Manchester Arena Inquiry: Retired officer 'felt ashamed to be a firefighter'

A crying paramedic asked firefighters why they were “stood around” instead of helping injured victims a mile away at the Manchester Arena bombing, the Public Inquiry has heard.

The first fire engine arrived at the scene two hours after the explosion on 22 May 2017 which killed 22 people and injured hundreds more at the end of an Ariana Grande concert.

During the inquiry hearings on 2 March, a retired fire officer told the hearing that specialist teams who could have helped to treat and move casualties were not going to offer “that much help” by then and they needed to get there “within five to 10 minutes”. 

Alan Topping was the duty command support officer the night of the attack and said during the aftermath he “felt ashamed to be a firefighter”.

Alan Topping giving evidence to the Arena public inquiry. Credit: Manchester Arena Inquiry.

The inquiry heard previously that police declared a terrorist firearms attack amid the false reports of gunfire, but failed to tell the fire and ambulance services. Also none of the blue light services met at a rendezvous point to arrange a planned response. 

Mr Topping told the inquiry he was not even aware of the blast at 10.31pm until he received a call from his control room more than an hour later which informed him of “loads of casualties”.

After returning from a mill fire in Stockport, Mr Topping thought his colleagues were already at the Arena and expected specialist teams to attend with more officers. 

Mr Topping was deployed to Thompson Street fire station in Manchester and was “shocked” on his arrival about 12.25am when he saw five fire engines in the front of the station “with a lot of firefighters hanging around, some lying down”.

He said: "It just didn't feel right, it didn't feel like a normal incident to me.

Mr Topping told Paul Greaney QC, counsel to the inquiry, there was "a lot of anger, upset, confusion" among the crews who were impatient at being kept away from the scene.

The inquiry heard one distressed female paramedic approached a firefighter who recalled: "She came over crying, pleading with us to go over and help.

"Her exact words were, 'what are you doing just stood around here? There are people dying, we need your help. I have just taken an 18-year-old girl in the back of an ambulance who died en route to hospital and you lot are just stood around'."

After the conversation, the firefighter then spoke to Mr Topping who did not understand why they were not acting, but he told the inquiry that senior colleagues back at the station said their bosses did not allow them to attend. 

Tributes left following the arena attack. Credit: ITV News

Mr Topping agreed with John Cooper QC, representing the bereaved families, that the scene at Thompson Street "felt wrong" because important resources and services his colleagues could have provided were "simply wasted".

Mr Cooper asked if it was right that "many, if not all" firefighters turned their back on a senior officer when he was unable to give them answers about the lack of response at a debriefing shortly after the attack.

Mr Topping said: "People showed their emotions differently whether it was turning away, walking away... people were crying. I have never seen firefighters crying at a debrief.

"Firefighters and officers felt such shame, disappointment, all words you could use to describe why we didn't attend that incident to help people.

"I felt ashamed to be a firefighter and I felt like we had let the people of Greater Manchester down. We were there to help and we didn't do our job. I just feel so sad we didn't attend for the families."

He said he no longer feels ashamed as he is now aware of the reasons why they did not attend, but he was still upset and told the inquiry that on his retirement in September 2020, he felt the joint working between emergency services in Greater Manchester had not improved enough. 

The 22 victims of the Manchester Arena attack. Credit: ITV News