A survivor of the terror attack in Manchester has spoken of the moment he “brushed shoulders” with suicide bomber Salman Abedi. Martin Hibbert suffered injuries doctors have only seen in a war zone.
VIP tickets to see singer Ariana Grande in concert had been a surprise Christmas present from Martin Hibbert to his teenage daughter.
But little did they know that as they left the gig at Manchester Arena early that Monday night on May 22, their lives were about to change forever.
“I surprised my daughter at Christmas with VIP tickets in a suite,” said the 41-year-old, who now lives in Heath Charnock, near Chorley, with his wife of three years Gabby.
“I’ve taken her to JLS before and I do like going to concerts and I’d said to her that if Ariana Grande ever did come to the UK I’d get us tickets.
“It was always the plan to leave early. You get privileged parking with VIP tickets. It was a school night and I was mindful that I didn’t want her getting to bed late so I’d said that we’d probably leave while Ariana was doing the encore to miss the rush and then we’d hopefully get home for around 11pm.”
Talking candidly about what he remembers of leaving the Manchester Arena, Martin said: “As we were running through the foyer the bomb went off. That’s when everything changed forever, in that split second. I shouldn’t be here.
“We actually bumped into the terrorist, I brushed shoulders with him, so instead of going straight on we went a different way and that’s what probably saved our lives. We were only two feet outside the blast zone where everybody died.
“We were the nearest survivors to the terrorist.
“I knew straightaway it was a bomb. Everything was blurry, I had ringing in my ears. I must have gone unconscious at some point and when I woke up I was laid on my side and I couldn’t move.
“I was pretty much bleeding to death.”
The home-made bomb detonated by the 22-year-old attacker Abedi just after 10.30pm had sent 22 bolts into Martin.
One bolt had gone through the right side of his neck and severed two of his main arteries and Martin was bleeding profusely.
Another bolt tore part of Martin’s spinal cord and wedged itself into his spine.
After being rushed to hospital Martin went straight into surgery and underwent two two-hour long operations. “When I arrived in the hospital I pretty much had nothing in me blood wise,” said Martin, who has pieced together what happened to him since after meeting the paramedic, security guard and one of the surgeons who saved his life.
“I think they nearly lost me again on the table. It was touch and go for the first couple of nights.”
Martin spent the four to five weeks after his surgery in intensive care in a high dependency unit at hospital.
“I was on so many drugs, they had sedated me and were controlling my breathing,” he said. “Apparently I’d been having conversations with everybody and I don’t remember any of it. It’s scary because I was like ‘what was I talking about?’
“To me I wake up four or five weeks later – I remember from the end of June.
“I’ve since been in touch with the paramedic who looked after me from the arena to the hospital. He said that he hadn’t thought I was going to make it and was surprised that I’d survived when he finished his shift and was checking up on how I was.
“He got in touch with me over Facebook to say, ‘I was the one who was with you’ so I just asked him a few things and he said with the trauma that I’d suffered he didn’t think I’d survive.”
Meeting the professionals who saved his life was an emotional for time for Martin. He said: “I pieced bits together. It’s very overwhelming really, you can’t thank somebody enough and all they say is ‘well I was just doing my job’ and I think it’s far greater than that.
“I suppose it’s like a relay, they pass the baton on, don’t they? When I got to the hospital I had four surgeons working on me. I had injuries across different parts of my body – head to toe. They had to get army doctors up from Birmingham because the injuries I’d sustained were like what you see on a battle field – the army medics were telling the surgeons how to put me back together.”
A few weeks after Martin regained consciousness he was transferred to Southport for rehab which he says was incredibly gruelling.
“It was hard, painful,” he said. “I’d lost two stone in weight because I’d hardly eaten anything. The thought of even getting out of bed was difficult.”
Not only did his body need to heal and regain strength but doctors told Martin that he would never walk again, so mentally he had a lot to contend with.
But Martin, who had given up his job in executive recruitment to focus on his football agency Synergy Sports Management just a month before the attack, was not about to give up on life despite everything that he had been through.
He said: “When I was told I wouldn’t walk again I was adamant that terrorists weren’t going to win and I was going to try and get back to as normal a life as possible.
“You either get on with it or you don’t and I’ve never been one to lie around in self pity – you get on and you make the best of it. I’m only 41 I’ve still got a lot to do. I’ve worked hard to get my football agency to where it is now. I’ve still got the use of my hands thankfully and I can still talk and think.”
Martin, who hosted Christmas with his and Gabby’s family at their new Chorley home, is hoping to get an adapted car in the new year. He also hopes to get to the gym to work on his fitness.
Some of his wounds only finished healing in November. Debbie, Martin’s wife, works for the NHS but since the blast she has been given special leave which continues until end of March next year. She has been “very supportive and does everything at the minute,” said Martin.
When he left hospital Martin and Debbie were not able to move back into their old home in Bradford.
The house would not have been able to get a wheelchair through the front door and Martin wanted to be nearer his brothers and mum in Bolton in case he needed their physical support.
Moving from hospital into his new home in Heath Charnock was a difficult transition.
“I was in hospital for five months,” said Martin. “From day one they are doing everything for you. All you have to do is get better.
“All of a sudden you come home and you have to self-medicate and you’re back to paying bills again, doing stuff as you would do in daily life, it was a bit frightening at first if I’m honest.”
But taking each day as it comes and setting himself weekly goals has been how Martin has been able to get through the last few months.
“I’ve learnt that the body looks at the worst injury first,” said Martin. “I’ve also learnt a lot about the resilience of the body. One of the coppers said to me afterwards, ‘never underestimate how serious it was, it’s literally like somebody shooting you 22 times’. So at the moment I’m just rebuilding my strength. You have days where you’re frustrated and thinking about the past but you have to get over it. I’ve learnt to deal with it, I know what the bad days look like.”
Having suffered with depression previously Martin says finding ways of managing how to cope with it is key.
“It will always try and find a way to creep in,” he said. “You just have to block it out. It is hard, it’s exhausting.”