Before visiting with young victims of the suicide bombing at the Ariana Grande concert on Friday, Prince William stopped at Manchester Cathedral to pay his respects to all those affected by the tragedy.
The royal’s heartfelt message in the condolence book at the cathedral said the city’s “strength and togetherness is an example to the world.”
The royal dad had just met with some of the brave people who had selflessly helped out in the immediate aftermath of the horror.
Among them were 23-year-old twin brothers, pharmacists Haseeb and Bilah Khan, from Stretford. When they learned a restaurant was giving away free food on the night of the tragedy, they volunteered to help distribute it to those in need.
“We dropped food off at the hotel. The smiles we saw on people’s faces was nice and reflected that community spirit. For a second it felt a bit tense but the community spirit shone,” Haseeb tells PEOPLE.
His brother adds, “They want to build the fear but we traded that for good spirit.”
The twins were among a group talking to William in a quiet corner of the cathedral.
“He said, ‘You guys are a shining light to your community. We were really proud to hear that,” Haseeb says.
Among the group was the manager of the taxi company, Street Cars, whose drivers took stranded people home for free.
“The prince was just saying thank you for doing your part,” says Sam Arshad, 37, who was at the cathedral with driver Kessler Ahmed, 40. “I was explaining to him that Mancunians get together at hard times like this and if you can’t do so at hard times then what’s the point of life?”
Security officer Steven Hawksworth, 47, for Northern Rail took bags of medical supplies to the scene within minutes.
“I knew what it was straightaway,” he says. “You never forget that sound. There are people around who have done a lot more than us but it does make you feel recognized with him coming here.”
And William was even able to joke with tattoo artist Ventnor Brewer, of the Sacred Art Tattoo Parlour, who had been part of a campaign by tattoo-loving locals to etch the picture of a busy bee on people as a sign of solidarity.
After asking how they had contributed, William learned about the fundraising that brought in $25,000 after the bees — a symbol of the working class roots of the city, and of “hope and love,” Brewer says — were tattooed at $65 each.
William then asked if Brewer’s own inkings that were evident on his neck went “all the way down.”
“Pretty much — except for my bum cheeks,” Brewer told him. And the prince’s reaction to that blunt statement? “He chuckled,” the artist says.
After his visit to the cathedral, William privately visited with young victims and their families at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. The royal’s 40-minute visit was unannounced and away from the cameras so that he and the families could meet in private.
William was taken around by Caroline Rushmer, a major trauma specialist practitioner, who tells PEOPLE, “He sat down and talked to each family about their experiences and what had happened, how they’d felt about things and what emotions they’d gone through and about their children’s injuries and how they’re progressing. He really empathized with them.”
The royal dad spent time with three children and their families. “He was very good at laughing and joking. You can see he’s a parent,” Rushmer says.