MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Rihanna Hardy had been excited about seeing Ariana Grande ever since she got her concert ticket as a Christmas gift. So when the day came, the 11-year-old left school a couple of hours early to make sure to get to Manchester Arena on time.
Her parents, Ryan and Shauna, took the afternoon off work, and the family drove the 140 miles (225 kilometers) from Newcastle to Manchester. They struggled to find the arena’s multistory parking lot, and barely managed to buy Rihanna a black Ariana Grande tour sweatshirt before the concert started.
But what was supposed to be a special night for Rihanna and thousands of other young concertgoers turned into a tragedy when a suicide bomb blasted off just outside the cavernous hall. It killed 22 people, including an 8-year-old girl, and injured 59 – the deadliest attack in Britain in more than a decade.
“Poor Rihanna … just kept asking every five or 10 seconds, ‘Are we going to die?’ Those were her exact words,” her father said.
The family took their seats, close to the stage, just before the first of two supporting acts warmed up the crowd. The arena, which seats 21,000, was packed. Many clutched pink balloons and donned cat ears, like those the 23-year-old Grande is famous for wearing.
As the former star of the Nickelodeon series “Victorious” sang and danced her way through her set, the arena heated up. Young children and their parents glistened with sweat.
Then, as the concert ended, the horror began.
Just a few minutes after Grande finished her final song, “Dangerous Woman,” blew a kiss to the audience and left the stage, the house lights came back on. People began filing toward the exits.
It was then that a suspect identified as 22-year-old Salman Abedi set off his suicide bomb in the foyer, near a road linking the venue to the city’s railway station. Witnesses described seeing bolts and other bits of metal at the scene of the blast.
The boom echoed through Manchester Arena, shaking the floor with a hollow thud. Thousands of Ariana Grande fans – many of them youngsters accompanied by their parents – fell silent for a few seconds, in shock. Then the screaming started.
“I thought we were going to die. It was just horrendous,” said Rihanna’s mother.
Panic descended on the hall.
“It was just sheer chaos,” said Kirstyn Pollard, who had a seat close to the stage. “People were trying to get off the balconies. It was awful.”
Melissa Andre and two friends clambered over a security barrier in their rush to get out. It was already dented from other concertgoers fleeing the arena, as officials tried frantically to restore order.
“A security official was on stage saying ‘Be calm, everything’s fine,'” said Andre, 20. “I think they were just saying that to calm people down before they got out. And then when we got out, the alarm went off.”
Police were called in at 10:33 p.m. As they arrived, a smell hung in the air – a bit like smoke, a bit like burning, nothing the Ryans had ever smelled before.
“I can’t describe it. It was a really awful smell,” Shauna Hardy said. “And there was just alarms going off, police everywhere. Sirens everywhere. People running, screaming. It was just crazy. Absolutely crazy.”
Ryan Hardy desperately tried to slow down his wife and daughter as they left the arena, worried they might fall in the crush of people fleeing the carnage. They emerged from the stifling heat of the concert hall into the cool night.
“Everyone else was running out the entrance while he was walking out the entrance,” Rihanna – still wearing her Ariana Grande sweatshirt – said Tuesday, looking up proudly at her dad.
Police and paramedics rushed to aid the wounded, wrapping some in foil blankets to keep them warm and ward off shock. Others hobbled off into the night, their clothes torn and stained by blood.
Charlotte Fairclough, 14, was part of the rush to flee.
“Everyone was like scrambling over each other,” she said. “Quite a few people got knocked over. It was like just a race to get out.”
When Charlotte got out, she immediately called her mom, Stacy, who was waiting to pick up her daughter and a friend. The she called again to say she’d heard a big bang.
Her mother, at the time, wasn’t too worried.
“I’d heard fireworks earlier in the night, so I wasn’t too concerned to start with,” she said.
The full scale of the attack did not hit home until they turned on the news at a hotel.
The Hardy family escaped unscathed, but the shock of the night endured even as they tried to sleep it off. When a door slammed loudly at half past five in the morning, Rihanna got frightened.
“There are a lot of people killed, a lot of people injured, a lot of people missing,” Shauna Hardy said. “And we just feel so so lucky that we are all together.”