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.