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15 Apr

‘I believe that was an assassination attempt, don’t you?’

Fifty seconds from detonation, the one sound on the Brighton promenade got here from the English Channel. The tide was high, waves thudding ashore, a couple of fishermen standing within the surf like moonlit sentinels.

Forty seconds. Barely a breeze to ruffle the night. The biting wind and rain that had appeared to presage winter earlier within the week had given option to stillness. It was not even cold. Darkness draped the Grand’s eight-story facade, its windows black squares save for a couple of scattered glows, like a large crossword.

Thirty seconds. Two pedestrians – a DJ and a manager from the Pink Coconut nightclub making their way home – turned from West Street on to the promenade. A police transit van, a rattling old Bedford, trundled past them toward the Grand. Within the automotive park behind the hotel, weary constables clambered into one other van, their shift over.

Twenty seconds. Within the Victoria bar, the night’s last revellers clinked glasses. A contingent of councillors and party officials from Bradford, in tuxedos and gowns, wheedled one other three bottles of champagne from the closed bar for a farewell toast to the a hundred and first conference. A cupboard minister’s secretary discussed sharing a taxi back to the hotel of Richard Whitely, host of a TV show called Countdown.

Ten seconds. In his protected house, Patrick Magee stared on the clock.

Within the Napoleon Suite, the world’s strongest woman worked her way through the day’s final dregs of presidency business.

Five seconds. A surveillance camera positioned on the conference centre scanned the prime minister’s balcony. Printed on the top right-hand corner was the date and time: 12-10-84.

At 02:54:01, the bomb in the toilet of room 629 detonated. A superb, blinding white light pierced the partitions and corridors and brick facade. It exploded into the night air, dazzling and blurring the surveillance camera.

A fireball whooshed through the sixth floor, driven by the exponentially expanding force of the explosives’ compressed power. Blast waves radiated outward through brick and stone, unleashing a roar like thunder. In 629, Donald and Muriel Maclean flew off the bed and spun through the air. Muriel, age 54, hurtled sideways. Her husband appeared to go upward. The wall separating the bathrooms of 629 and 628 dissolved just as Jeanne Shattock, age 55, was in her bathroom bending over the tub. The bomb’s heat seared her flesh. Fragments of metal, ceramic, wood, and a green plastic lipstick holder stabbed her with the force of rifle bullets. The blast propelled her body across the corridor into a cabinet in room 638. She was decapitated. Gordon Shattock glimpsed the flash in the toilet and felt a burning sensation before being hurled off the bed. The surge of warmth appeared to pursue him through the air.

Within the room above, 729, Harvey Thomas found himself flying through space. He thought he was dreaming about asteroids.

The blast wave continued upward through the eighth floor and exploded through the roof, shooting tiles right into a starlit sky. A flagpole snapped off and arced over the promenade on to the beach.

The eruption engulfed one in every of the 2 great chimney stacks with velocity greater than a typhoon’s. For generations, these 11-foot stacks, each with five stone funnels, had belched smoke from tons of of fireplaces. Central heating had made them redundant, but still they soared with symmetrical precision over the centre of the Grand. Now the western stack, a five-ton exemplar of Victorian engineering, encountered the total force of late-twentieth-century terrorist technology. An unequal match. The stack fell.

With a rumble never forgotten by those that heard it, the masonry cracked and smashed through the roof, gathering speed and violence because it plunged downward, room by room, impelled not by explosives but that other unforgiving force: gravity.

Harvey Thomas realised he was not dreaming but flailing through a void crammed with bashing objects. Gordon Shattock experienced a slow-motion descent into Hades. “There was no floor and I began to fall right into a pit,” he recalled. Girders, concrete, and bricks crashed down with him. “I gave the impression to be falling faster than the debris and I had the sensation if I hit anything solid the debris would catch me up.”

The avalanche punched through the ceiling of 528 and picked up Eric and Jennifer Taylor and the whole lot else of their room because it hurtled down into 428, where it swept up John and Roberta Wakeham. Then 328 was obliterated, casting Anthony and Sarah Berry and their dogs into the vortex.

In 228, Norman Tebbit, lying in bed, eyes wide open for the reason that blast a couple of moments earlier, saw the chandelier sway above him. “It’s a bomb,” he shouted to his wife. Then got here a deafening roar, and the maelstrom swallowed them.

When the bomb detonated, Margaret Thatcher heard a muffled crash and felt the room shake. Plaster dropped from the ceiling. A slab of glass from a shattered window splintered into shards on the green carpet. She knew immediately it was a bomb. There have been a couple of seconds of silence, then a rumble of falling masonry. The prime minister stood up and went to the window, suspecting a automotive bomb on the promenade.

Robin Butler said: “I believe you ought to return away from the window.” Thatcher ignored him. Then, oblivious to the homicidal cascade falling above, she darted for the bedroom. “I need to see if Denis is all right.” She opened the door and vanished into darkness. Butler watched in horror. He could hear the Napoleon Suite’s bathroom collapsing. A thought honed by many years in government assailed the prime minister’s chief civil servant. “If she’s gone to her death, what am I going to inform the commission of inquiry?”

A moment later, to Butler’s immense relief, Thatcher reappeared with Denis, who was pulling clothes over his pyjamas and digesting the destruction to the toilet. “I’ve never seen a lot glass in my life.”

They went out to the corridor and saw a police bodyguard attempting to kick open a door to a set occupied by Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary, and his wife, Elspeth. The Thatchers and Butler scrambled into the secretaries’ office opposite the Napoleon Suite. The Garden Girls were unharmed, but shaken. Thatcher consoled one in every of them. “It’s probably a bomb, but don’t worry, dear.”

With the Grand Hotel still groaning and cracking, the prime minister sat in a chair and murmured to nobody particularly: “I believe that was an assassination attempt, don’t you?”

· · ·

The bomb missed the Iron Lady. It didn’t even scratch her. However it got here very, very close.

Through planning – not least, dispatching a construction engineer to review the Grand – the IRA multiplied the device’s destructive force by toppling the chimney stack. Like a monstrous guillotine, it sliced through concrete, steel, and wood, all of the option to the bottom floor. What saved Thatcher was the trail it took. It toppled through the blast hole, then veered sideways and plunged down a vertical stack of rooms with numbers ending in 8. It merely clipped those rooms, including Thatcher’s Napoleon Suite, with numbers ending in 9.

Had Thatcher still been in her bathroom she would have been cut to ribbons, perhaps fatally. The briefest extension of the speechwriting marathon – a final musing over a certain adjective, or haggling over a specific verb – could have placed her in the toilet precisely for the time being of detonation, leaving her sprayed by a blizzard of broken glass, ceramic, and concrete. As an alternative, she emerged with two minutes to spare and was within the lounge, a couple of dozen feet from the toilet, when the carnage began. Even there, she might need perished. Had the chimney stack toppled a rather different way, the tons of debris could have smashed into her suite and flattened the lounge. Revenge for the dead hunger strikers would have been served, and a significant Western democracy would have convulsed. Thatcherism might need died along with her. The attorney general would probably have designated Willie Whitelaw, a conventional Tory grandee, as caretaker prime minister while the Conservatives selected a successor. History pirouetted on a twist of geometry.

With alarm bells hammering and an incredible cloud of thick, choking dust enveloping the hotel, Thatcher had no time to mull over what might need been. Chaos reigned. The try to murder her and wipe out her government was a defining moment that stripped personal and political instincts to their essence. Hunkered within the secretaries’ office, Thatcher didn’t know the extent of the damage, or that friends and colleagues were buried in rubble fighting for oxygen, for all times. She knew she had to flee the bedlam within the Grand and take charge of the crisis.

The lights stayed on in Thatcher’s a part of the hotel, permitting an air of deceptive normality. Cabinet ministers and officials emerged from nearby rooms, some in dressing gowns and pyjamas, and huddled with the prime minister. Aides packed her documents and garments, while bodyguards discussed an exit plan. Michael Alison, Thatcher’s devout Christian parliamentary private secretary, said to her quietly: “Thank God you’re all right, Margaret.” “I do,” she replied. “I do thank him.”

· · ·

Several blocks away, three fire engines raced through Brighton’s deserted streets. Fred Bishop swayed within the lead vehicle, untroubled. The Grand’s alarm system had mechanically triggered a tape-recorded voice to the hearth brigade: “Fire, Grand Hotel, Brighton.” The message had been relayed to Preston Circus station, two miles from the hotel, where eleven men from Green Watch were on duty. Bishop was in charge. His team scrambled inside 28 seconds, blue lights flashing, with little expectation of motion. Hotel calls were often false alarms, or trivial, like a smoking toaster. “Someone’s broken a hearth alarm to get Maggie off the bed,” said a fireman.

A small, compact man with a thick moustache, Bishop loved his job. Being trained and paid to save lots of people, what was higher? His blunt honesty sometimes discommoded the higher-ups, but his men didn’t complain. Fred never asked anything he wouldn’t do himself. He did probably not follow politics, but knew concerning the Tory conference and agreed along with his colleague: probably a hoax call.

The trucks turned on to the promenade. “Here, it’s suddenly got misty,” said someone. Bishop peered ahead. Indeed, a gray miasma coated King’s Road. Then he saw sheets and pillowcases and curtains hanging from lamp-posts and lanterns. He realised the mist was dust, a billowing, smothering plume that obscured the hotel and seafront. “The dust was so thick it looked like Sleeping Beauty, as if the place had been asleep for 100 years,” one witness later said. Stumbling through it were ghostly apparitions, policemen and other people in ball gowns and tuxedos, dazed and ragged, some bleeding, like otherworldly survivors tottering ashore from an ancient shipwreck.

“There was screaming, you can hear crashes of masonry and metal,” said Lesley Brett, a passerby. She never forgot the arrival of the hearth trucks. “There was no nee-naw, just blue lights coming out of this huge cloud of dust. They arrived absolutely silently, like angels from heaven.”

Bishop ordered Green Watch to park in front of the stricken Grand and asked a policeman what had happened. “Um, it just went bang,” got here the bewildered reply.

Broken bricks, glass, and fragments of railings littered the bottom. Bishop surveyed the hotel facade. An enormous V- shaped gash ran from top to centre, with more destruction visible on lower floors. Possible causes included a bomb, a gas leak, or a roof collapse. Over the blare of fireplace alarms, he could hear shouts for help. A hotel worker told him there have been about 300 inside. Under brigade rules, if there was a bomb or suspected bomb, the crew was to park two streets away, maintain radio silence, and wait for the police bomb squad, unless there was a hearth. There seemed to be no fire. Bishop gathered his men. “Something dreadful’s happened here. It may perhaps have been a bomb … so I can’t officially order you to go in, because we don’t know. There are going to be dangers contained in the constructing. I’m moving into, to seek out out what the issue is, as much as I can, and kind out the rescues.” To a person, Green Watch volunteered to go in.

“Everyone said, ‘Well when you’re moving into, governor, we’re moving into with you.’ And that was the tip of it,” Bishop recalled. He radioed headquarters that 300 were unaccounted for, requested 10 more fire engines and multiple ambulances, then led his crew into the Grand.

· · ·

Thatcher’s bodyguards feared a secondary device – a lesson from the Narrow Water ambush – and desired to move her to a different location. Additionally they feared the potential of a sniper waiting outside to complete the job. There was also a transport problem; nobody could access the prime minister’s automotive, which was locked up for the night. By likelihood, one in every of the primary rescue ladders was laid against the Napoleon Suite balcony, but bodyguards vetoed the concept of the prime minister clambering all the way down to the promenade in full glare of street lights. They checked the rear exit for rogue gunmen – it gave the impression to be clear – and rustled up one other automotive. At 3:10am, they led the prime minister down the first-floor corridor and encountered Fred Bishop’s team.

Thatcher, impeccable in her ball gown, not a hair misplaced, greeted the rescuers with a courtesy so formal it bordered on surreal, given the chaos. “Good morning, I’m delighted to see you. Thanks for coming.” If the firemen were flummoxed, they didn’t show it. “You’ve got to think, ‘Well, didn’t have a variety of alternative really,’” Bishop said. “But you didn’t say it back to her, obviously.”

After leading the group down a dead end, a fireman led Thatcher, her husband, and a couple of officials down the important staircase to the lobby, where Patrick Magee had checked in three weeks earlier. Cement dust coated their clothes and hair and filled their mouths, making Thatcher cough. She saw rubble in the doorway and foyer – her first inkling of the carnage. Outside, beyond her line of sight, scores of guests huddled on the promenade. They’d escaped through windows, broken doors, and dust-filled corridors. Those with shoes carried the barefooted over the debris. Off-duty nurses who had been at a dinner tore their evening dresses to bandage the wounded. There was no screaming, no panic, just numb shock. “They were shaking and kept saying, ‘We’re cold, we’re cold,’” recalled Ivor Gaber, a BBC producer who had been staying on the neighbouring Metropole hotel when the explosion jolted him off the bed. “It’s shock, since it wasn’t that cold, it was quite a warm evening.”

People wandered in a daze. Keith Joseph, the education minister, in slippers and a paisley dressing gown, perched on his “red boxes”– ministerial briefcases with official papers. Lord Jock Bruce-Gardyne wore a three-piece suit and club tie, a vision of elegance sabotaged by a missing sock, subsequently earning him the nickname One Sock Jock. Lord Gowrie, a former Northern Ireland minister, fetched dozens of deck chairs from the beach. Gaber itched to film the whole lot, but to get monetary savings the BBC, and ITV, had lodged cameramen and their kit at cheaper hotels outside Brighton. As fire engines and ambulances filled King’s Road, the survivors gazed on the ruined hotel, dumbstruck. Anguish deepened when a rumour spread that Thatcher was dead.

In actual fact, she was within the lobby, delaying her exit to ask about reception staff. Assured they were all right, she followed the firemen and bodyguards toward the rear exit, clambering over discarded belongings and broken furniture. “It still never occurred to me that anyone would have died,” she later said. Dead, dying, and desperate colleagues were just yards away, invisible, entombed in rubble that stretched from the basement to the primary floor. Norman and Margaret Tebbit were actually suspended above Thatcher, encased in debris about twelve feet over the reception area. Each were grievously injured and contorted, unable to maneuver, locked in a black, muffled hell. They might not hear sirens or alarms, only the groans and chokes of others trapped nearby. Norman called for his wife and he or she replied from somewhere close. She was just inches away. He moved his left arm barely, and their fingers touched.

Oblivious to such agonies, Thatcher was shepherded outside. Gulping in night air, she climbed into the back seat of a waiting automotive with Denis and Cynthia Crawford, her personal aide. A photographer captured the moment. Crawford, gaping; Denis, dishevelled; the Iron Lady, jaw firmly set, gaze fixed ahead, like a figurehead on the bow of a ship. Shortly after 3:15am, police escorts led the option to a chosen shelter, the Brighton police station, a mile away. En route, Denis raged. “The IRA, those bastards.” His wife remained calm, inscrutable.

The five-story police station on John Street briefly became the facility centre of Britain. Thatcher sailed in, one officer commented, “like a battleship.” After turning into a navy-blue suit, the prime minister and her inner circle sipped sweet, strong tea within the office of Superintendent Dennis Williams. Other ministers and officials arrived, filling corridors, some in pyjamas, like a bizarre VIP sleepover. The US ambassador, Charles Price, was shoeless. Thatcher noticed police struggling to squeeze past the throng. She stepped out. “You people, are available in here out of the best way,” she ordered. The corridor duly unblocked. With a glint in her eye, she told a police officer: “I’m playing the schoolmarm today, aren’t I?”

While senior officers and officials discussed her accommodation, and how you can get her back to London, Thatcher tapped her fingers on the desk. Then she snapped. “Gentlemen, I actually have sat here listening to this discussion for a while and a call must be made. I don’t mind where you are taking me but there may be one clear instruction. It’s essential to have me back on the conference centre by 9am. Is that understood?”

A ghastly realisation struck her listeners. The lady intended to go on. An unprecedented attack on the British government, casualties unknown, the promenade a war zone, and he or she desired to resume the conference.

Just before 4am, Thatcher emerged from the police station to a media scrum. Ignoring bodyguards’ attempts to shoo her right into a automotive, she gave an impromptu press conference, TV camera lights illuminating the darkness. She described hearing the bomb and her escape from the Grand. “You hear about these atrocities, these bombs, you don’t expect them to occur to you. But life must go on, as usual,” she said.

“And the conference will go on?” asked the BBC’s political correspondent, John Cole. “The conference will go on,” Thatcher said.

“The conference will go on, as usual.”

The bodyguards exhaled when she climbed into the automotive, only to see her climb out again to ask Cole if he needed one other take. An hour after being almost being murdered, Thatcher desired to get the soundbite excellent. Her survival was not enough. She desired to deny the IRA even the satisfaction of halting the conference. Her speech was to go ahead, on schedule.

· · ·

Killing Thatcher: The IRA, the Manhunt and the Long War on the Crown by Rory Carroll is published by Mudlark

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