In a statement, Manchester police said 19 people were killed and approximately 50 others were injured in the blast. British Transport Police said the explosion was reported in the venue’s foyer about 10:30 p.m. local time, but the arena said on its website that it “took place outside the venue in a public space.”
The explosion’s exact cause was not immediately clear, though Manchester police said they were investigating possible terrorism.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” concertgoer Esme Findlay, 20, tells PEOPLE. “It was really loud; it sounded like a huge bang.”
Findlay was on her way out of the building with two friends, after the concert ended, when she heard the noise. She says that fear reverberated through the foyer of the arena.
“Everyone was laughing and talking about the show before the sound,” she says. “But then everybody began screaming immediately and pushing to get out. It was very loud because of the screaming.”
“No one knew what it was,” Findlay says, “but people were screaming ‘bomb! bomb!’ and there was a lot of panic.”
Outside of the arena, the chaos continued. “There were people screaming the names of other people,” she says. “They were trying to find the people who they had been with and couldn’t find. Everyone was looking for someone.”
Lori Templeton, 15, says that she was close to the stage during the explosion.
“It was so so loud,” she tells PEOPLE. “Everyone turned and looked, and people started screaming and running out exits and back into the arena. People were screaming and running and falling over chairs. It was really scary. … For the first time in my life, I thought I was going to die. “
“There were massive balloons dropping at the concert. People thought it was one of them,” Templeton says. “People calmed down, and no more than a minute later people started screaming again and running for another door.”
“An alarm was going off,” she recalls, “and there was an announcement coming through saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, due to an incident inside the arena, can everyone please evacuate the area.’
“Police were telling people to run. When I got outside, people were crying and screaming. We headed back our hotel. Ambulances were there already.”
Witness Andy Holy also described a similar scene, telling the BBC that there had been a tremendous explosion on the periphery of the arena, near the box office.
“I was waiting at the first set of white doors,” he said. “As I was waiting, an explosion went off, and it threw me through the first set of doors. When I got up and around, there were about 30 people scattered everywhere. Some of them looked dead, but they might have been unconscious, but there were a lot of fatalities.”
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“My first thing was to run into the stadium to try to find my wife and daughter,” Holy continued. “When I couldn’t find them, I went back out and with the police and the fire and the ambulance, I looked at some of the bodies, trying to find my family. Luckily they weren’t there. I managed to find them outside and got them back to the hotel.”
Another witness, Karen Ford, said that she saw many unattended children screaming.
“We were being crushed,” she told the BBC. “It was awful.”
Concertgoer Henry Whittington also saw people frantically searching for their loved ones. “We were running away from the arena, but there were people running towards it, mostly women and men who looked like parents,” he tells PEOPLE.
“People were crying and screaming. It was awful.”
“It had been a good concert,” says Whittington, who says that the crowd had been enthusiastic during the concert. “It was just the perfect night, and then it became the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It was like a nightmare.”
Rallying For Hope
Amidst the chaos, people almost immediately began searching for ways to help.
Social media users began circulating the hashtag #RoomForManchester to alert stranded people to places where they could stay for the night.
Many cab drivers have also turned their meters off for the evening to transport concertgoers to safety.
A local hotel reported taking in more than 50 youths, some of whom were waiting to be reunited with parents and guardians.
• With reporting by J.D. HEYMAN and MARY GREEN