Thatcher moments away from certain death
It was the last night of the Conservative Party conference. There had been many parties, many arguments. By 2.45 am yesterday most of the representatives were in bed. There were some late-night drinkers in the hotel lounges; a few more were walking along the Brighton promenade.
The three days of debate had been talked over and over. By now the main point of discussion was the leader's speech, the traditional end to a Conservative conference. The leader herself was writing that speech in the first floor Napoleon suite of the Grand Hotel, the Victorian pile that so often served as party conference headquarters.
Mrs Margaret Thatcher remembers clearly the moment she knows she will never forget: “I was working. I had just finished doing something when I looked at the clock. It was a quarter to three and I started on another paper. My husband was in bed.”
The bomb went off just before three. The windows of the Prime Minister's suite overlooking the sea were blown in. Her bathroom, according to her husband Denis, looked as “if it had been blitzed” .
Only a few moments before. Mrs Thatcher had been in the room which had suffered such damage that nobody in it at the time of the blast would have survived the impact.
In adjoining suites on either side were Sir Geoffrey Howe, Foreign Secretary and Mr Leon Brittan, Home Secretary.
Police with guns drawn ran Mrs. Thatcher's suite. Officers stood guard at the windows as more police arrived with Mr Brittan Sir Geoffrey and his wife, Elspeth, whose rooms were even more badly damaged than the Prime Minister's. Mrs Thatcher, a police officer reported, “remained icy, calm throughout” .
Within five minutes of the explosion, police, who were later to face questions about security at the hotel, had sealed off the roads in a three-mile radius of the Grand. Firemen, ambulances and medical teams arrived as dazed guests scrambled to safety, many of them through holes in what had once been the walls of their bedrooms.
Immediately after the explosion it was as if time had been suspended. The explosion blew Mr Harvey Thomas, the conference organizer, from the seventh to the fifth floor, Recalled the moment from his hospital bed: “I was sound asleep and I felt a tremendous noise and crashing. I thought it was an earthquake. Then I realized that you do not have earthquakes in Brighton, at least not during a Tory Party conference.”
Mr Thomas, whose wife is expecting a baby this weekend, was trapped for about an hour and a half. He said: “I was in rubble up to my nose an I kept on wondering how long the air would last. I prayed.
“I almost lost consciousness but not quite. We were freezing cold and water from the hotel tanks was puring all over us.”
On every floor at the front of the hotel, which had been ripped open by a bomb the IRA later said consisted of 110 pounds of gelignite, the emergency services were struggling to release men and women trapped under the rubble.
The most public rescue was for Mr Norman Tebbit, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who had been in bed with his wife in an upper room of the hotel. His wife, Margaret, had been taken to hospital suffering from neck injuries, but Mr Tebbit was trapped against a wall above one of the main exits in the hotel foyer.
Firemen had to cut the main power supplies as they cut away plaster and concrete with their hands to get to Mr Tebbit, who is 53. The only light available was from a BBC television outside broadcast unit.
Four hours after the explosion television viewers across the country saw Mr Tebbit being gently lifted by firemen on to a stretcher. He had been conscious throughout and had refused pain killers. He moaned quietly as a medical team gave him oxygen and a saline drip for the ambulance journey to the Royal Sussex County Hospital.
Clearly in pain, Mr Tebbit was suffering from shock, cuts and broken ribs. An emergency operation was carried out soon after he had been admitted to hospital. His work at the Department of Trade and Industry will be shared among the seven ministers who report to him. He made his first telephone call to them shortly before lunch yesterday.
Out of sight of the cameras the rescue continued. From time to time officers in the emergency services would report progress. Around 10 am a fire officer said that they had uncovered two hands, one warm, another cold.
A Jack Russell terrier had been among the survivors, many of whom were still wandering in a daze around the front and in other hotels.
The conference was certain to go on, Mr Edward Heath, who had left Brighton the night before and did not intend to return for Mrs Thatcher's speech, was on his way back. A police inquiry had been ordered. A second suspect parcel had been found at the Metropole Hotel and been blown up. It was not a bomb.
Inside the Brighton Conference Centre, the debates continued. The first was on Northern Ireland, a subject fixed by ballot only the night before: the blast could not have been designed to coincide with that. The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Douglas Hurd, was careful to avoid blaming the IRA for the atrocity that had been committed just yards away.
The IRA waited until Mr Hurd had finished and the representatives were debating education before it clamied the blast as its work.
As the IRA was planning to release the statement the emergency services announced that the Government Chief Whip, Mr John Wakeham, aged 52, had been pulled alive from tons of rubble seven hours after the explosion.
Mr Wakeham, MP for Colchester South and Maldon was badly hurt but conscious.
The temporary loss to the Government of the services of Mr Wakeham is likely to be sorely felt by the Prime Minister. He had become one of a small number of specially valued colleagues on whom Mrs Thatcher relled absolutely.
Mr Wakeham was the last person to be pulled alive from the bomb damaged hotel. Among the dead was his wife, Roberts, aged 45, mother of their two sons. Dead too was Sir Anthony Berry, aged 59, MP for Enfield, Southgate (Obitary page 10). The Jack Russell terrier that had been found alive had belonged to him.
To the police, the conferece, and the public, Mrs Thatcher remained cool. But only five years ago, Mr Airey Neave, her closest political friend, had been killed by an Irish terrorist bomb at the House of Commons. Now at the Conservative Party conference at a seaside resort an attempt was made on the entire Cabinet.
As she left her ruined hotel suite, Mrs Thatcher reflected: “You read about these things happening but never believe it will happen to you.”
Yesterday it did.