How Manchester snooker hall became refuge for wounded and frightened after attack

Around 10.40pm, the first of the people from the nearby Manchester Arena fled into the Steven Charles Snooker Centre, owner Ramis Zeqo told Foreign Correspondent Samanth Subramanian. Within minutes, the crowd had swelled to 50 or 60 people

A policeman stands behind a cordon area near the Manchester Arena on May 23, 2017. The Steven Charles Snooker Centre lies just across a junction of three roads from the car park of the concert venue where at least 22 people were killed in a suicide bombing. Nigel Roddis / EPA
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MANCHESTER // For the Steven Charles Snooker Centre, Monday was a quiet night – until terrified concertgoers, some of them injured and bleeding, began to rush in after a suicide bomber blew himself up on the other side of the road.

The snooker hall lies just across a junction of three roads from the car park of the Manchester Arena, where an explosion killed 22 people and injured dozens more on Monday night, just as a concert by the pop star Ariana Grande was coming to an end.

Although this part of the city goes quiet late in the evening, the Steven Charles is open 24 hours. Its comfortable red banquettes are filled with people eating snacks and drinking, and groups of patrons stand around green and blue baize snooker tables, chalking their cues and sizing up their shots.

Some people in the club on Monday night did hear a faint explosion, but it was not until later that realisation set in.

Around 10.40pm, the first of the people from the Arena fled into the snooker hall, said Ramis Zeqo, the 35-year-old owner of the Steven Charles, who is originally from Albania.

Within minutes, the crowd had swelled to 50 or 60 people. “There was a lot of panicking, a lot of crying,” Mr Zeqo told The National. “It was the kind of reaction you expect when you’ve seen something horrible.”

A few of those who came into the snooker hall were wounded. One lady, Mr Zeqo recalled, had a deep gash on her leg.

Mr Zeqo provided food and water. For those who had misplaced their mobile phones in their anxiety to leave the arena, he encouraged them to use the snooker centre’s phones to get in touch with their friends and relatives.

A handful of Mr Zeqo’s employees headed to the arena to see if they could find more people to bring back to the safety of the snooker hall. “There were children who were confused and frightened, who had lost their parents or guardians,” Mr Zeqo said. “We took them back with us.”

As the night wore on, outside the club, the streets turned into a hive of activity. Ambulances and police vehicles had rushed to the scene, and distressed or injured people had collapsed onto the pavement. Many of those in Mr Zeqo’s club were teenagers, and they had to wait for their parents to navigate the crush on the streets to come pick them up.

“The last of the people left only at around half past one in the morning,” Mr Zeqo said. “They were here for a few hours, calling their families or waiting for medical help.”

By midday on Tuesday, the entrance to the snooker centre was cordoned off by blue police tape. Policemen set up barriers and shut off the road running past the arena. On an opposite pavement, packs of television cameramen and news photographers leaned on their tripods.

Small groups of Mancunians occasionally stopped by to examine the sight of Monday’s attack. “I don’t know anyone who attended the concert myself,” said Trevor Hemmings, who works at an accountancy firm down the road from the arena. “But last night when I saw the news on television, I thought: ‘That could have been me.’ I’d thought about going to the concert, but then I never bought a ticket.”

“Manchester is a small city,” Mr Hemmings said. “I’m sure today or tomorrow I’ll learn of a friend of a friend who was there. I’m really dreading finding that out.”