Dad who was the closest person to the Manchester Arena bomb to survive climbs Kilimanjaro and says ‘don’t write me off because I’m in a wheelchair’

·10-min read

A dad who was the closest person to the Manchester Arena bomb blast to survive and was left paralysed by the atrocity has trekked Kilimanjaro in a wheelchair in a bid to combat stigma surrounding disability.

Martin Hibbert, 46, a football agent, who lives in Chorley, Lancashire, with his wife, Gabby, 49, an HR worker with the NHS, was at the Ariana Grande concert with his daughter, Eve, then 14, from a previous relationship on the night the suicide bomber struck.

Martin and Eve were just six metres away from the blast in May 2017, which left 22 people dead and hundreds injured, and while Martin’s spinal cord was severed by shrapnel, Eve, now 19, was left with some brain damage and both face being wheelchair users for life.

Martin bought a mountain trike which he used to climb the mountain. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin bought a mountain trike which he used to climb the mountain. (Collect/PA Real Life)

Now fighting for more accessibility for disabled people in the UK, Martin said: “Becoming disabled at 40, I’ve seen what life is like from both points of view and there is so much that needs to be done in terms of accessibility.

“Since the attack, I’ve become an activist and I’m hoping to change laws.”

But it was back in December 2016, when he surprised Eve with concert tickets.

Martin was determined to take on the physical challenge. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin was determined to take on the physical challenge. (Collect/PA Real Life)

He said: “It was a Christmas present. Normal tickets were sold out but I have good contacts through my work, so I was able to get a VIP box for the two of us for the evening.

“I gave them to her on Christmas Day 2016 and she was just so excited. We’ve always bonded over music. It was something my mum and I had loved together and I was keen to carry that on with Eve.

“She was a big Ariana Grande fan so she couldn’t wait for the gig.”

Martin recalls the evening leading up to the concert on May 22, 2017.

He said: “We went for a meal at San Carlo beforehand and took a selfie together. I often struggle with memory loss now but my memory of that night is crystal clear.

“Eve was just about to start her GCSE mock exams, and I remember looking at her in the restaurant and thinking how grown up she looked. I was thinking, ‘My little girl isn’t little anymore.’”

Martin and Eve pictured on the evening of the Ariana Grande concert. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin and Eve pictured on the evening of the Ariana Grande concert. (Collect/PA Real Life)

He added: “I remember feeling excited about her future, she had dreams of becoming a vet. I was bursting with pride.”

Heading into the Manchester Arena, Martin says there were no warning signs of what was to come.

He said: “The actual concert was brilliant, and Eve was so excited to be in the VIP box. We had our own fridge and she kept asking me for another can of Coke.”

Martin’s x-ray shows the shrapnel wounds he suffered in the attack. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin’s x-ray shows the shrapnel wounds he suffered in the attack. (Collect/PA Real Life)

He added: “It really made me laugh and I had to keep reminding her that she didn’t need to ask, she could have any of the food and drink in the box.”

The pair had agreed to leave the concert during the encore.

Martin said: “I wanted to beat the rush at the end of the night so we could get back to the car quickly.”

He added: “So, during the encore, we made our way to the exit. There were a few people around doing the same.”

Martin and Eve made their way into the lobby of the arena which led to Victoria Train Station at 10.30pm.

Martin said: “I didn’t see anyone suspicious but, unbeknownst to us, we were just six metres away from the bomber.”

Martin pictured here during his recovery. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin pictured here during his recovery. (Collect/PA Real Life)

He added: “It all happened so quickly, there was a sudden blast and I was on the ground.”

The bomb detonated at 10.31pm and, while Eve was knocked unconscious, Martin remained awake.

He said: “I’d had 22 pieces of shrapnel hit me across my body but I couldn’t feel any pain. I don’t know if it was the shock or the adrenaline. All I could think about was Eve.”

He added: “There were people dying around me. I remember calling out for help and a security guard ran over.

“A piece of shrapnel had torn through my neck and I was losing a lot of blood. The security held onto my neck to try to stop the bleeding.

“I remember desperately trying to get him to leave me and see to Eve. She was still unconscious.”

Martin recalls how he thought he was not going to make it.

He said: “I was so sure that I was dying, and I was really calm. I was thinking, ‘I just need to get Eve help and then I’ve done my job, then I can go to sleep.’

“I must have been delirious because I was sure I saw Eve being taken away by paramedics before everything went dark but we now know that I was taken first.”

Martin climbed Kilimanjaro in June 2022. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin climbed Kilimanjaro in June 2022. (Collect/PA Real Life)

Martin was rushed to Salford Royal Hospital while Eve was taken to Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.

He said: “It was three weeks before I regained consciousness but another one to two weeks before I could really think properly.

“My mum and my wife were both at my side, telling me that Eve was alive, and that gave me a lot of strength.”

Martin with the team he trekked with. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin with the team he trekked with. (Collect/PA Real Life)

Five weeks after the terrorist attack, Martin was transferred to a spinal unit in Southport.

He said: “Before I was transferred, doctors broke the news. A piece of shrapnel from the bomb had torn through my spine, severing my spinal cord.

“It was damaged beyond repair and I was paralysed from the waist down.”

But while it came as a shock to Martin, he says he was not devastated by the news.

He said: “There were people at that concert who died and there were people who lost loved ones. To be so close to the bomb and leave with my life felt like a miracle.

“Eve was still in hospital and very poorly but she was alive and I clung onto hope that she would get better.”

Martin hopes to raise £1m for the Spinal Injuries Association. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin hopes to raise £1m for the Spinal Injuries Association. (Collect/PA Real Life)

He added: “My life would never be the same but I was okay with that. That terrorist wanted me to give up on life, he wanted me to sit in a corner and cry. I refuse.”

Martin was discharged from hospital in a wheelchair in September 2017, four months after the bomb, but Eve would not return home until February 2018.

He said: “Even though I’d been standing between her and the bomb, so acted as a sort of shield, it had affected Eve more.”

Martin says he wanted to do the impossible. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin says he wanted to do the impossible. (Collect/PA Real Life)

He added: “She only had one shrapnel wound but it had gone through her temple and out the other side, leaving her with brain damage.

“She was in a wheelchair too and, while it was really touch and go if she was going to make it, she came home nine months after the attack.”

And, while Martin came to terms with his new life, he started looking for a challenge.

He said: “Becoming disabled at 40, I was getting used to what I could and couldn’t do and certain issues around inaccessibility really bothered me.

“To this day, there are restaurants I can’t go to and hotels I can’t stay at because they’re not wheelchair accessible.

“I remarked to my friends that I wanted to do something crazy, something that seemed impossible for someone in a wheelchair.”

Martin used a special wheelchair to hike up the mountain with. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin used a special wheelchair to hike up the mountain with. (Collect/PA Real Life)

Martin began working closely with the Spinal Injuries Association and wanted to raise money for them.

He said: “I told them I wanted to trek to Mount Everest base camp and they looked into it but discovered that I couldn’t do it – I would have to be carried for most of it.

“However, Kilimanjaro was the second hardest mountain to climb and they reckoned that could be done.”

It took five days for the team to climb Kilimanjaro. (Collect/PA Real Life)
It took five days for the team to climb Kilimanjaro. (Collect/PA Real Life)

Martin says the prospect gave him something to work towards as he began training for the trek.

He said: “I bought a mountain trike which was a special wheelchair that I could push myself up the mountain with and I started going out on hikes with it.

“We planned to embark on the trip in 2021 but then Covid hit.”

The pandemic pushed the plans back by a year and it was June 2022 that the team were finally able to set off for Tanzania.

Martin said: “I climbed Snowdon in the March to prepare for it.

“I was worried about telling Eve as I know she worries about me but she was really proud. She told me to be careful but I think she knew I could do it.”

Martin’s trek has currently raised £600k. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin’s trek has currently raised £600k. (Collect/PA Real Life)

Martin embarked on the trek with friends and other members of the Spinal Injuries Association, setting off on June 2, 2022.

He said: “I was so in the zone that I don’t think I quite took in my surroundings as much as I should have but it really was spectacular.

“It took us five days to climb up and two days to climb back down. Reaching the summit just felt surreal, I couldn’t quite believe I’d done it.”

Martin hopes to change laws around accessibility for disabled people in the UK. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin hopes to change laws around accessibility for disabled people in the UK. (Collect/PA Real Life)

He added: “We would wake before the sun to beat the heat as we climbed and, as we neared the top, we were above the clouds and the sunrise from there was magical.”

And Martin says his mountain trike made climbing the mountain possible.

He said: “People were saying that my arms must have been killing me but I was fine. I just put mind over matter and had my head focussed on the end goal.”

He added: “I wanted to raise £1m for the Spinal Injuries Association and so far, I’ve raised £600K. We’re planning a black tie dinner in September where we hope to raise more.”

And now, Martin has his sights set on the future.

He said: “It’s taken Eve a long time to get back on track but she starts college in September. I’m so proud of her.”

Martin hopes to combat the stigma disabled people face in the UK. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin hopes to combat the stigma disabled people face in the UK. (Collect/PA Real Life)

He added: “We’ll both be wheelchair users for life but in a way, I’m glad I’m going through this with her, she’s not on her own with this.”

And Martin says he is now focused on lobbying government to make law changes on inaccessibility.

He said: “I want new legislation brought in that says places like restaurants and hotels need to be wheelchair friendly.”

He added: “It’s not the wheelchair or the spinal injury that makes me feel disabled, it’s other people. I’m often underestimated now or told what people think I can’t do.

“It’s got to change and that’s what Kilimanjaro was all about. Look at what a disabled man can do when he’s got the right help and support – he can do the impossible.

“I’m actually stronger both physically and mentally than I was when I was able-bodied and I’ve had enough of how disabled people are treated in the UK.”

Martin is now working as a disability activist. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Martin is now working as a disability activist. (Collect/PA Real Life)

He added: “I’m not sure what challenge I’ll do next but I’m sure it’ll be crazy. Don’t write me off just because I’m in a wheelchair. There’s so much I can do.”

To donate to Martin’s fundraiser, visit: www.martins-mountain.justgiving-sites.com

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