Five years ago, Caitlin McNeil, 19, and Millie Tomlinson, 22, were strangers when they attended the same Ariana Grande concert.
But following the Manchester Arena terror attack on 22 May 2017 in which 22 people lost their lives, the two survivors found hope in one another. Now, bound by their experience, they're madly in love, have exchanged rings and are looking forward to a happy future together.
Here the couple share their story exclusively with OK!…
“A blast of hot air sent me flying through the air. It felt like minutes until I was back on the ground,” says Millie.
“I’d been linking arms with my friend but suddenly I was alone, surrounded by smoke. It was obvious that everyone around me had either died or was seriously injured. Just five minutes earlier I was singing along to Dangerous Woman at my first concert without my mum chaperoning me. A night of non-stop fun had turned into a nightmare.”
After dragging herself to her feet, her hair singed and jeans covered in blood, Millie, who was 17 at the time, tried to call her mum but was confronted by the extent of her injuries.
“I went to unlock my phone but I couldn’t because my fingers were hanging off,” she says. “I touched a bone that was sticking out but I was in so much shock that I couldn’t comprehend what had happened.”
In the days that followed Salman Abedi’s suicide bombing of the Ariana Grande gig on 22 May 2017, Millie had surgery on her leg and fingers. She attended physiotherapy for a year to relearn how to use her left hand.
“My mental health was shot,” she explains. “I went for a meal with my family a few months after the concert and I couldn’t pick up my knife or fork. I rushed to the toilets, crying my eyes out but returned to the table pretending I was OK.”
Two weeks after the explosion, when police officers asked her to pin her location on a map, Millie realised she had been just 6ft away from Abedi. Shocked to the core, she struggled with severe survivor guilt. “I couldn’t help comparing myself to people who’d lost their lives, or were more injured. I saw a counsellor within two days but was too numb to listen to any advice.”
Though Caitlin wasn’t physically injured like Millie, she found the mental impact hard to bear. Although her younger sister Erin took some time off school to process the night, Caitlin refused to acknowledge the trauma. “My mum watched the news to keep tabs on what had happened, so even home didn’t feel like a safe haven. There was no escape.”
Following months of anxiety, Caitlin received CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) at the beginning of 2018. “It was a long process. At the concert I wasn’t fully aware of what was going on. I was so caught up in the moment that I even videoed myself running out of the arena,” she says. “I bottled my emotions up and stopped caring about how I treated others. One day, Mum turned around to me saying, ‘You’re not OK, you need to get help.’”
Caitlin and Millie both decided to appear in the BBC Three documentary Manchester Bomb: Our Story in the hope of giving a voice to survivors. Four months after the show aired in May 2018, the pair met for the first time when Caitlin’s mum arranged a gathering in Manchester. “It was nice to meet people with a similar connection,” Caitlin recalls.
As the other girls in the group swapped stories about their experiences at the concert, Millie and Caitlin realised they had more in common than that one evening – they both loved indie music and comedy shows. “We didn’t even talk about the bombing, we had so much more to chat about,” says Millie. “We could finally escape the horrific ordeal together.”
Bound by love
“It’s so strange how comfortable I instantly felt around her,” adds Caitlin. “Within an hour, I’d told her my life story while tucking into pasta. I was 15 and I’d recently come out as gay – she was one person who didn’t care about that.”
Millie had already been “out” for a few years by then so could relate fully. “Even Mum said she could see something between us. It wasn’t necessarily an attraction, but it was like we were long-lost friends,” says Caitlin.
“When I saw Millie, I thought she was pretty and we got on, but I assumed that she’d never be interested,” she adds.
As the night drew to a close, they went their separate ways but continued chatting “all the time” on Instagram and Snapchat.
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After almost three years of friendship, going to the same gigs and parties, in January 2021 they admitted their feelings had changed.
“Millie messaged me saying she was ready to find someone, and I replied with a long paragraph about how she deserved the world. As soon as I sent it, I realised it sounded like I fancied her,” says Caitlin.
Luckily, the feeling was mutual. “It’s funny because when we were friends we’d always end our FaceTimes by saying ‘love you’. Suddenly we couldn’t say it and would awkwardly end our calls,” adds Millie.
While on a romantic Valentine’s Day stroll, they made things official. “We gave each other some presents – I gave Caitlin a grow-your-own cactus, she got me a kimono and we had both picked some incense for each other – then Caitlin asked me to be her girlfriend,” says Millie. “I could tell she was nervous because she kissed my eye instead of my cheek.”
Despite the circumstances they haven’t let the events of 2017 define their time together. “People always assume that we’ve bonded over our trauma, but it’s not like that,” insists Caitlin. “We met through a terrible thing, but that’s not the reason we’re in a relationship.”
While rebuilding their lives, having each other has helped deal with the darker days. Millie says, “I went to New York last month, and while I was there I heard there had been a subway shooting. I had a panic attack as it brought back memories. Even though she was on the other side of the world, Caitlin knew how I’d be feeling and was the first person to message.”
For Caitlin, Millie has helped her deal with her mental health after she went through an “awful” time last summer. “When we went to our first Manchester Pride together in August, I suffered from a really bad panic attack walking down Canal Street, thinking someone was going to attack me,” she says. “I held Millie’s hand and she pulled me through the crowd to somewhere quieter where I could calm down.”
Though the couple live more than 40 miles apart due to university, their relationship is blooming. “We’ve given each other emerald promise rings, which signifies our commitment that one day we’ll get married,” says Caitlin. “We’d never have gotten into a relationship if we didn’t think we’d spend the rest of our lives together. Our friendship was too good to throw away for a fleeting romance.”
Moving in together is their future plan. “I’m based in Salford and Caitlin’s in Leeds, so we’ll probably end up living in the middle of the M62,” jokes Millie.
On the five-year anniversary of the bombing, the pair will be paying their respects together – away from the crowds.
“We’ve both been to the memorial services in Manchester before and the crowds were really triggering,” says Caitlin. “We’ll give each other space and pay our respects in our own way and remember.”
“I like to think we would’ve met each other at another gig had this not happened, but I don’t know. It’s this whole experience that brought us together,” says Millie.
Caitlin agrees. “We might have met at a gig in Manchester or Leeds, but I think we’d just be friends – good or bad, everything has led to where we are now.”
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