Bangor-born policeman reveals mental health struggle after Manchester Arena attack
'The scene at Manchester was far worse than anything I had seen in Afghanistan'
A Bangor man who was one of the first police officers on the scene of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack has spoken for the first time of the horrors he witnessed.
Lee Howard (31) is believed to have been the only Northern Irish policeman at the venue on May 22, 2017 when 22 people, including children and teenagers, died and almost 140 were injured.
They were attending an Ariana Grande concert when a radical Islamist suicide bomber detonated a deadly device packed with nuts and bolts, killing himself in the process.
Since the atrocity, Mr Howard, an officer with Greater Manchester Police, has been battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is only now able to talk about what happened.
In sharing his experiences, he is hoping to help other emergency service personnel struggling to cope with mental health difficulties.
His condition was also triggered by harrowing events he had to deal with during a tour of duty in Afghanistan with the Army and in the course of his duties as a police officer.
These included providing medical treatment to a colleague who lost both legs below the knee after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Helmand Province and "picking up body parts" from Manchester's railway lines following suicides.
In another blow, he also found the body of his father, whom he describes as his "best friend", after he died suddenly of a heart condition in 2016.
The son of an RUC officer whom he admired greatly, Mr Howard left Northern Ireland in 2008 and joined the medical corps of the Army, where he served for five years as a combat medical technician before signing up for Greater Manchester Police.
As a response officer, answering 999 calls in the city centre, he was accustomed to being called out to all types of emergency situations.
On the evening of the Manchester Arena attack, he was guarding an arson suspect in hospital and had taken his police radio earpiece out temporarily.
When he put it back in, he was met with "bedlam" in what would turn out to be the biggest and most complex case he had ever been involved in.
"All I could hear were phrases like 'multiple casualties', 'bomb' and 'active shooter'. There were so many officers talking.
"It took me a few minutes to decipher what was happening and I just walked out of the hospital and self-deployed to the arena," he said.
When he arrived, less than 10 minutes after the attack, he was met by streams of people "screaming and running" from one of the main exits.
"I started seeing people with blood on them. I remember a lot of little girls coming out crying and people who had become separated from their groups," he explained.
"When I got down into the train station, which is below the arena, it was just terrible.
"There were more seriously injured people who had obviously been carried down, a lot of blood on the floor and people who were unconscious."
But it was when he reached the City Room, where the bomb went off, that he was met with images "that will stay with me for ever" and that were "much worse than Afghanistan".
"One lady was covered in shrapnel. She had bits of glass the size of your hand sticking out of different parts of her body," he recalled.
"People were lying dead next to her but I couldn't make out their age or gender because they were all twisted up."
He remembers giving CPR to a girl in her 20s with long, dark hair, even though the signs were that she was already dead.
"She had a lot of cuts on her legs but she wasn't bleeding heavily and it almost looked as if she had fallen off her bike," he said.
But it is the image of a little girl, aged around eight, that is seared into his memory. "She was in amongst these dead bodies crying and trying to find her mummy.
"You could still smell the cordite in the air. I just grabbed her by the arm and dragged her out. I never found out her name or what happened to her mother or her family. That's the thing that has stayed with me the most from that night."
What he also struggled with was the surreal and incongruous context of the scene.
He added: "There was a huge wall of glass which was completely shattered and when I looked up, I could see the sky through the perspex skylights. In the little McDonald's area, where people would have got food before going into the show, there were bodies lying on the steps."
In the weeks following the atrocity, Mr Howard found himself becoming increasingly depressed and avoiding jobs involving fatalities.
"I was dealing with people involved in silly drunken disputes and I felt like saying, 'do you not realise there were kids lying dead?'" he said.
"One morning in August I woke up and I knew I couldn't put the uniform on. I felt like a wreck. In the days leading up to it I had been so jumpy, I felt really unsafe.
"When I was growing up I was used to my dad checking under his car and being vigilant and it's like I was reverting to that, being hyper-vigilant."
Since then Mr Howard has returned to a desk job with Greater Manchester Police and continues to undergo treatment for complex PTSD, provided by his employer and by a specialist PTSD charity.
"Greater Manchester Police have been great. From my line manager to my colleagues, they have been so good. I couldn't have got through this without them," he said.
"It's termed complex PTSD because it was a build-up of traumas that led to my mental health difficulties.
"As a police officer I had to attend a lot of suicides, many of which were railway deaths.
"I can't articulate what it's like to see a body struck by a high-speed train. One time I was deployed to break the news to the mother of a woman whose body I had recovered from the tracks just 15 minutes earlier.
"She was a solicitor who had lost her house and was living with her mum. She left her handbag on the bench in the station. The CCTV showed her swan diving into the path of a train, just as if she'd been diving into a pool."
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, where he admits to being shocked by the "intensity" of the fighting, he was treating horrific casualties on a daily basis, ranging from children to members of the Taliban.
Although he still has days when he feels "incredibly low", Mr Howard said he has started to "come through the other side" and says that being open about his experiences is part of the healing process.
He added: "In the past, I wouldn't have admitted to how I was feeling because I didn't want to look weak. Now I have stopped caring about what other people think. I feel strongly that I want to help other people who have also been through trauma by sharing my experiences.
"I haven't quite worked out how I am going to do it, but I am open to talk to anyone."
Mr Howard can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org