‘I was buried in the rubble of the Grand Hotel... it was a miraculous escape’

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It is a morning that Chris Hill will never forget.

Trapped under eight floors of rubble after an IRA bomb exploded during the Conservative party conference, he thought he was already dead.

Chris Hill

Chris Hill

He was only a few hours into a 12-hour shift as a night porter at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when Patrick Magee’s hidden explosive device detonated in an audacious bid to wipe out Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government.

At 2.54am on October 12, 1984, the shockwaves ripped through the building, maiming more than 30 people and ultimately killing five.

Now 52, the events of that morning 30 years ago are still seared into the forefront of Chris’ memory.

‘I was doing my ordinary duties behind the porter’s desk,’ he says.

PA file photo dated 12/10/84 of the shattered top four floors of the Grand Hotel, Brighton after a bomb explosion during the Conservative Party conference. On Tuesday October 12, 2004 it is the twentieth anniversary of the Brighton bomb. See PA story: BLAST Brighton. PA Photo. ENGASH0001584536

PA file photo dated 12/10/84 of the shattered top four floors of the Grand Hotel, Brighton after a bomb explosion during the Conservative Party conference. On Tuesday October 12, 2004 it is the twentieth anniversary of the Brighton bomb. See PA story: BLAST Brighton. PA Photo. ENGASH0001584536

‘Then all of a sudden there was an almighty bang. I knew straight away what it was.

‘I ran from out behind the porter’s desk to get out the front door.

‘All this masonry fell down and blocked up the doors so they wouldn’t turn.

‘I ran back in and in the foyer was where most of it came down.

‘I ended up getting buried underneath the rubble but I managed to get myself out.

‘It’s hard to tell how long I was trapped, there was no lights – the place was covered in dust. I thought I’d had it.

‘I got myself out – I don’t know how – all the fire alarms were going, people were screaming and shouting. I couldn’t really see anything – there was dust everywhere.

‘The next thing I heard was a voice – it was a plain-clothes policeman and because he saw me he got out his gun.

‘He was about to shoot me. He said “son you’re a very lucky lad, it’s lucky I recognised you”.’

The bomb, set by IRA man Magee, exploded 30 years ago tomorrow.

Some from the conference were still up and awake in the hotel bar but the majority were in their rooms.

Chris, now of Lees Lane in Gosport, had cleared their plates of half-eaten lobster and steak dinners from outside hotel room doors just hours before.

Dazed and confused, the walking wounded emerged from their rooms in shock and headed for the front exit.

Chris, knowing they could not escape the devastation from there, shouted and led a group out by the faint light shining in from the pier.

‘It was all dark, pitch black,’ he adds.

‘I had to try to find all the fire escapes and let the Conservative lot out.

‘They couldn’t get out the front door but I knew how to get them out.

‘They all came over to me and I led them into a restaurant, moving all the tables and chairs to make a pathway to the far entrance.

‘There was a long line of them, as long as the restaurant.

‘I went back in again to see if there was anybody hanging around. The fire engines and police were there – I had to get out because they said there might be another bomb there.

‘It was called a miraculous escape, I didn’t have any broken bones or anything wrong with me.

‘I couldn’t get my housing benefit, couldn’t get the dole money – but then I get blown up.’

Five people were not as lucky as Chris and died in the bombing.

They were Sir Anthony Berry MP; Eric Taylor, north-west party chairman; and three women who were wives of party officials: Roberta Wakeham, Muriel Maclean and Jeane Shattock.

Emergency services ushered the survivors of the blast toward the Metropole Hotel for triage before sending them to hospital in ambulances.

Shaken after the chaos, Chris was walking with Sir Keith Joseph to the second hotel.

‘He offered to take me for a brandy to get over the shock of it all,’ Chris says.

‘He said “that was a terrible thing the IRA did”.

‘I said “they should have got her” – he never bought me the drink after that.’

At this point Chris did not know anybody had died.

The next day the survivors were to go to Marks & Spencer and get new clothes, where Chris picked up replacement shirts.

Famously, Mrs Thatcher declared the conference would continue the next day.

Openly-gay and homeless living under a pier, it was a bittersweet stroke of luck that Chris had landed the porter job.

It had only been when his old landlord allowed him back into his former home, that he had been kicked out of, that he picked up the job offer. Among the post was the job offer and benefit cheques that allow him to buy new clothes, get somewhere to live and start at the five-star seafront hotel.

Around two weeks later he was dressed in a new shirt and trousers handing Mrs Thatcher her post during her party’s conference.

He was unaware of the potential danger he was in.

Decades on from the bombing Chris is clear he does not advocate murder or violence in any way to achieve political gains.

Instead it has invigorated him to tackle injustice in society.

A stalwart campaigner, he led thousands of people against the closure of Gosport’s Royal Hospital Haslar before it was closed in 2009.

Now he works at Yodel to fund further campaigns.

He also campaigned for gay rights and has previously stood outside Fareham and Gosport police stations in a Second World War Nazi Gestapo uniform protesting about the treatment of gay people.

Chris, who was born in Limerick in the Republic of Ireland and grew up in Bournemouth, said: ‘There’s nothing worse than being bombed and nearly being killed for someone that you can’t stand. That is a horrible thing.’

‘She was the most evil person I’ve ever come across.

‘When I came out unscathed that was a message – to fight injustice under her.’

Anniversary events held

Donation to charity

‘Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.’

This was the statement the IRA issued claiming responsibility for the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Tory party conference.

It was an audacious attack designed to wipe out Margaret Thatcher and her entire government.

While no cabinet minister died in the blast, more than 30 people were injured and five died.

Norman Tebbit, then trade and industry secretary, was badly injured in the blast and his wife Margaret was left needing to use a wheelchair.

The bomb did not kill Mrs Thatcher who was still awake working on her speech for the next day.

Patrick Magee was given eight life sentences in 1986 but was released in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, part of the peace process.

Sir Anthony Berry died in the explosion but his daughter Jo has since met the bomber and struck up a friendship.

Chris Hill, 53, who was the night porter at the hotel at the time, said he would meet Magee if he had the chance.

‘I would like to have met him and speak to him,’ he says.

‘I did try but I couldn’t get through to him. I would if I got the chance.’

Chris gave half of his £5,000 compensation to a homeless charity.