MANCHESTER, England — Behind a single blue and white police crime scene tape, TV reporters spoke the now-mundane international language of modern-day horror: “Bomba,” one woman said into a camera. “Terrorista,” another said.
In the background were snatches of another voice, a confident man’s, as he told the world in English that Britain had just suffered its worst atrocity since the London bombings in 2005 when 52 people were killed and more than 700 injured.
This is Manchester, the back of Arndale shopping center to be precise, overlooking the city’s Manchester Arena, one of the world’s biggest music venues. There, in a foyer full of T-shirts and posters celebrating former child star Ariana Grande, a man blew himself up late Monday, ending at least 22 lives and shattering 59 more.
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Irina Kontorova saw the carnage, and now at that police tape she relived it in front of the cameras. Nineteen and a student, she matter of factly rattled through her evening — how she was late, how she heard a bang just after final song of the show.
And then she broke down.
“They were just children, teenagers,” she said, her cheeks reddening as tears welled up from nowhere. “They were covered in blood. They were crushed. Their legs were broken. Their arms were broken. And they were crying.”
Behind Kontorova, behind the tape, the streets were empty. The only sign of life was the flickering electronic tableau of a tram stop shut for the duration.
Manchester is full of such stories. Thousands of people, many from way beyond Manchester, were at the gig.
Many thousands more watched mobile-phone footage of the aftermath, short videos of running, stumbling, frightened teens. And all the images came with a soundtrack of screams, their high pitch telling us who had been targeted: girls, young girls, some at their first-ever pop concert.
First came stories of parents trying to reach their children, of mobile phones that just rang out. As Tuesday wore on, pictures of the dead, the missing and the injured surfaced.
All were young faces.
First was Georgina Callander, 18 and a student. But the image that flashed around the globe was of her two years ago, a superfan selfie with Ariana Grande herself.
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Callander’s joyous smile then revealed she was still in braces.
The next victim was Saffie Rose Roussos. She was 8 years old.
The head teacher in her hometown of Preston, England, said she was a “beautiful girl in every aspect of the word.”
Tuesday night, the space at the tape belonged to news crews, belonged to the world. It belonged to those telling the same bloody story as Tel Aviv, St. Petersburg, Paris, Brussels, Nice and Boston.
But Monday night the same streets were still Manchester’s.
This was where mums in pajamas brought flasks of piping hot, sweet tea for the children of strangers and for the police. This was where locals offered a warm room — even a bed for a night — to families they had never met before.
And this was where random motorists turned up offering lifts. Taxis from as far as 30 miles away in Liverpool queued to take hundreds of stranded concertgoers wherever they needed to go.
Trams and trains from Manchester’s Victoria Station had ground to a halt.
Manchester took heart from this instinctive solidarity Tuesday. A few hundred yards from the police line is a statue to Victorian reformer Richard Cobden, his sideburns long and his right hand tucked in his waistcoat.
To his feet Mancunians brought flowers and a mood of defiance. Somebody had used gray gaffer tape to stick a yellow card to his marble pedestal:
This is Manchester. We unite. We are strong. We open our doors to strangers. We give free taxi rides.
In the golden light of the late afternoon, pavement artist Rachel Harrington, 23, chalked a message from Manchester’s new mayor onto the ground below Cobden.
“We are grieving today,” she wrote in white, before adding in sky blue, “But we are strong.” She was to repeat the refrain on concrete across the city.
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Artist Leslie Darlington watched her as he sat below Cobden and tried to make sense of the world with his sketchpad.
“This is therapy for me,” the 69-year-old said, coloring a blue balloon with a white dove above a crowd of milling mourners, each figure drawn long, like a shadow.
“What happened will take a long time to sink in. They will talk about strength, but there is also trauma, and despair and fear,” Darlington said. “The legacy will take a long time to work through.”
Darlington, whose artistic name is Elton Darlo, had his own fright Tuesday. Back at Arndale shopping center, still relatively new after it was destroyed in a 1996 Irish Republican Army bombing, panic had ensued.
Mass hysteria, one witness called it.
Hundreds of shoppers had fled through its glass doors onto Manchester’s High Street amid talk of a gun and a bang and a man being escorted by armed police.
“They came out so fast I thought they were going to knock me over,” Darlington said. “They were running right towards me. I thought, ’They could kill me.’ “
These were raw nerves, frayed nerves. But as stores shuttered on the main shopping drags, many Manchester residents refused to surrender their streets.
Outside an Adidas store — shut “because of unforeseen circumstances,” a notice tacked to its window said — a band of reggae buskers called Ruff Trade played Bob Marley.
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“We want no more trouble,” they sang as two girls, one white and one Asian in a headscarf, shimmied their shoulders in sync. “Let’s forget about our problems and smile.”
His shirt off and his baseball cap emblazoned in silver cannabis leaf badges, James Frieden echoed that message.
“We’re tough, we Mancs,’ the 25-year-old cleaner said. Frieden was trying to catch up with friends he knew had been at the gig, trying to see Facebook on his phone in the blazing sunshine.
He, like so many, had been stuck after a night shift Monday and was exhausted. Frieden was in Piccadilly Gardens in the city center, one of hundreds lying on the grass and telling each other their own stories.
Here the snatches of conversation were the same as everywhere in Manchester, of sleepless nights tracing friends on social media, ears glued to 24-hour news coverage. Some were so drained that they fell asleep on the lawns, even as sirens continued to blare.
Police guarded them, many of the officers with automatic rifles held barrel down diagonally across their chests. Two officers stopped to hear another busker, Sam Fairweather.
“Good tunes, fella,” they told the 30-year-old as he packed his amplifier and guitar onto a trolley.
“Thanks,” said Fairweather, taking a long, tired drag on a cigarette.
The father of two, like Raff Trade, had been bringing Bob Marley to Manchester, rewriting lyrics on the hoof and handing out hundreds of little Christian cards saying, simply, “You are loved.”
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“The beautiful thing about this city is that everyone helped,” he said, speaking about the panic at Arndale center. “I think we changed the vibe.”
Manchester seemed to want to prove him right. As afternoon turned to evening, thousands took to the streets.
The city’s Sikh community marched into the city center waving banners saying, “I ❤ MCR,” the city’s airport code. Bystanders erupted into spontaneous applause as their colored turbans arrived in Albert Square in the shadow of Manchester’s sandstone Victorian town hall, St. George’s cross and Union flags both at half staff amid its turrets.
Here was the biggest crowd of the day. They gathered to hear words of defiance and strength, and they were not disappointed.
As the clocks struck 6, dignitaries emerged to the gentle chords of British composer Edward Elgar. And then silence fell.
As politicians such as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Liberal Democrat Tim Farron looked on, their general election campaigns suspended, preachers and poets gave the city a voice.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. David Walker, the bishop of Manchester, was cheered like a pop star as he defied those who would use an atrocity to spark hate.
“They are the very few,” he said. “But we are the many. We are the world city we are because many people have made their homes here. You cannot defeat us because love is always stronger than hate.”
Then came poet Tony Walsh with his work, This Is The Place. His words echoed across the square.
It’s hard times again in these streets of our city
But we won’t take defeat, and we don’t want your pity
Because this is the place where we stand strong together
With a smile on our face, Mancunians forever.
Walker lit a candle. After all, this was billed as a vigil.
It felt more like a celebration of victory, a city that refused to turn on itself or anyone else. Suddenly, hands were raised above heads and clapped as the crowd broke into a football chant: “Man-Chest-Er. Man-Chest-Er.”
A few solitary banners were raised, too. One read simply: “We refuse to be enemies.”