The Brighton Bomb

The Brighton Bombing 12th October 1984

The grand hotel is a large imposing building on Brighton’s seafront. Built in 1864, it was constructed mainly from brick with wooded floors. The building had nine floors. One of these floors was at basement level.

In October 1984 in was the venue for the Conservative Party Conference. At 02.54 in the early hours of October 12th 1984 a huge blast occurred when a bomb, planted by the terrorist group, the IRA, exploded. This was an attempt by the IRA to wipe out the senior members of the UK Government.

The explosion sat off the hotels fire alarm system which in turn automatically alerted the Fire Brigade. In response to the alert East Sussex Fire & Rescue despatched their pre determined attendance to any incident at the hotel. The initial attendance consisted of a Pump Escape, a Water Tender and a Turntable Ladder. The Officer in charge of this first attendance was Station Officer Fred Bishop. On his arrival he was greeted with the sight of the Grand Hotel, with its centre section collapsed. Floors from the 5th, 6th and 7th floor levels were collapsed onto the floor below, and all that could be seen in the centre area was rubble and debris.

Before arrival of the brigade many members of the Government were being led from the building by Police Officers who had been in attendance throughout the conference to guard members of the government staying at the conference. Many of those led from the building were suffering from shock, while many had injuries including cuts from flying glass and debris caused by the blast.

The Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher was working on a speech in her room at the time of the explosion, she and her husband Dennis escaped injury and were led from the building by security Officers before being taken to Lewes Police College for the night.

The first make up of appliances occurred at 03.03am when Station Officer Bishop made Pumps two and requested an additional Turntable ladder and an Hydraulic Platform. Following this message he made a quick inspection of the building and upon being told that possibly well over 250 people were still in the hotel, and that many of these were Cabinet Ministers, he made Pumps 8. Within the next 20 minutes these additional appliance would arrive. In the meantime fire crews and Police Officers concentrated on evacuating the hotel, whilst Ambulance crews transferred those injured to hospital. Senior Officer attending the make up soon increased the number of Pumps required to 15. Command of the incident was eventually taken over by Chief Officer Eric Whitaker. Lighting used by the BBC television crews filming the conference was commandeered to help illuminate the area.

During the operation to ensure all persons were out of the hotel, the Fire Brigade gained access to a number of Master Keys to the hotel. While they were checking rooms they were amazed to find people still asleep, oblivious to the bomb having gone off.

During the search, fire crews discovered that the collapsed area only went one room back from the front of the hotel, but also discovered that many of these rooms that gave a view out over the English Channel were being used by members of the Cabinet. They soon heard shouts for help for with the debris field of what used to be these rooms. Firefighters, at great risk to themselves made their way to the collapsed area, all the time at risk of a further collapse or a risk of a secondary explosion.

What they found is what can only be described as a laminated mass of what were earlier the hotels rooms. Within these ruins was Norman Tebbit, his rescue would feature prominently on the breakfast news programmes as it was show live to viewers.

Teams of medics were brought in, and a surgeon staying at the Conference gave assistance and help fire crews each time someone was found in the debris. This often meant the medical personnel working alongside rescuers squeezing into tight or dangerous areas. Life saving drips and injections were often administered.

Each person, once found, was given a “Buddy Man” who would talk to the casualty, reassuring him, and explaining what was happening. This was especially important as the noise of generators and chain saws being used at the incident would have been frightening. Slowly those trapped were removed from the rubble. Removal of these casualties was helped due to the attendance of a new Turntable Ladder recently purchased by East Sussex Fire & Rescue. The Turntable Ladder was fitted with a cage at the head of the ladder. This cage was designed to take a stretcher and enabled the smooth and safe removal of those rescued.

One of the last to be removed would be Norman Tebbit and John Wakeman. Both of these members of the Government were found sandwiched between layers of rubble and their mattresses. The mattresses had protected them somewhat from more serious injury. As said before Norman Tebbit’s rescue was shown live on TV, he was finally removed at 06.53am

Rescuers now concentrated on find John Wakeman, whose voice could be heard deep within the rubble. This rescue meant cutting through more layers of rubble, the more rubble being removed, the more the risk of further collapse. Acrow props were used to shore up the rooms either side of the chasm and help prevent further collapse. Eventually John Wakeman was removed, but the blast had left 5 people died, one of them was John Wakeman’s wife Roberta. Norman Tebbit’s wife Margaret was left permanently disabled.

Thirty-four people were taken to hospital but recovered from their injuries. Margaret Thatcher began the next session of the conference at 9.30 am the following morning as scheduled.

The IRA claimed responsibility the next day, and said that they would try again. Their statement famously included the words: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always”.