Brighton Bomb ‘84
In the early hours of Friday 11 October 1984 I experienced something, the possibility of which, I had lived with for some time. I was in the Grand Hotel Brighton when the infamous IRA bomb exploded.
At the time I was naked, having moments before undressed to go to bed and was reaching for my pyjamas when the explosion occurred. Immediately the lights went out, and I was in total darkness, being in a room with no windows. I could hear the crashing of masonry and glass as debris clattered onto the roof above my room - I was on the seventh floor.
I stood still waiting, all manner of thoughts racing through my head. I knew instantly it was a bomb - by this point in my life I’d heard more than enough briefings to know for sure. And then, for a few moments I began to worry if the crashing debris would next come through the ceiling of my room, but it stopped, followed by a second or two of eerie silence, before the fire alarms began to shriek.
Then the lights in the room came back on. Problem was the main light fitting of the bedroom was now lying across my bed. Part of the false ceiling had fallen in depositing the light and the spare length of cable onto the bed. I rushed over to the door, but couldn’t open it.
So, trying hard not to panic, I dressed, gathered my papers together stuffed them into my briefcase and had another go at the bedroom door. After several hard yanks it opened, bringing with it part of the door frame. I assumed the blast had to be somewhere nearby since it was clear the door frame of my room had buckled. I was later to learn that the bomb had been planted in room 629, just one floor below where I was.
As the door opened I was almost pushed back by the heavy cloud of dust and smoke, and total blackness. After a few moments more I tried again, and inched my way out into the corridor. The dust and smoke were not as heavy, and looking to my right I saw stars and the glow of street lights indicating a pretty big hole in the hotel. There were no lights in the corridor, and with no flashlight I had no way to judge how close the hole was to where I was standing - I needed to know to be sure, did it cut off my way down the single staircase to the floor below, and could there be any blockages on the lower floors.
‘Not good’ I thought, and so chose to move to my left. My room was on the back half of the corridor. Then, as I looked left, I saw the fire exit sign shining through the gloom, and with relief I headed that way. I reached the door, opened it and was more than pleased to find the metal fire escape steps running down the side of the hotel, and intact.
I clattered down, and as I reached the bottom was confronted by a man holding a gun!!
I knew immediately this was a police officer - I recognised him, one of the Mrs Thatcher’s close protection team in fact. As he recognised me, he laughed. ‘Christ Rog, it’s you. Wasn’t sure who was coming down there at such a clatter. We’re all a bit jumpy!'
‘How is she’, was my response. The Special Branch Officer told me Mrs Thatcher was fine, shaken, but getting everyone organised, which was a good sign. He asked if I was OK and if I could help. He knew me well, since I had completed two General Election Campaign Tours at Mrs Thatcher’s side, tours which I had organised and managed.
My response was immediate. ‘Of course I’ll help. What can I do?’
The SB Officer told me they were worried there could a second bomb, and there was also a reported possibility of there being snipers on the roof of the multi-story car park behind the Grand Hotel. He told me they were organising cars, and wanted me to take over getting them all away.
So I went back into the hotel and was shocked by the scene in the lobby of the hotel. The entrance had almost disappeared. There were floodlights and fireman surrounding the mountain of rubble from floor to ceiling. I headed up main staircase where I met another of the close protection team. He told me they thought Norman Tebbit was somewhere close to the ceiling in the rubble in the lobby area. My heart sank. Did this mean there were fatalities?
Anyway I hurried up to the suite housing the Thatchers. One of the private secretaries asked if I could come in. I was admitted, and amazingly, before I could speak, Mrs Thatcher, clad in her dressing gown, came over to me, clasped my elbow as she often did, and said, ‘Roger dear, are you all right?’ I laughed, ‘don’t even think about me, how are you?’ The reply, ‘Oh I’m fine, a little shocked, but we are both fine. Now what’s happening?’
I explained to her the protection team wanted her to stay where she was for the moment, and then once they were sure it was safe to move to the cars, I would lead them downstairs and out to the back, since the front could not be used. ‘Roger dear that’s fine. Dennis, Roger is helping with the cars and we are to stay here for the moment.’ At that moment DT as she often called him - Dennis Thatcher, her husband - emerged from the bedroom. ‘Roger old chap, glad you’re here.’
Looking back now, I cannot quite believe that conversation ever took place. I was amazed then, and remain amazed now, at her incredibly calm composure, but I was not really surprised, since this was indicative of the strength of her spirit.
After a delay I again established contact with the SB team, and then guided the Thatchers down to the rear entrance of the hotel. We loaded the cars and I travelled in a following car to the East Sussex Police Headquarters in Lewes. Shortly afterwards Mrs T was moved to the Police College to remain for the rest of the night.
One of Mrs T’s secretaries was still there
and she asked if I was returning to the
hotel. I was, simply because I wanted to try and rescue my clothes for the day ahead. The secretary asked if I could go into the Thatcher suite. It seemed Mrs Thatcher was worried in case they had left any personal items behind which journalists or others might later find.
I asked a fire officer to come with me into the suite and as we went into the bathroom, we could feel the floor move.
I found some paperwork in the lounge area and, hanging over a towel rail in the bathroom to the right, a couple of what I can only describe as ‘personal items’. I popped them into a bag. Later in the conference hall I handed the bag to the secretary, and later still had a sweet letter from Mrs T to thank me for performing the little task.
Several weeks later I was interviewed by the Chief Constable of West Sussex who conducted the inquiry into the bombing. Some things he said to me left me feeling very disturbed.
Forensic officers had concluded the bombers’ objective was to collapse the two main chimney stacks through the centre of the hotel causing further destruction. The front half of the first Victorian stack, on the left of the central portico, as you look from the sea front, did collapse through two rooms on the seventh floor, and thereby widened the funnel of destruction caused initially by the bomb itself. Miraculously the second stack to the right of the central portico remained intact - had it collapsed in the same way as the first stack, it would have destroyed my room on its way down!
Looking back now at the picture alongside of the Grand
Hotel, I can see exactly why the Chief Constable said, ‘you were damned lucky’! I have added a small yellow arrow to the picture showing the location of my room and the second main chimney stack.
It still leaves me cold to think what might have been had the bombers had the complete success they had planned. Unlike many others, I was uninjured - a colleague, Harvey Thomas, whose room was across the corridor from mine, and precisely in the gap in the picture, was catapulted first up in the air, and then crashed two floors below to a bathroom on the fifth floor, thankfully, after hours buried by rubble, he was rescued.
The second message from the Chief Constable was oh so simple - ‘the rules have been re-written, and things will never be the same again’!
Thirty Years on Brighton Revisited click here