Paris attacks: Three hours that shook the French capital
Friday night’s six deadly attacks were launched within an hour of each other
The deadliest attack on French soil since the second World War – and the first carried out by suicide bombers – took place at six locations in Paris over a period of less than an hour last Friday night. The targets were people enjoying themselves: football fans watching a match, young people dancing, friends catching up over a drink. Here’s how the events of Friday night unfolded.
It’s a full house at the Stade de France, where 80,000 supporters have turned out on a chilly Friday night in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, for a France v Germany friendly. French president François Hollande is there, sitting beside the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Seventeen minutes into the game, a loud bang shakes the walls just outside the stadium, on rue Jules-Rimet. Part of the crowd cheers, assuming it’s just another firework. They’re oblivious to the stirrings of panic outside, where a suicide bomber has detonated an explosive vest. One French official, quoted later in the Journal du Dimanche, thinks it sounds like a gas canister exploding. The game continues.
Every Friday night, the corner of rue Alibert and rue Bichat is one of the liveliest around the Canal Saint-Martin district. It’s buzzing this evening: diners are crammed into the popular Petit Cambodge restaurant and across the road scores of people are chatting and smoking outside Le Carillon, a well-known bar, run by a local Algerian, that draws many of its regulars from the staff of the nearby Saint-Louis hospital. Into this scene comes a black Seat car. It stops at the crossroads.
Two men holding Kalashnikovs get out; one sprays bullets at Le Carillon, the other fires directly at Le Petit Cambodge. People scream. Bodies fall to the ground, one after the other. After a few minutes, an eerie silence falls. “It was surreal,” an eyewitness named Sophie tells BFM TV. “Everyone was on the ground. Nobody was moving in Le Petit Cambodge and everyone was on the ground in Le Carillon. It was very quiet. People didn’t understand what had happened.”
When the police arrive, they count 15 dead. Walls and windows are pockmarked and smashed, mainly at seat-level. The blood would still be evident 12 hours later, despite the authorities’ attempts to cover it with sawdust. A chalk-written sign by the door still reads: “Happy hour 6-8pm.”
France’s left-back Patrice Evra is about to pass the ball to a teammate at the halfway line when he hears a second explosion. He glances towards the southeast corner of the stadium and raises his hands as if to say: what’s that? Sirens can be heard outside, but the game goes on. An aide taps Hollande on the shoulder and whispers something in his ear. Photographs capture the moment, the president staring gravely as he listens. He is brought to the stadium’s security headquarters, where he calls his interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, and receives a briefing on the developing emergency. Cazeneuve’s message: two bombs, two dead, and further incidents ongoing in the city. A decision is taken to get Hollande out of the stadium at half-time. Officials consider abandoning the match but quickly rule that out for fear that it would set off panic in the stands.
At a corner on rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi – a stone’s throw from Le Petit Cambodge – the Casa Nostra pizzeria and the Bonne Bière cafe are packed with customers. It’s the busiest time of the evening in one of the most popular areas for a night out in the city. Again, a black Seat pulls up and a man wearing black starts to fire directly at the café and the restaurant. The rattle of gunfire goes on until more than 100 spent cartridges have fallen at his feet. When the car leaves, people are writhing in blood on the path. Five are dead and eight are seriously injured.
The Belle Équipe restaurant looks onto a busy intersection off rue de Charonne – another spot where young people are guaranteed to gather outdoors on a Friday night. When the black Seat appears, two men get out but only one fires his Kalashnikov at first; the second man appears to be “looking around”, an eyewitness named Jean-Luc tells Le Journal du Dimanche. Screams can be heard from La Belle Équipe. Again, some witnesses estimate hearing about 100 shots.
“The path was covered in blood,” local man André would tell 20 Minutes. “A boy took a girl in his arms and tried to keep her conscious.” Some people are slumped over tables, others sprawled on the ground. “It was not just one or two bullets. The shooting lasted five minutes. They did not give anybody a chance,” Antoine, a witness, tells BFM TV. Nineteen people are dead, including the Belle Équipe’s owner and a 41-year-old off-duty policeman who was celebrating his daughter’s birthday.
More than a dozen people are having a drink at the Comptoir Voltaire, a neighbourhood café towards the western end of Boulevard Voltaire, when a man walks in and calmly takes a seat. A waitress approaches and, just as the man is about to give his order, he detonates an explosive vest. Witnesses hear a bang and see acrid smoke billowing out onto the street. A young woman can be seen running, screaming, her head in her hands. The bomber is dead, and 15 others are injured.
France score through Olivier Giroud, and the crowd erupts in celebration. Mobile reception is terrible on match days at the Stade de France, so the crowd is still unaware of the scene outside, but word is filtering through to officials of a series of attacks in the 11th arrondissement. When he reaches the Élysée Palace, Hollande orders his staff to prepare for a state of emergency declaration. By now the authorities have quietly closed all gates at the Stade de France: no one can enter or exit.
Fans of the Californian band Eagles of Death Metal have come close to filling the 1,500-capacity concert venue at the Bataclan, an 11th arrondissement landmark, and the atmosphere is electric. The band are eight songs into the set when a black Volkswagen Golf pulls up outside the venue and three men get out. They rake some nearby cafés with gunfire and calmly walk through the front door of the Bataclan, shooting as they move. A video captures the moment. The band is still playing. The hall is dark. The dull thuds come closer, and then the music stops.
Pandemonium ensues. “We instinctively threw ourselves on the floor,” says one teacher. The lights go on, and the attackers continue firing automatic rounds in all directions. At least one speaks French. Those who are still alive at this point have to figure out how to flee: two of the emergency exits are located at the back of the hall, but that’s where the attackers are, so people begin to surge towards the stage, where there’s another way out. Some crawl forward, moving slowly during lulls in the shooting, often passing bodies or people with limbs covered in blood.
“I turned round and I saw one of these attackers, he was very young, barely 20, with a small beard,” recalls Julien Pearce, a reporter for Europe 1 radio who was in the venue. “At first we thought it was part of the show, pyrotechnics or whatever. But when I turned round and saw him with his assault rifle and saw flames coming from his barrel, I understood it was no joke.” He describes the young attackers as “extremely determined, cold, calm”.
By now the streets of the 11th arrondissement are deserted but for the police cars and ambulances speeding from scene to scene. In bars and restaurants, staff and customers turn off the lights or get down on the floor. Across Paris, off-duty doctors and nurses turn up at their hospitals to help treat the injured. Among those co-ordinating the medical response is Patrick Pelloux, the doctor and Charlie Hebdo writer who lost eight of his friends in the attack on the magazine’s offices, just a few minutes’ walk from the Bataclan, in January.
A third explosion – this time more muffled – outside the Stade de France. A third suicide bomber has blown himself up nearby, on rue de la Cokerie. At half-time the teams’ coaches are informed about events, but they decide not to tell the players. When André-Pierre Gignac scores France’s second goal, the crowd – still oblivious to the turmoil outside – breaks out in a rendition of La Marseillaise.
Inside and outside the Bataclan, there are scenes of terror and chaos. Police and medics have begun to arrive, but they’re struggling to figure out what is happening. “How many critical? How many serious?” yells a paramedic. Police officers, their radios incessantly relaying information of the latest atrocities, try to clear the streets and bring the escapees to safety. It quickly becomes clear that they’re dealing with a hostage situation, and that there are hundreds of people inside. Police commandos and snipers take up position, summoning any Bataclan staff they can find in order to understand the layout of the building. The facade of the venue lights up in little red dots projected from the snipers’ rifles.
Inside, the scramble to safety continues. So does the shooting. As a gunman pauses to reload, Julien Pearce manages to sneak around the side of the stage and out to a separate part of the building. Some manage to run upstairs and take refuge in offices or toilets. Others are not so lucky. The shooters target anyone who takes out a phone or draws attention to themselves. People fall “like dominoes,” one witness tells Reuters. People cry or scream or yell out for a friend.
When two of the attackers go upstairs, some people take advantage to make a run for the back door. The Le Monde journalist Daniel Psenny, whose apartment looks onto the backstreet, can see them run. He watches (and records on his phone) as some are shot in the back and others take cover in doorways. His video shows one woman clinging to a second-floor window-frame with her fingers, her feet dangling in the air. A few minutes later, Psenny himself is shot in the arm as he tends to one of the injured in the street.
At the final whistle, the loudspeakers inform the crowd at the Stade de France about “an incident” outside the stadium. The fans filter out, but something – accounts differ on whether it was fear of a crush or someone shouting that there was a bomb – briefly sets off panic. Hundreds of people turn back and spill onto the pitch.
The players, meanwhile, gather around a television screen in the tunnel, where they can see live pictures of the carnage in the city. The teams are told it’s too dangerous to leave by bus, so they spend most of the night in the changing rooms before eventually leaving in minibuses with police escorts after 4am. Some of the French players are directly affected: Lassana Diarra’s cousin has been shot dead, while Antoine Griezmann’s sister is in the Bataclan but manages to flee unharmed.
In a live television address from the Élysée, Hollande announces a state of emergency and says an unprecedented attack is still ongoing. “It’s a horror,” he says, visibly struggling to maintain his composure.
The attackers have been in the Bataclan for 2½ hours when police commandos receive the order to storm the building. Residents hear a number of heavy explosions followed by intense automatic fire. Hostages can be seen running from the building. A 20-minute lull, then two more massive booms. Two special forces units have entered the building – one downstairs and one upstairs. Pearce, who has taken shelter with some others in a toilet, is found by the police, who tell him to take off his shirt so they can be sure he’s not wearing an explosive vest. “There was shooting in all directions,” he says.
One of the attackers is shot dead by police and the other two blow themselves up, the authorities say.
The streets of the 11th are still deserted, but the fighting has ended. After speaking to US president Barack Obama by phone, François Hollande, accompanied by prime minister Manuel Valls and a dozen police officers with machine guns, visits the improvised nerve-centre of the medical operation on a street near the Bataclan. By now the death toll has climbed well beyond 100, with several hundred others seriously injured. The president thanks the police and paramedics for their work, then approaches the cameras. France, he says, is “at war”.