On 22 May 2017, Dr Darah Burke found himself caught up in the terror attack at the Manchester Arena, along with his family. Here, he talks about how being a Scout prepared him to act in an emergency, and ultimately helped him to heal in the months that followed.
‘It was a Monday evening. My wife Ann and I headed into the city with our youngest, Catherine, to see Ariana Grande perform at the Manchester Arena. We stopped to get something to eat, then headed inside. Catherine was so excited. It was a special treat.
After lots of singing and dancing, we were in a hurry to get home, so we decided to leave the arena during the encore. As we were walking through the foyer, there was a massive bang. An explosion. Everything was dark.
At that point, no one understood what was happening. Catherine was on the floor. Ann and I were still standing, although we were hurt, too. We made the decision to get out, scooped Catherine up and left as quickly as we could.
When we reached the bridge just outside the foyer we took a moment to re-assess. Catherine had sustained damage to her head, arms and legs, and we were struggling to carry her because of our injuries. We delivered first aid as best as we could, using a shirt I was wearing. We all had shrapnel injuries and would require multiple surgeries, but at the time we didn’t even know metal had been used in the attack.
Once we were out of immediate danger, I made the decision to leave my injured family on the bridge and headed back into the foyer to help. I was in pain but, like many members of the public who happened to be close by, I was working on autopilot – the primitive part of my brain kicking into overdrive.
I’m a doctor, but I deal with the typical ailments you might see in a GP’s office – coughs and colds, chronic pain, check-ups. In 20 years, I can count the number of times I’ve had to react to a serious emergency on one hand. The trauma I saw was very severe. There wasn’t an awful lot I could do, except to triage survivors and direct help to wherever it was most needed. It’s not something you ever expect to see.
In hindsight, I think Scouting helped prepare me for the situation. I undergo mandatory training once a year at work, but Scouting is what keeps first aid at the forefront of my mind. Because of my background, I’m frequently called on to train young people. It’s not just about practical first aid skills. It’s the ability to take stock of a situation, to put one foot in front of the other under pressure. I saw recently that the London Ambulance Service commended a group of Scouts who intervened to save someone who was drowning. As a Scout, helping others is just what you do, isn’t it? It’s engrained.
In the aftermath, I couldn’t drive for a month and needed support. Scouts stepped up, offering lifts to the hospital, delivering bundles of food. Our Cubs made cards, and a group in America shipped us a banner of condolence shortly after the news broke. It’s still hanging on the wall in our meeting place. People are so kind, aren’t they? Catherine even had a hospital visit from Ariana Grande herself – it really boosted her spirits.
I went back to my volunteer role six weeks after the attack, as soon as my wife would let me. You’ve got to carry on in life to get the support you need. Undoubtedly, the attack has affected Manchester as a whole. Everybody knew someone involved, and the trauma we experienced is more apparent with time. Catherine lost her hearing in one ear as a result of the blast, and we’re adjusting to the reality that she’s never going to get it back.
At first, Catherine and Ann didn’t want to go back into the centre of Manchester, but the support of the wider community gave them the courage. We were determined to visit St Ann’s Square to see the tributes left by the public, and we achieved that with Ann and Catherine in wheelchairs and myself on crutches, the day before the flowers got taken away. When the permanent memorial is unveiled it’ll be even more special, because the £60,000 Scouts raised by selling bee badges will have helped to build it.
Some good has come from all of this. I’m not much of a singer, but we perform as a family as part of the Manchester Survivor’s Choir and it’s been an incredibly valuable experience. We’ve met amazing people who shared our ordeal, and we sang for thousands of people as part of the first anniversary remembrance vigil.
In hindsight, I think Scouting helped prepare me for the situation. I undergo mandatory training once a year at work, but Scouting is what keeps first aid at the forefront of my mind.
Through Scouting, we also attended Windsor as a family, where I received the Bronze Cross award. The night before the ceremony, I realised I’d conveniently left my uniform behind and was about to drive all the way home when Ann turned to me and said “‘Hang on, somebody in Scouts will be able to help you!” Within an hour, we found a guy from Stockport who was also coming to the event. My uniform made its way to him and he brought it to me just in time. I’d never met him. My fellow leaders had never met him. You can always talk to somebody in Scouts.
Unfortunately, after an incident such as this, your faith in humanity – your trust – is damaged. When it comes to feeling supported, it’s great to be part of a worldwide movement, but the bottom line is your immediate group; the people you volunteer alongside week in and week out, the young people you watch grow. I know I can always rely on them, no matter what.’
In memory of those who died and those who were affected by the Manchester Arena bombing.
Thank you to Dr Darah Burke, Ann Burke and Catherine Burke for sharing their personal story with us.