‘He was breathing, so my wife had a wee chat with him’: heroic UK couple who gave first aid to Tunisia victims

Brian Harrison, a former Red Cross volunteer, and his wife, a surgical nurse, moved through resort caring for tourists in wake of atrocity

Brian Harrison drew on decades of experience as Red Cross volunteer to treat the wounded during the Tunisian terror attack. Photograph: Twitter

In March, a few days after Brian Harrison and his wife booked their holiday to theTunisia resort of Sousse, Islamist gunmen killed 21 people, many of them tourists, at the Bardo museum in the capital Tunis.

“It hit the news and I thought: ‘What have we done?,’” recalled Harrison, 56, on Tuesday. But the Bardo killer was surely “just one of these maniacs with a gun” and there had been no repeat attacks so the former soldier and his wife from Aberdeen, who has asked not to be named, flew to Tunisia and checked into the beachfront Imperial Marhaba hotel.

Now, Harrison, and his wife, a surgical nurse, have emerged as among the heroes of last Friday’s atrocity that claimed the lives of 30 Britons and nine others when the 23-year-old student Seifeddine Rezgui went on the rampage with a Kalashnikov. Tunisian security officials now believe he trained in Libya at the same time as the Bardo attackers.

The married couple were in the hotel spa having massages when Rezgui struck and Harrison has told how he and his wife came across the carnage. They grabbed table cloths and napkins from the restaurant to bandage the wounds of the injured and dying, tended to those who had seen loved ones killed just minutes earlier and accompanied the seriously injured to hospital.

“Most other mornings we would have been on the beach but on Friday we decided we would go into the spa and then into town, shopping,” Harrison told The Guardian. “When I was having my massage there was a noise that to me, as a soldier, sounded like gunfire. I said to the massuese: ‘Is that gunfire?’ and she said: ‘No, no, it can’t be.’ It sounded like a machine gun. There was a wee pause and then there was a noise that sounded like firecracker and then the louder machine gun again.”

Those two different noises made him think later that there were at least two weapons used in the attack, which might indicate that more than one terrorist was involved.

Brian Harrison and his wife were in spa at the Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse when the gunman struck outside. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

But at that point, lying on the massage table and with the noise stopped, he disregarded it.

“When we finished and came out of the spa, there were a lot of people running about, saying we had to go somewhere safe because there had been shooting,” he said. “It looked quite calm. So I went and got my clothes on.”

He met up with his wife, who had been having a massage in another area and was already dressed. They quickly grasped the extent of the tragedy. Her training as a nurse, and his as a British Red Cross volunteer, kicked in as they moved through the resort that had become a killing zone. In the hotel reception they came across an elderly man crouched in the corner.

“Whether he had been put there or tried to hide there, I don’t know, but he was obviously dead,” he said. “I gave him a shake to see if he would wake up and my wife said no.”

Across the lobby, they found a man lying on one of the couches with an abdominal wound.

“My wife said you could see a bit of his intestine, so she stayed with him,” he said

They searched for first aid equipment but their demands were “lost in translation” with the French- and Arabic-speaking hotel staff.

“I ran down to the dining room, because in a five-star hotel there would be some napkins and things, so I grabbed a handful and a few tablecloths,” he said. “We got a napkin on the guy’s wound. An ambulance came a few minutes later so we left him with the ambulance crew and went down to the pool area to see if there was anyone else we could help, past a few other people who had blankets over them and pillows over them.” They were all dead.

“On the steps going down we saw a guy who had been bleeding because there was quite a puddle beneath him, but he was breathing and other people weren’t, so my wife had a wee chat with him.”

Floral tributes have been placed where the attack started on the beach. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

Harrison continued on to the beach looking for more people to help.

“There was a French girl sitting on a bed looking at her two friends covered over with towels who were both dead,” he said. “She was shaking. Sitting looking at her two dead friends wasn’t the best place to be, so I guided her to a member of staff who took her because he was able to communicate with her [in French].

“Beside the pool bar there was someone with what looked like shrapnel wounds which weren’t bleeding much but she had a badly broken arm so I chatted to her and tried to make her as comfortable as I could. One of the first things she said was: ‘My husband’s dead.’ The holiday was to celebrate their wedding anniversary which would have been on Monday, so I just stayed with her.”

She said she had witnessed her husband shot.

“When the ambulance turned up I stayed to be a bit of an advocate because there was a lot going on, as opposed to a lot of care happening.” He went with the woman to the hospital. Thankfully her wounds did not prove to be too serious.

“A lot of people in the hotel were stunned,” he said. “A lot of folk just wanted out, they wanted home. One young lad’s father was dead but he was having trouble grasping that. His mother pulled me aside and said: ‘I saw the side of his head getting shot off. I know he’s dead.’ She was trying to be strong because her son was so devastated. There was another young lad who’d lost his fiancée in his 20s. There are some heartbreaking stories.”

Harrison and his wife were due to remain on holiday until next week, but are now back in Scotland and say they are handling the experience.

“My wife and I are OK about it,” he said. “It is what we trained for and it is what we do. People keep saying ‘you are so brave’, but what else can you do? If you have skills that are useful, you use them.”

He had praise for the speed of the ambulance response and the arrival of the local Red Crescent, which deployed a psychological support team to be there if people wanted to speak about what they had seen. And despite the horror they witnessed, the couple think they may go back.

“Where we were was a beautiful area and we were starting to think we’d come back,” Harrison said. “The hotel was lovely and the staff were amazing. My wife was saying this morning we probably would go back. Just not this week.”

The Red Cross has set up a helpline for people affected by the attacks, open 8am to 8pm on 020 34170260


Some horrible incidents are happening like this all around the world at the moment. Its great to see people out there who are willing to volunteer. Make sure that you do some in your life its such a rewarding experience. Amazing that Brian used his first aid skills to effective use. Get your Canberra first aid course completed at Canberra First Aid and Training.

Contact us now to complete the Canberra first aid course on 0449746357 or email [email protected] .

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