After the bomb came the fall-out

One month ago, the largest bomb in mainland Britain since the Second World War blew the heart out of Manchester. The next day the disaster was forgotten. And being ignored has made the task of rebuilding that much harder. Paul Vallely reports

People have already forgotten about Manchester. The harsh truths of Northern Ireland have intervened - the defiant marching, the spectre of mob rule, the awful symbolism of a major bomb in, of all places, Enniskillen. Yet the story of the first steps to rebuild Manchester's city centre - shattered a month ago yesterday by the biggest bomb to explode on the British mainland since the Second World War - is instructive. For it spells out the cost of each of those outrages that claim the headlines for a couple of days until they are ousted by the next. Only those who are unhappy enough to become involved ever have any notion of the effects such devastation causes and how it ripples into the tiniest corners of the lives of tens of thousands of people.

There is another harsh truth, too. For most people forgot about Manchester almost as soon as it happened. Though the home-made bomb tore the commercial heart out of the nation's third largest city there was no visit from the Prime Minister; only a minor member of the Royal Family arrived to offer sympathy. Of the pounds 21m the Government offered towards the rebuilding programme, only pounds 150,000 is from the Government itself, the rest is European Union money earmarked for other parts of Britain and now diverted to Manchester.

Yet the cost of making good the damage rises week by week with every new surveyor's report, as initial cursory inspections are superseded by more detailed ones. The latest figure is more than pounds 500m. That sum is the total of thousands of individual dramas, the full extent of which unravel only gradually.

In the first days after the 3,300lb bomb erupted on the road between Marks & Spencer, the Royal Insurance and the Arndale Centre, the seventh busiest shopping mall in the country, all that most people could do was stand in mute survey of buildings whose sides had burst open. But then the phones started to ring in the Arndale's bomb-proof control lodge and the complex story began to unfold. Its 220-tenant shopkeepers - from giants such as Littlewoods to one-man newspaper kiosks - were anxious to know the extent of the damage and when they could return to trading. A task force of surveyors, architects, building contractors, health and safety and fire officers, under the city's deputy chief executive, Howard Bernstein, were soon at work dividing the area into zones of relative damage and planning a programme of checking, clean-up, repair, demolition and rebuilding.

Some 90,000 people had been evacuated from the area in less than an hour. Shoppers and staff had walked away leaving everything as it stood. "Do not go back for your handbag," said the evacuation procedure, and most people had not. "We just left," says Joan Richards, deputy superviser of the food hall at Marks & Spencer, now temporarily transferred, like all its staff, to a suburban branch. "We had left our coats, shoes and handbags with door keys, car keys, spectacles, credit cards, cheque cards ... you name it." Many didn't even have the bus fare to get home - and when they did had to call out a locksmith to get in.

In the days that followed, Arndale staff coped with a deluge of increasingly desperate calls. Traders wanted the money from their tills. Women getting married the next weekend had their wedding dresses in the Brides International shop. One shop worker needed her passport because she was going on holiday. Another needed the keys to a hire car she was using on the day of the bomb and for which she was having to continue paying (it was not only the keys, the car was in a car park which the police had cordoned off as part of the scene of crime). All had to wait.

As the surveyors made their way through the debris they allowed key members of staff to enter under escort in restricted 10-minute sessions to retrieve vital objects. The Royal Exchange, a magnificent Victorian municipal edifice, looked safe. But engineers discovered it had jumped in the blast and landed two inches askew. Ean Burgon, box office manager of the Royal Exchange Theatre, which occupies a space-capsule auditorium suspended in the 19th- century building, had to sign a safety disclaimer before being briefed on a silent, slow-motion visit to retrieve the file-server of his ticketing system's computer.

Such is the English sense of proportion that there were calls, too, about a 20-year-old parrot called Mr Magoo which one week on was still in Paddy's Rat and Carrot Irish theme pub. The staff of the Orange phone shop were also surprised to receive a call from a building control officer in the second week to say that the fish were still alive in their ornamental tank. "If you tell us where the fish food is we'll feed them," said the voice at the other end of the line.

For most, reality was more mundane. Businesses began to operate out of warehouses with borrowed desks and a few phonelines. Shopworkers from multiple chains were reallocated to other branches where many received counselling. "Sometimes it's just having a little cry with someone in the coffee-room," said one from M&S. "Sometimes its professionals telling you that your nightmares, or headaches or feeling sick all the time don't mean you're cracking up, that it's a normal reaction." Small businesses with no access to their premises or stock languished. Others, like the 44 catering staff at the theatre, were laid off because there was no prospect of its restaurant and coffee-bar reopening.

The economics of the theatre are typical of many of the city's businesses, many of which underestimated the impact of the bomb. "I think we're going to lose the matinee," the box-office man told director Braham Murray when he rang him with news of the blast. As the days passed, losing the matinee extended to losing the week, the month, the year and more. "Optimistically, it could take 18 months to get back," said Mr Murray. "At worst, the whole building might have to be pulled down."

The cost is devastating: the mobile theatre it has set up as a temporary home has only half the seats of the proper auditorium; it loses the pounds 500,000 it made last year from catering and other non-theatrical income, yet its overheads are relatively undiminished. "We had terrorist insurance for damage but not for loss of income - that would have been a pounds 50,000 premium," said Murray. "Without emergency funding from the Arts Council we'll close."

Big chains like M&S, Littlewoods and Boots can absorb some of the loss but those with a single outlet face ruin. The magnificent curved frontage of the Corn Exchange does not reveal the extent of the structural damage there; it may have to be pulled down. Meanwhile, the owners of the boutiques and stalls inside are not allowed to retrieve their stock and are denied the means to make a living.

Many were not insured. "It would have cost me pounds 1,000," said Mark Williams, owner of the Fruit Salad unit in the Arndale. So he must bear the cost himself. "I lost pounds 1,920 worth of stock plus I will still have to pay pounds 750 for the month's rent on my van and scales. I had just started to make a living from it. This will knock me back a bit."

But Williams was fortunate. He had three weeks idle - apart from being called in to clear his rotting stock ("it stank, but you should have caught the stench from the fish market"). But others are still out of business. Helplines set in the Manchester Evening News reveal the range and the depth of the problems. There are lines offering advice on accommodation, data recovery, debt counselling, pay and national insurance, for businesses at odds with their banks, and for stress.

Prospects for the Corn Exchange traders are particularly bleak. "It seems so arbitrary," one said. So it is. Part of the Arndale Centre reopened a fortnight after the bomb but a hoarding blocked off one end. On one side the crowds of shoppers with bags and pushchairs jostled amid the brittle light and competing rock music of the shops; on the other stood empty shops, deserted apart from the emergency workers clad in eerie white anti-asbestos suits. One side is not due to reopen until next month at the earliest; the other, thanks to a sale at C&A, did better business the day it reopened than on the Saturday before Christmas.

Outside, a group of engineers were meeting in a Portakabin to discuss the next phase. Is the bridge between two sections of the Arndale safe? They discuss tests that could be performed. "Even if we did them all could we still be sure?" asked one. They had had a bomb-blast expert from the Ministry of Defence there a few days before. The impact of explosives on modern concrete structures is unpredictable and often invisible. The tensions evident were those between the engineers - those for the insurers wanting to minimise the bill, those for the council wanting to maximise public safety, those for the developer who didn't mind so long as the decision was reached quickly and those for the contractor needing to ensure the chosen option chosen brought least risk to emergency workers.

"Either way," said one, acidly, "the Government's pounds 21m won't go very far. We could spend pounds 21m on that elevation alone," he said pointing to the shattered Arndale gable, 60 feet high and once covered in tiles that earned it the local nickname of the Giant's Urinal.

There is more than a touch of north-south divide in all this. "Imagine what would have been the response had this been in London," said another. People talked about "the Canary Wharf bomb" or "the Bishopsgate bomb", says Howard Bernstein, now named as chief executive of the task force to rebuild the city. "Those were just parts of a city. But this is the Manchester bomb - it has taken the heart out of the three top shopping centres in the city."

"It shocked me beyond belief that your Prime Minister didn't come. Nor did a top member of the Royal Family," says Josephine Abady, the American director who was rehearsing The Philadelphia Story for the Royal Exchange when the lorryload of IRA fertiliser exploded. "Back home, Clinton would have been on the first plane."

Bernstein maintains a diplomatic silence on that score. He is looking ahead. Tomorrow he uses the Government's pounds 150,000 to launch an international architecture competition to redesign the city centre. It is an opportunity that under normal circumstances it would be nigh impossible to get. "The emotional will is there," says Terry Thomas, managing director of the Co-operative Bank, whose headquarters survived the blast. "Manchester's sense of civic pride has been bolstered. And there is a huge opportunity to start again, to open the city and let it breathe. In the end, building something better is the only way to defeat the IRA."

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