Former police chief recalls St Albans IRA bomb blast
FRIDAY, November 15, 1991, was the night when the city of St Albans had a “truly miraculous escape,” according to the head of the Herts CID at the time.
Twenty years after two IRA bombers accidentally blew themselves up in the heart of the city, Tony Swendell still vividly recalls the dreadful, gruesome scene that met him and fellow officers near the Alban Arena.
In the wake of the laying of a wreath to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the bombers’ deaths, Mr Swendell has spoken eloquently about the bravery of officers who potentially put their lives on the line to painstakingly search the city centre in case there was a second device.
It is the first time in 20 years that Mr Swendell, now an Independent St Albans district councillor for Redbourn, has spoken at length to the media about that fateful night.
He said: “St Albans had a truly miraculous escape. I was sitting in my front room watching the television in Redbourn, when there was a huge thud and the patio doors vibrated.
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“This was followed by car alarms going off outside. We thought that, as it was pretty near to Guy Fawkes night, that it was a late fireworks party.”
Minutes later, he received a phone call from police operations at Welwyn Garden City saying he was needed in St Albans.
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Terrorism came to the heart of the city that evening when a seven-pound Semtex bomb detonated in the doorway of the old Barclays Bank building, adjoining the civic centre. Emergency services scrambled to cordon off roads and establish what had happened.
Mr Swendell and fellow officers, whom he commended for their bravery, had to ensure the entire scene was preserved for forensic examination and a search initiated to check the centre for any secondary device.
He said: “It was complicated by darkness. We made people leave their cars, which were parked closely in the city, in case something had been planted underneath them.
“Contrary to what people might think, the first 12 hours and maybe a little more of any operation of this nature is chaos with an element of organisation.
“And I was extremely lucky that I had experienced officers who did the job that they are trained to do.
“The area around the civic centre was one of devastation. The ground was littered with pieces of human tissue and bone, and there was a strong smell of Semtex, which smells like almonds. Pieces of bone and tissue were found a long, long way from the scene.”
A picture slowly emerged of what had happened to the two bombers, Patricia Black and Frankie Ryan.
“It is understood that they had been in the immediate vicinity of the explosion and the device, possibly carried in a bag, had either gone off prematurely or the timing had been readjusted.
Mr Swendell said: “They came to St Albans to bomb the billy goats out of us.”
Police believed the target was a military bus parked in an access road behind the Alban Arena, carrying the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines who were to play at the packed Arena that evening.
Fortunately that bus was well guarded by the police that night because the military had previously been targeted by the IRA.
Mr Swendell said: “Therefore those wishing to plant a device underneath it would have had great difficulty getting to it undetected.”
He said local people were shocked about the attack on St Albans and that it was “miraculous” more people were not killed.
“There were some lucky escapes, and I know of two people who had used the cash machine at the adjacent bank minutes before the explosion.”
He added: “God was shining on St Albans that night.”