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Survivors of Birmingham bombings recall tragedy

(Bimpe Fatogun, Irish News)

Thirty years after one of the most infamous episodes of the Troubles Bimpe Fatogun visits the scene of the Birmingham pub bombings.

In the first of a two-day series of special reports she hears of miraculous escapes and tragic losses of life.

New Street gleams like a jewel in the heart of the regenerated city of Birmingham. As November draws to a close, dozens of early Christmas shoppers throng through its kaleidoscope of sleek new stores.

High above, casting its long shadow over the city, rises the 265-foot Rotunda building. The 1960s architectural folly has come to symbolise the spirit of Birmingham itself - not least because it survived the massive blast which ripped through the city centre 30 years ago.

In 1974 the Mulberry Bush pub at the foot of the 23-storey building was a popular meeting place for young people in the town. So too was the Tavern in the Town, a basement bar, just 50 yards away.

On a Thursday evening 21-year-old Maureen Mitchell (nee Carlin) arranged to meet her then fiance, Ian Lord, at the Mulberry Bush at 7.45pm.

"I worked in an advertising agency and I was telling him, of all things, that I was going to a work's Christmas party and he couldn't come. I never got to go myself in the end," Mrs Mitchell said.

Also in the bar was 46-year-old John Rowlands, an electrician at the nearby Rover car factory.

He also was a regular at the bar, often taking his 11-year-old son Paul with him. The child would sit in the door of the pub drinking a soft drink while his father was inside.

"My mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and she was very ill at times," Paul Rowlands said.

"What would happen was my father would pick me up and I would sit in the pub doorway having a Coke while he was in the pub.

"I remember when people used to go on holiday they would bring back dolls from wherever they were and they would be put behind the bar. I remember looking at those dolls."

On the night of the explosion Paul Rowlands remained at home with his mother, Iris – a chance circumstance that would save his life.

Some of those in the bar heard the deafening explosion, while others only saw a flash of light when the bomb detonated.

It was followed minutes later by a second bomb at the Tavern in the Town.

For Mrs Mitchell time seemed to slow to a crawl.

"It was like the lights went off. They just flashed out. It was like a feeling of flying through the air, of being lifted off your feet and flying through the air," she said.

"It was like it was in slow motion. The strangest thing was it felt as if somebody had ripped my tights off. Your legs were just so cold.

"I must have lost consciousness for a few seconds, although I didn't think that I had. Then I just remember screaming and shouting. I remember Ian calling to me."

The pair fumbled their way towards each other in the dark. As Mr Lord helped his fiance from the wreckage neither were aware of just how grave their injuries were.

All around them lay the dead and the injured.

In the subterranean Tavern in the Town the devastation was even greater.

The ceiling collapsed, trapping dozens of people in the dark, rubble-filled basement.

"I could hear the sound of crying from people who were still in there," a policeman said of the rescue effort.

"We could feel people reaching out to us as we stood there, but we couldn't see them."

A device left at bank offices in the Ladywood area of the city failed to explode. However 21 people were killed by the bombs at the two pubs, including John Rowlands, whose son still wonders at his own escape.

"It was just a normal night at home and I was wakened up in the middle of the night by somebody knocking at the door and it was the police," Mr Rowlands said.

"I didn't understand for 12 or more hours what had happened. I look back on it and it was one of those things. I could have quite easily been there when it happened."

As news about the bombs began to seep out pandemonium descended on the city.

All the pubs were closed by police and bus services were halted.

Crowds of people poured out onto the streets as they attempted to flee the area. The ensuing panic and traffic jams delaying the arrival of desperately needed ambulances.

The bomb had been packed with shards of metal and left survivors with horrific injuries.

A piece of metal had torn through Mrs Mitchell's hip, causing massive internal injury and lodging in her bowel. She also suffered a serious burn to her left shoulder.

"I don't remember seeing anybody else. Once Ian got to me he lifted me up into his arms and we got out as quickly as we could," she said.

"He carried me so far out and then this security man, who used to patrol at the bottom of the Rotunda, helped Ian carry me the rest of the way outside and lay me down."

Mrs Mitchell was taken away in one of the first ambulances on the scene.

She was one of the lucky ones. Emergency vehicles were delayed from reaching the injured by bumper-to-bumper traffic and many gravely-ill survivors had to be taken to hospital by smaller and more manoeuvrable taxis.

Mr Lord, who had suffered serious leg wounds and had blood pouring from a severe facial injury, waited at the side of the road for attention.

"He had a hole in his cheek from where a piece of metal had sliced him. He said he just kept going until he knew I had been taken care of and then his legs just collapsed," Mrs Mitchell said.

"He was sitting down on the ground and he wanted a cigarette, but he remembered he'd left his inside so he turned to the man beside him and said 'You wouldn't lend me a cigarette would you'.

"He said the man just looked at him for a while and said, 'Well you can have a cigarette, but I don't know where you're going to put it'.

"His face was just ripped open. He always remembers when he got to hospital this woman taking one look at him and looking away saying: 'Eeugh!'."

Police took over the City Centre Hotel, opposite the Tavern in the Town, as an emergency first-aid post.

At Birmingham General Hospital teams of doctors and nurses worked through the night, dealing with injuries not normally seen by medical staff outside a military battlefield.

"You went to put drips on an arm

and it wasn't there. You look for a

leg and there wasn't one," a doctor later recalled.

In the midst of the chaos and grief the mood in Birmingham was beginning to darken dangerously.

Few of those socialising in the city centre that night had paid much attention to the storm that was brewing on their doorsteps.

Belfast IRA man James McDade had been killed a week earlier when a bomb he was planting at Coventry Telephone Exchange exploded prematurely.

Ill-feeling towards the Irish community in Britian had been growing following a vigorous bombing campaign by republicans.

The suggestion, much talked of at the time, that a military-style funeral, similar to that given to hunger striker Michael Gaughan a few months earlier, might be held for McDade provoked consternation in Birmingham.

The city's Catholic archbishop had refused to hold a public Requiem Mass and the then British home secretary Roy Jenkins had let it be known that

no parade of any kind would be permitted to accompany the transfer of the remains to Ireland.

It was on the day of the transfer of those remains that the bombs exploded in the heart of Birmingham.

Moments after the explosion some people's minds were already turning towards the perpetrators.

The link between the bombs and the IRA was obvious and soon many in the city were linking every Irish man, woman and child in Birmingham with that organisation.

The first sign of an anti-Irish backlash manifested just hours after the deadly bombs exploded.

Despite the unprecedented numbers of injured flooding hospitals, medical staff were advising colleagues with Irish accents to go home as their presence was deemed 'inappropriate'.

As Birmingham was struggling to make sense of the scale of the tragedy that had befallen it, more than 80 miles away in Yorkshire, John Rowlands' eldest son Steve was desperately trying to find any news about his father.

Steve Rowlands had left the British army just a fortnight earlier after completing a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. Recently married, he had moved to Yorkshire to be near his bride's family.

"The first I knew was when the news flashed on the telly. It just said that there were two pubs blown up and it named them," he said.

"I said to my wife 'I'm sure my dad drinks in that pub when he comes home of a night'."

Like many families in the 1970s, John and Iris Rowland didn't have a telephone in their home and so their son had no means of contacting them.

Instead, he began the laborious process of phoning every Birmingham public house in the telephone book, desperate for any information about his father.

His task was made more difficult by the earlier decision to close all bars in the city.

The final call from West Midlands police came – just as it had at his mother's door – in the early hours of the morning.

"I was fearing the worst and I waited up until the police notified us at four in the morning," Mr Rowland said.

"I got the train down that morning.

I had to be there to comfort my mother. I just couldn't believe what had happened.

"When I got off the train I had to go past the Mulberry Bush. It just looked like it had been turned to matchsticks.

"When I got home my mother still had his tea in the oven."

The difficult task of identifying the body fell to Steve.

"My mother wasn't in a state to do it herself. She had always been bad with her nerves but this just made it worse," he said.

"Half of him was missing. They took us down to Digbeth Police station to collect his belongings.

"There was a lighter with shrapnel in it and some notes with blood on them. Everywhere you looked there were shoes, clothes, bits and pieces. It was unbelievable."

Ian Lord spent three weeks in hospital while his fiancee was kept in for a month, much of that time in intensive care.

At one point Mrs Mitchell's condition was so critical that she was given the Last Rites.

Her family maintained a 24-hour vigil at her bedside as she slipped in and out of consciousness. Her father's hair turned grey overnight.

The family were so stunned that they were unable to speak of what had happened. As a result many neighbours and colleagues were unaware that the family were connected to the tragedy that had befallen the city.

"One woman told my mother later that she thought she had turned strange because when she spoke to her my mother just looked straight through her and walked on," Mrs Mitchell said.

However, it was her father, an Irishman from Co Derry, for whom the situation caused the most problems.

The day after the bombing he clocked-in as usual at the factory where he worked, only to be greeted by hostile colleagues.

Birmingham's Irish population proudly claimed to have rebuilt it after the Second World War, but now the city looked set to tear itself apart as the fallout from the bomb reverberated through its populace.

November 23, 2004

This article appeared first in the November 22, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News