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Police stand by a cordoned off street close to the Manchester Arena on May 22, 2017 in Manchester, England.

Dave Thompson/Getty Images

When Maddison Simpson got tickets last Christmas to see Ariana Grande in concert, it was like a dream come true and she counted the days to the May 22 show in Manchester.

On Monday, the six-year-old packed her pink suitcase and headed off by train with her mom from their home in Glasgow. The concert was the second U.K. stop on Ms. Grande's Dangerous Woman tour and the Manchester Arena was packed that night with thousands of teenagers, parents and children as young as Maddison. Her mother, Hollie Simpson, had been to the arena before and she thought nothing of the quick bag check at the entrance or the few security guards around the venue. After all, this was a pop concert for children.

Ms. Grande sang her final song, One Last Time, around 10:30 p.m., but Ms. Simpson and Maddison were already making their way out of the arena, hoping to avoid the crowd. Moments after they walked out, a bomb ripped through a foyer that connects the arena to the Victoria train station. Police said 22-year old Salman Abedi, a British citizen whose parents came from Libya, blew himself up with a homemade device. Twenty-two people died and 59 others were injured.

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Amid the pandemonium, the smoke and the screams, Maddison and her mother made their way back to their hotel. "We were just so lucky that we left early," Ms. Simpson said. She was still shaking the next morning, sitting with Maddison as they waited to catch the train home. They've been to several shows together before, including a Justin Bieber concert, but not any more. "You don't want to live in fear, but at the moment, I don't think I'll be rushing back to a concert any time soon," she said.

For Ms. Simpson and parents everywhere, Monday's bombing struck a chord.

The pain could be felt by any parent who has taken their son or daughter to a concert, or dropped them off and fetched them afterward. "It wasn't an army barracks, this was a kids' concert," Adam Derring, a father of two small children, said as he tried to cope with what happened during a vigil Tuesday night in Manchester. "It's close to home."

That was made clear throughout the day on Tuesday as parents issued pleas for help finding their missing children while police painstakingly tried to identify bodies. "This is my daughter Olivia, I haven't seen her since 5 o'clock last night, she was at the Ariana Grande concert," Charlotte Campbell said in an emotional appeal on television. "If anybody has seen her, please contact the police. … Please just somebody get hold of her. I'm worried sick."

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Early Wednesday, Ms. Campbell shared the news on Facebook and Twitter that Olivia had died in the attack. "RIP my darling precious gorgeous girl," she wrote. "Go sing with the angels."

By the late morning, police had set up a help centre at the Etihad Stadium and, throughout the day, a stream of families arrived, desperate for any information. "It's a very distressing place to be, it's not an easy place to be," said John Morris, the head of emergency services for the British Red Cross in northern England who was working at the centre. "You can imagine the emotions in there are very high."

Three others of the dead have been identified: Saffie Rose Roussos, who was eight years old; Georgina Callander, who was 18; and 26-year-old John Atkinson. Police said they may not have a full list of those who died until late Wednesday, at the earliest.

This was the worst terrorist attack in Britain in 12 years when four suicide bombers killed 52 people on the London transit system.

But Prime Minister Theresa May said this bombing was different because of those targeted. "This attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice," she said. "Deliberately targeting innocent, defenceless children and young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives."

Ms. May announced that the country's threat level would be raised to "critical," the highest level which means a further attack may be imminent. She and other politicians also stopped campaigning for the upcoming general election on June 8.

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Erin Jones and Abigail Lincoln definitely felt targeted as they ran out of the arena Monday night, screaming and trying to find their parents. The two teenagers had travelled from Durham, about three hours away, for the show. They'd bought tickets last October and turned the evening into a family event, with Ms. Jones's parents taking them to Manchester and a couple of other friends tagging along.

The girls were sitting in the upper tier and, when Ms. Grande sang her last note, they made their way down to the main floor. "We left quite swiftly after the music stopped," said Ms. Jones, who is 17 years old. "The lights had just come up and there was just the last bit of music played and then this huge bang went off."

At first, they thought it was someone setting off fireworks. But then could smell the smoke and saw the fear in people's eyes as people began to run. "We just kind of looked at each other and ducked and screamed. And then everyone ran, just ran wherever they could out of the way because the bang was just horrendous. It was pure terror," Ms. Jones said.

"It was like a stampede of people running away. … We could see the flash of light, the sound and the smoke coming through the exit to the arena," added Ms. Lincoln, who is 18.

Once outside, they tried to contact Ms. Jones's parents, who had gone out to dinner and were about to head to the arena to pick them up. When they finally reached Ms. Jones's mother, she simply couldn't believe what had happened. "When I rang my mom that's what she said, 'Erin, surely it can't be a bomb, it will just be someone playing a prank'. But it was too loud," Ms. Jones said.

"We just knew," Ms. Lincoln said. "It was perfectly timed for when everyone was exiting the concert because she'd just finished her last song. It was the last chord. It was perfectly timed."

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They scrambled to find their friends who had been lost in the mayhem, flagging down a taxi and scouring the local area. Everyone was safe, but by Tuesday morning, no one wanted to attend another concert. "Not any public event or any place with a crowd," Ms. Jones said, shaking her head. "We've been quite on edge with everything. I think it's definitely going to change how we view public events and how we go about them."

Several musicians and bands have cancelled concerts in Britain in the wake of the attack, and Ms. Grande has yet to indicate if she will continue with all of the dates on her tour. But other groups have vowed to press ahead and hold tributes during upcoming performances to those who died.

Lloyd Gronow will be among those attending upcoming events despite a close call at the concert on Monday night. He'd got a couple of tickets from a friend at the last minute that afternoon and headed to Manchester from Liverpool with his girlfriend, Lucy Stead. They were about 50 metres from where the blast occurred and still made it out on to the street unscathed. On Tuesday, Mr. Gronow was trying to take it all in stride, worried that security wasn't strict enough at the arena but also aware that the bomb exploded outside the stadium in the foyer connecting to the train station.

"Obviously, something like this will stay in the back of my mind forever, but it's not going to stop me from doing anything," he said. "There's nothing you can really do about it. If it's going to happen, then it's out of my hands."

By Tuesday evening, all of Manchester and Britain were struggling to come to grips with what had happened. Thousands of people gathered for a vigil in Albert Square, in front of Manchester's ornate Town Hall. Many people carried signs saying "I Love MCR" and some held bouquets of flowers. Some cried during the moment of silence while others chanted "Manchester" as the service ended.

The bomber "knew what he was doing. He was trying to strike us where it hurt by killing the children," Courtney Sumner said as she held back tears. "And he has hit us where it hurts. He has."

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Next to her, Nathaniel Tornton held a sign that said "No fear here," "Nobody's scared here," he said defiantly. "People might be worried, people might be a bit more on edge than usual but we're a northern stubborn town. I think this will strengthen the community."

Paul Waldie is in Manchester assessing how the city, and Britain, is reacting to the attack on an Ariana Grande concert. Two concert-goers say the happy evening became one of 'pure terror.'
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