A police officer patrolling Manchester Arena went on an ‘unacceptable’ two-hour break the day of Salman Abedi’s suicide attack – and would ‘probably’ have asked what was in his rucksack had she seen him, an inquiry has heard.
British Transport Police (BTP) officer Jessica Bullough came back on patrol shortly after suicide the bomber walked along Victoria railway station platform towards the City Room foyer of the arena.
He then detonated his home-made explosives at the end of an Ariana Grande concert.
Pc Bullough told the public inquiry into the terror attack which killed 22 people and injured hundreds of others on May 22, 2017 that her break should have been between 50 minutes and one hour but instead she was off patrol for two hours and nine minutes.
Jessica Bullough, pictured, went on an ‘unacceptable’ two-hour break the day of Salman Abedi’s suicide attack – and would ‘probably’ have asked what was in his rucksack had she seen him, an inquiry has heard
Paul Greaney QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked her: ‘When you look back, does that seem to be acceptable?’
She replied: ‘No, unacceptable.’
Mr Greaney went on: ‘You had just missed Salman Abedi walking to the City Room from the train platform.
‘Obviously we all know what he is about to do but if you had come on patrol 10 minutes earlier and you had seen that man walking in that way would you have regarded him as suspicious?’
Pc Bullough said: ‘Even though it was a train station with people travelling with large rucksacks on their back… looking at the footage if he had walked past me with that bag on his back I probably would have asked him what was in it.’
She said her suspicions would have been raised by somebody walking ‘nearly to the ground’ with a heavy rucksack.
Last week the inquiry was told about 30 minutes before the explosion a security worker, checking for merchandise bootleggers, had briefly drawn Pc Bullough’s attention to a ‘praying crank’ on the upstairs level of the foyer.
Pc Bullough said she had no recollection of anyone approaching her to raise concerns and was ‘confident’ that no-one told her about a person praying.
She later became the first member of the emergency services to arrive at the scene of the explosion after she ‘overtook colleagues’ as she dashed across and provided assistance to casualties.
Manchester Magistrates’ Court heard Pc Bullough, who joined BTP in July 2016, was the most experienced officer at the Arena complex after another constable with 30 years of experience was called away to deal with a burglary suspect at Piccadilly rail station.
Stephen Corke said he normally would have been standing on the raised level of the foyer from about 10pm for concerts but he would have been at the opposite end to where Abedi hid for nearly an hour out of sight of CCTV cameras.
When the bomb was detonated there were no uniformed officers in the foyer despite instructions that one officer should be positioned there at the end of the concert.
They had left the arena unpatrolled for 40 minutes while all took a meal break at the same time, despite instructions to stagger their breaks and finish by 9pm.
The officer came back on patrol shortly after suicide the bomber walked along Victoria railway station platform towards the City Room foyer of the arena
PC Corke was not among them because he had decided to check on a ‘vulnerable location’ that was on his way from Greater Manchester Police headquarters to Victoria Station, he said.
The location, which he did not specify, was only on the route because a road was being dug up in Ancoats, and he only did a ‘drive by’ check, he added
As a result the officer was at the wrong end of Deansgate, one of the main shopping streets in Manchester, when the bomb went off and he had to drive at speed down the street to the arena.
His colleague, Matthew Martin, who was the passenger in the car, said they had visited Oxford Road and Deansgate stations to ‘watch a few trains go in and out.’
PC Corke would normally have positioned himself on the mezzanine floor close to where Salman Abedi, the bomber, spent an hour hiding.
He was asked if he had seen Abedi waiting in the City Room with a rucksack on his back, whether he would have realised he was out of place.
‘I’d like to think so yes. If it was for a period of time I would agree with you entirely,’ he said.
Mr Greaney said there were a lot of ‘ifs and buts in this’ but asked, ‘would you have approached him?’
‘There’s a good chance of that, yes’ the officer said.
But the inquiry heard that PC Corke had spent seven hours dealing with the arrest and interview of a burglary suspect at Greater Manchester Police headquarters at Central Park before heading to Piccadilly Station.
He claimed he had been on hold to the team at the ‘evidence review gateway’ at British Transport Police headquarters in Birmingham for an hour before he could complete the paperwork.
PC Corke said he ‘scrounged a lift’ with another officer who was on duty and chose to ‘pop into a vulnerable point.’
Pictured: Ambulances and police arriving to Manchester Arena following the explosion
Mr Greaney asked: ‘You knew the expectation was that you would be back by 10.30pm. May I ask you a very direct question and seek a direct answer, why were you not back by 10.30pm?
‘The route we had chosen, we chose to visit a vulnerable point and I mistimed it by a couple of minutes,’ he said.
The inquiry heard that PC Corke completed the interview by 5.40pm, five hours before the attack, and told his sergeant at 9pm that he would finish of the paperwork and take a quick meal break before heading to the arena.
‘I was aware that I had to get back to the concert and I thought that I could commit to both within that timescale but unfortunately I mistimed it by a couple of minutes,’ PC Corke said.
‘On the night in question, it did not come into my mind that someone would stoop so low as to do something like that in that location. It was never in the back of my mind.
‘We all received various degrees of counter-terrorism briefings but not on that night in question. There was nothing to indicate there was any threat on that evening.’
PC Corke said his role was to conduct ‘a general high visibility patrol showing there are police in the area to the all the security staff, the merchandising people and the waiting parents.
‘The main thrust of that would be ensuring that the people leave the arena in a safe fashion, getting on the trains and leaving the area.
PC Lewis Brown from Greater Manchester Police (GMP) was a trainee Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) with British Transport Police (BTP) at the time being mentored by PCSO Jon Morrey.
He admitted that they had both taken an hour and a half meal break in a room at Victoria Station, when the maximum time should have been an hour.
It meant that from 8.58pm to 9.30pm, while Abedi made his way up to the City Room, there were no police officers patrolling the outside of the arena.
PC Brown was asked by Nick de la Poer QC for the inquiry: ‘Was there any perception that the deployment at Manchester Arena or Victoria Station being an easy option?
‘No there was nothing voiced that it was an easy option,’ he said.
Mr de la Poer asked what his sergeant would have thought if he had turned up and found them all on a meal break.
‘I believe the sergeant would have wanted to know why we were on a break for that time, if there was any good reason and would have words of advice with us,’ the officer said.
‘Was there any good reason?’ Mr de la Poer asked.
‘No, I just think we were on break too long,’ PC Brown said.
The inquiry, expected to conclude next spring, continues on Tuesday.