At Manchester Arena, panic among the pink balloons

Susan Miller
A young girl injured at the Ariana Grande concert on May 22, 2017, is helped by medics outside the Manchester Arena.

It was a surreal scene at the Manchester Arena.

Fans, still in the grips of an energetic Ariana Grande concert, spilled out of the U.K. arena Monday night laughing and smiling as the show came to a resounding close. But the happiness turned to horror, witnesses say, when one or two loud bangs rumbled through an area near the arena's bars about 10:35 p.m.

People began scrambling through the exits, many of them young fans, some still clutching pink balloons that had cascaded into the audience moments earlier. Panic and confusion ensued as police and paramedics descended in droves.

"We were making our way out and when we were right by the door there was a massive explosion and everybody was screaming," concertgoer Catherine Macfarlane told Reuters. "It was a huge explosion. You could feel it in your chest. It was chaotic. Everybody was running and screaming and just trying to get out."

Majik Khan, 22, described the almost instantaneous stampede. “A huge bomb-like bang went off that hugely panicked everyone and we were all trying to flee the arena,” Khan, 22, told Britain’s Press Association. “It was one bang and essentially everyone from the other side of the arena where the bang was heard from suddenly came running toward us as they were trying to exit.”

Added Oliver Jones, 17: “The bang echoed around the foyer of the arena and people started to run.”

At least 22 people were killed and scores were injured in the incident that police said Monday night is believed to be the work of terrorists.

Concertgoer Joe McElhone told CNN his bags were "definitely checked" before entering the arena, although he was not sure whether metal detectors were in use.

Outside the arena, medics tended to the injured, some whose clothes were shredded. There were hugs, tears and stunned looks. Many desperate parents and friends took to social media to search for loved ones they couldn't find.

Dawn Price told The Bolton News, a northwestern England newspaper that's part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, that she was attending the concert with her daughter and their friends. "I'm really shaken and can't process what happened as so many people were there with children," she said. "There was a big bang just as it finished and everyone started to run back into the arena. Then seconds later people started to run back in from another exit."

Gary Walker of Leeds described a grim scene to BBC. Leeds said he and his wife could hear Grande's closing song as they waited for their daughters to exit.

"And then suddenly there was a massive flash and then a bang and smoke. I felt a pain in my foot and my leg," Leeds said. "I turned around to my wife ... and she said, 'I need to lay down.' She's got a stomach wound and possibly a broken leg. I've got a bit of a hole in my foot where I've got a bit of shrapnel.

"I was surprised I got away so lightly," he said.

Manchester Arena, which opened in 1995, says on its website that it is one of the busiest venues in the world and the largest indoor arena in Europe. It has hosted such big names in entertainment as U2, Madonna and the Rolling Stones, as well as some high-profile sporting events.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims," the arena said in a statement on the site Monday night.

Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Susan Miller on Twitter: @susmiller

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