MANCHESTER, England – For the young crowd of music fans, the Ariana Grande concert was supposed to be a night of high-energy candy pop. But the fun on a school night quickly turned into sheer terror.
A suicide bomber detonated a powerful explosive device moments after the American singer wrapped up her show in Manchester, sending parents into a desperate search for their loved ones. The blast killed 22 people and wounded 59 others, 12 of them children under the age of 16, officials said.
The youngest fatality identified so far, Saffie Roussos, was 8. In attacking the concert, the lone bomber targeted an audience full of teenagers and 'tweens — Grande fans who call themselves "Arianators." Some wore kitten ears, like the star of the show.
Witness spoke of metal nuts and bolts strewn across the blast site, suggesting the attacker may have packed his explosive device with shrapnel — a gruesome tactic to maximize casualties that was also used by suicide bombers in the Paris attacks that killed 130 people in 2015 and repeatedly in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Fans, many clutching pink plastic balloons, scrambled in panic for exits of the 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena. Some half-climbed, half-tumbled over barriers in terror. Parents, who were waiting outside to pick up their children at the end of the show, waded into the fleeing crowds desperately hunting for loved ones.
"It was carnage. Everyone was scrambling over each other ... It was just a race to get out really," said 14-year-old Charlotte Fairclough, who got tickets to the show as a Christmas present, attending with a friend.
"We just heard a bang. Everyone stopped and turned around," she said. "You could hear adults telling the little ones it was only a balloon."
Those with no news from those inside amid the mayhem took to social media, appealing for help. The hashtag #MissingInManchester became a cry for assistance on Twitter, as family and friends hunted for loved ones.
"I've called the hospitals. I've called all the places, the hotels where people said that children have been taken and I've called the police," tearful mother Charlotte Campbell told ITV television's Good Morning Britain breakfast show, as she waited at home, hoping that her 15-year-old daughter Olivia would walk through the door or call.
Olivia attended the show with a school friend who was found and being treated in a hospital.
"She's not turned up," the mother said. "We can't get through to her."
In targeting Manchester, the attacker also struck at one of Britain's cultural hearts. The once gritty industrial city, with London and Liverpool, has been one of the main cultural influences on modern Britain, with its iconic Manchester United soccer team, its cross-city rival Manchester City and chart-toppers Oasis, The Smiths and other globally famous bands. Oasis singer Liam Gallagher tweeted that he is "in total shock and absolutely devastated."
Former Manchester United soccer star David Beckham posted on Facebook: "As a father & a human what has happened truly saddens me. My thoughts are with all of those that have been affected by this tragedy."
Hayley Lunt took her 10-year-old daughter Abigail to the show. It was her first concert. The blast, "what sounded like gunshots: 'bang, bang,'" came just as Grande left the stage: "It was almost like they waited for her to go," the mother said.
"Then we just heard lots of people screaming, and we just ran," she said. "What should have been a superb evening is now just horrible."
Grande was physically unhurt, but described herself as "broken."
"From the bottom of my heart, I am so, so sorry. I don't have words," she said on Twitter.
Concert-goer Bethany Keeling said: "There was debris everywhere."
"Everyone ran back up the stairs and we eventually got out and they told us to run. We ran out of the arena and there were bodies on the floor," said the 21-year-old from Keighley in northern England. "It was terrifying."
Ryan Molloy, 25, said he was just leaving the concert when "there was this massive bang."
"Everyone just went really quiet. And that's when the screaming started," he said. Outside, "there were just people all over the floor covered in blood. My partner was helping to try to stem the blood from this one person ... they were pouring blood from their leg. It was just awful."
Andy Holey, who went to the arena to pick up his family, said the blast threw him around 30 feet (nine meters) through a set of doors.
"When I got up and looked around there was about 30 people scattered everywhere, some of them looked dead, they might have been unconscious but there was a lot of fatalities," he said.
Elena Semino and her husband were waiting by the arena ticket office for her daughter when the bomb exploded. Despite wounds to her neck and a leg, Semino dashed into the auditorium in search of her daughter while her husband, who had only a minor injury, stayed behind to help an injured woman. She found her daughter Natalie, 17, and her friends safe.
"My husband and I were standing against the wall, luckily, and all of a sudden there was this thing," she told The Guardian. "I can't even describe it. There was this heat on my neck and when I looked up there were bodies everywhere."
John Leicester reported from Paris.