Nicola Hughes was a slight, head-strong young woman embarking on what looked to become an illustrious career in the Greater Manchester Police force.
At just 23, the Saddleworth-born PC, once described by a senior as having ‘the body of a lion cub and the heart of a lion’ had already carved the path into her chosen career and shone with her tenacity and willingness to help.
She was known for doing anything to help her force and colleagues: once climbing through a dog flap to get into an offender’s house, another occasion single-handedly apprehending a thief until officers made the arrest.
It looked for all the world like this young cop would go on to achieve great things – until one routine call-out.
PC Nicola Hughes and her colleague, PC Fiona Bone, were called to a hoax burglary in Mottram, Tameside, when they were hit by a hail of 32 bullets before a hand grenade was detonated over their bodies.
Dale Cregan, who was today sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars, murdered both officers in cold blood.
Nicola’s father Bryn, and stepmother Natalie, gave an emotional interview remembering the young PC.
Sitting together on a sofa, holding hands as they spoke, Bryn said Nicola just wanted to help people from an early age.
“She was as proud as anything when she joined the police,” Bryn said.
“She wasn’t just proud. She loved her job.” Natalie added. “I can’t think of anybody who loved her job that much.
“She was driven and if she wanted something she would go out and get it.”
EMOTIONAL: PC Hughes’ coffin being carried into Manchester Cathedral
The family always acknowledged that being a member of the police force was a dangerous job, but nothing could have prepared them for the horror that unfolded after the ‘routine’ burglary call-out on September 18 last year.
Bryn found out something had happened to his daughter as he drove home from work.
He begins to recall the night he got a call from the officer in charge, but becomes tearful and has to stop.
As Bryn drove home that night a Detective Chief Inspector said he would be waiting for him, and when he asked if it was about his daughter, the officer didn’t answer.
“Bryn had just had an interview for a new job at work,” Natalie continues.
“He was driving home and the police contacted him and said they were at his house, waiting to speak to him.
“They didn’t tell him initially what happened but he put two and two together and he knew something quite serious had happened to Nicola.
“Eventually we found out she had been killed.
“He drove the rest of the way home and the police were there at the house.
“He rang me at work to tell me what had happened. I just remember him saying ‘Natalie, Nicola’s dead’. You are just in shock. Your head is spinning.”
Natalie says it’s hard to come to terms with what’s happened.
Cregan’s ensuing trial, during which he admitted killing the officers and a father and son, has kept the murders in the public domain.
Drawing attention to his horrendous crimes is what he wanted and it’s meant that the face of Nicola Hughes, a 23-year-old woman murdered doing her job, has been across the media, making it difficult for her family to grieve.
“It’s a nightmare you can’t wake up from,” Bryn continues, as he composes himself.
“It’s a horror film you are watching on television. You want to pause and rewind as you know what’s coming but you can’t.”
Thousands of cards received from well-wishers have helped ease the pain, and make the family realise how appreciated her daughter was.
MEMORIAL: Plaque dedicated to murdered policewomen
But now the trial has finally drawn to an agonising end, it seems even the fact that he will die in jail will not be any comfort after his monstrous actions.
Natalie adds: “It’s just constant disbelief. It just keeps hitting you all over again that it’s real. It just affects your whole life in ways you just cannot imagine.
“It makes you realise your own mortality.
“It makes you think that it could be anybody at any time, things you have never really thought of before.”