Page last updated at 09:27 GMT, Monday, 12 October 2009 10:27 UK

The night bombed Grand cast eerie sight

By Robert Orchard
BBC News


Archive news report, first broadcast on 12 October 1984

In the small hours of the morning, 25 years ago, I was winding my way back to my hotel after leaving the crowded Victoria Bar of the Grand, Brighton's top hotel.

Just before I got there, I heard the explosion. It was a sound like a thunderclap but louder and much closer - it could only be a bomb.

I drove straight back to the hotel, to find the eeriest sight: a truly unforgettable scene of utter devastation.

A massive, jagged gash had virtually cut the hotel's famous white facade in two, the result of the huge explosion that had ripped through its top three floors.

Dazed guests

A fire alarm was ringing loudly and insistently; glass, rubble and debris were strewn everywhere on the forecourt, the road and the promenade in front of the Grand, but the scene was strangely deserted, except for me and one lone cameraman, for what seemed an age but could only have been minutes.

The main thought in my mind was: "What if there's a second bomb?"

Firefighters work on the scene of the bomb
Firefighters work in the wreckage of the Grand Hotel

But of course it was impossible to leave the scene of such destruction.

After a few minutes, police, ambulances and firefighters started arriving, while dazed guests came stumbling out from the remains of the hotel, some in only their nightclothes, others with a coat thrown hastily over pyjamas or dressing gowns after they had been woken by the blast.

Some were befuddled, many in shock. I saw at least four Cabinet ministers, including Sir Keith Joseph and Patrick Jenkin, wandering around in slippers and dressing gowns. An easy target for any follow-up terrorist attack, I remember thinking.

Other survivors were dressed incongruously in dinner jackets after the conference ball.

Anyone who had still been in the hotel's Victoria Bar looked like a ghost, covered as they were from head to toe in fine white dust.

Survivors told me they had been thrown to the floor in the bar or foyer when the bomb went off, as plaster fell from the ceiling and clouds of dust and smoke filled the room.

Margaret Thatcher after the bomb
Margaret Thatcher was determined the conference would continue as planned

We worked all night, describing the scene, interviewing survivors and feeding interviews with ministers and other hotel guests to the BBC in London, as the realisation began to sink in of just how close the IRA had come to wiping out the prime minister and most of her Cabinet.

Another bomb scare saw everyone evacuated from the Metropole Hotel next to the Grand, and where many survivors had been sent.

And, soon after dawn rose, the conference centre itself was evacuated when another suspect package was found.

Margaret Thatcher - who had been working on her papers - was safe, more by luck than judgement.

The blast from the bomb, planted weeks earlier by the IRA behind a bath on the sixth floor, sent a chimney and masonry crashing down through a column of rooms onto guests sleeping below, killing several people, and destroying the bathroom in the prime minister's suite just minutes after she had been in it.

Tebbits 'held hands'

Mrs Thatcher was whisked away to safety. Others were not so lucky.

Her Cabinet colleague, Norman Tebbit, had to be rescued by firemen from under tons of masonry in a delicate four-hour operation.

His wife, Margaret, was with him and firemen said they held hands as the work went on to release them from under the rubble.

The Tory chief whip, John Wakeham, was seriously injured; his wife, Roberta, was killed, as were four other people, including the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry.

At Mrs Thatcher's insistence, the conference opened on time the next morning for its final day.

But not before the local Marks & Spencer had opened even earlier for senior Conservatives who had been forced to leave their rooms in the Grand Hotel in nothing but their pyjamas or dressing gowns, to select some new clothes. The bill would be picked up by the Tory Party.

The Brighton bomb changed party conferences forever.

The era of casual accessibility and light-touch security was replaced by a ring of steel around the main conference venues, with armed police, rooftop snipers and strict vetting weeks in advance of everyone who wanted to be allowed inside.

The bomber, Patrick Magee, had checked in under a false name but was caught through a palm print he had left on his hotel registration card.

He was convicted and sentenced to serve at least 35 years in jail but released in 1999 under the Good Friday Agreement.

On Tuesday, 13 October, the day after the anniversary, he will share a platform in the House of Commons with Jo Berry, daughter of the MP killed in the blast, in an effort, a quarter of a century later, at reconciliation.

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