40 years on: First photographer on the scene at the Birmingham pub bombings speaks out on how the memories of that fateful night have haunted him for years
The first photographer on the scene of the Birmingham pub bombings has spoken out about how the memory has haunted him for forty years.
Niels McGuinness, 75, was on his way home when he passed blue flashing lights near the city centre and discovered the horrific scenes of devastation caused by the two bombs that killed 21 people.
His shocking photos of bodies strewn in the street made front pages all over the world but Niels has never forgotten the fateful evening.
On the evening of November 21st 1974, freelance photographer Niels was driving home from photographing the repatriation of IRA bomber James McDade’s body at Birmingham Airport.
He spotted a fire engine near the Rotunda and drove by to see what was happening.
He said: “I didn’t realise at the time what I had stumbled upon – it was only 15 minutes after the bombs went off.
“It was chaos – there wasn’t a window pane left unsmashed in the street.
“I pulled my camera out straight away and started shooting.
“Then I saw that there were bodies strewn across the pub just covered in debris. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“A fireman tapped me on the shoulder and said another bomb had gone off round the corner so I rushed there as well and the devastation suddenly became clear.”
As firefighters and passersby helped the injured, Niels dashed between the two bomb sites – two pubs filled with young people in the centre of Birmingham – chronicling the event for the national newspapers.
After two hours, unsure whether to stay and help or get his films to Fleet Street, Niels rushed off to find a courier for his precious photos.
He managed to convince a taxi driver to take them directly to London for a set fare of £50 and then dashed back to keep capturing the unfolding horrors, including the backlash against the Irish community in the weeks that followed.
The Press Association issued his pictures and newspaper editors used them to illustrate the horrific scenes.
Niels said: “What still haunts me is the noise of every burglar alarm in the street going off – it was incessant, it just kept going and going.
“I watched people trying to help the walking wounded but it was a nightmare – the ambulances were caught up in the traffic and road closures.
“In the end taxis had to start taking people – some with the most horrific burns – to hospital. It was like the Blitz.
“I think at the time I wasn’t in shock and I was just running off the adrenalin but in the months afterwards it really hit me.
“Now I get emotional just thinking about it – knowing that so many people died in a split second.”