she is. She is continually reminding me not to take things too seriously, or covet the trivial things in life as it can all be taken away so readily.

    Anyway I’m really pleased that everybody is on good form, it was good to hear from you all.

    Robert

    • I remember that day like it was yesterday. The feelings, the sights and the smell.

      I particularly remember this thought that you described Nico, “Everyone is so pre-conditioned to sit there that no-one does anything.” I was sitting there thinking, I better start writing something decent in this exam paper, looking up taking a quick break and seeing the perpetrator at the front of the hall I just thought he was a janitor of some sort.

      I ran as far away as I could. Up to the back pitches where 3 guys from a couple of years below (one of which played hockey too) were playing football. I explained to them what happened and being the joker that I am, they didn’t believe me. I found myself standing there thinking ‘what the hell have I just done, running out of an exam… I must have fallen asleep and had a dream and run out in my sleep’.

      As I sit here writing this with my 21 month old son on my knee and my 3 month old daughter asleep upstairs I count myself so lucky. That day could have ended lives. I always think about Darren and Stephen who were the most badly injured and have the greatest respect for them having gone through such a terrible ordeal at such a tender and formative age and coming out of it so positively.

      Not every negative experience will have a positive outcome and although the negatives have far outweighed the positives, it has brought all of us who were in that exam room on 17th June 1994 much closer.

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  9. I hadn’t heard about this flamethrower attack until I stumbled upon an article today. I lived in the UK up until 2007 but I don’t recall this news item. This attack was horrendous. To think that some lunatic (and he was clearly unhinged) could make such a dreadful weapon at home and the go out and use it is very disturbing. Just makes me dread to think what would happen if terrorists managed to run amok with such things.

  10. I was only in 3rd form when this happened, in a technology class with Mr Turner, in the middle of a practical (in the days when there was still a workshop on the ground floor of the Frost Building)
    When the fire alarm went, we all assumed it was a drill, but I can still clearly remember the look on Mr Turner’s face as it dawned on him that if exams were on, then this was no drill.
    The mood of welcome distraction quickly evaporated as we left the room, and walked round past the tunnel and library.
    We were horrified by what we saw – people in burnt clothes, panic everywhere.
    Once we were on the hockey pitches, rumours abounded – a fire bomb thrown through the window being the most popular theory.
    When we were allowed back in, I remember spending most of the afternoon in Mrs Maxwell’s hut behind the War Memorial Pavilion – peering out to catch a glimpse of what was still going on.
    We left for home cautiously, the tops of our socks turned inside, blazers and ties removed adj we couldn’t be identified as Sullivan pupils – Bell was not yet in custody.
    It is hard to believe that almost twenty years has passed since then.
    Today was the first time I read an account from someone in the hall. Thank you Nico for sharing, and Darren for adding your story too.

  11. I have been very moved reading this blog, for a number of reasons. I was the same year as your older sister Nico which prompted me to read your comments having stumbled upon them by accident whilst looking for something else in relation to Sullivan. I have a very strong affiliation with the school and my eldest son started in Year 8 today. Coupled with this, my younger brother Andy died almost exactly 1 month after you posted your comments back in 2010 so I have been gripped in a number of emotive vices. Having been to the school with my son as he begins his journey and then watching the video report I felt a wave of emotion, now as a parent rather than a former pupil. I had just graduated when I heard the news of the attack.

    It was an ordeal that none of you should have had to endure.

    As I read through all of the comments I recognised so many names and, although life experiences tend to close age gaps, my memories of you would have been probably as junior school pupils in 3rd form.

    Thank you all for your comments and courage.

    Ricky Drain

    • Thanks for commenting Ricky and for sharing your experiences as well. I remember both you and Andy and was sad to hear about his passing from Roli Shaw 4 years ago. I attended the open day at Sullivan back at the start of this year and it was lovely to see that things and people have both changed and remained the same, I was warmly greeted by a number of my old teachers and it was great to be back. With my eldest sitting her AQE this year, we will no doubt be back for another look and who knows, she may end up following in mine and her Auntie’s footsteps. Hope all well with you and yours.

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