Witnesses described attack at music venue during which concertgoers taken hostage. Like most Friday nights, especially those with a “special event”, the Bataclan nightclub and concert hall near Paris’s Place de la République was heaving.
More than 1,000 fans had gathered at this popular venue for a concert by California group Eagles of Death Metal. The band had been on the stage for an hour and the music was loud. Heavy metal loud. Not loud enough, however, to mask the sound of gunfire.
Just before 10pm the newsflashes began reporting a “series of gunfire outbursts” in the French capital. The reports were brief and conveyed nothing of the unprecedented bloodbath unfolding in the French capital.
In what appeared to be coordinated and almost simultaneous terrorist attacks, dozens of people were killed and dozens more injured. At midnight, police said “several hundred” concertgoers inside the Bataclan were being held hostage by an unknown number of gunmen.
Outside there were bodies in the street. Paris had become a war zone.
Just after midnight, French special forces launched an assault on the Bataclan in an attempt to free the hostages. There were bursts of gunfire and several explosions. At 1am, police announced the operation was over and three gunmen had been killed. French media reported that as many as 70 people had been killed inside the club.
Earlier, a visibly shocked François Hollande had declared a state of emergency and announced France was closing its borders. “C’est une horreur,” the French president said. The words needed no translation or embellishment. It was a horror.
He said French security forces were, as he spoke, carrying out “an assault” in an unspecified place, which was believed to be the Bataclan.
As the police, emergency services, and military mobilised armoured vehicles, ambulances and helicopters, the heart of Paris was sealed off.
Julien Pierce, a journalist from Europe 1 radio, was inside the club in the 11th arrondissement when the shooting started.
“I found myself inside the concert hall when several armed individuals burst in, in the middle of the concert,” he reported.
“Two or three men, without masks, came in with Kalashnikov-type automatic weapons and began shooting blindly at the crowd … it lasted 10, 15 minutes. It was extremely violent and there was a wave of panic.
“Everyone was running in all directions towards the stage. It was a stampede and even I was trampled. I saw a lot of people hit by bullets. The gunmen had loads of time to reload at least three times. They weren’t masked, they knew what they were doing, they were very young.”
Pierce said the attackers had “not said a word”, but other witnesses spoke of hearing the gunmen shout: “This is for Syria.”
Shortly before the attack on the Bataclan, a few hundred metres away, in the neighbouring 11th arrondisssement, at least two gunmen had marched down a popular street where the bars and cafes were packed with weekend revellers and opened fire on a busy bar and a Cambodian restaurant.
“We heard gunfire, 30 seconds of fire, it was interminable, we thought it was fireworks,” said Pierre Montfort, who lives near rue Bichat, where the restaurant is located.
“Everyone was on the floor, no one moved,” said another eyewitness who had been at the Petit Cambodge restaurant. “A girl was carried by a young man in his arms. She appeared to be dead.”
Emilio Macchio, from Ravenna, Italy, was at the Carillon bar near the restaurant that was targeted, having a beer on the sidewalk, when the shooting started. He said he didn’t see any gunmen or victims, but hid behind a corner, then ran away. “It sounded like fireworks,” he said.
Television cameraman Charles Pitt said he was outside a cafe in the city’s 11th arrondissement where people were shot at about 9.10pm. He told BBC News: “I had just walked past the front of the cafe. It’s a popular, typical French cafe. People were sitting outside. I had literally gone about 30 metres when, I thought it was a firecracker to start with, and then it went on and it got louder.
“It went on for a minute. Everybody dived for cover thinking it was gunfire. Then there was a pause for about 15 seconds and then it all started up again.
“Then it calmed down a bit and I walked back to the front of the cafe and there was a whole pile of bodies, probably about seven on the left-hand side and four that had been sitting on the tables outside on the right-hand side, and a lot of injured. I saw a woman who had obviously been shot in the leg.
“Then the police turned up. Now we’re about 75 metres away. A lot of fire brigade, a lot of police, a lot of army patrolling the streets.”
n the north of Paris, a series of explosions was reported at the Stade de France, where Hollande was watching a friendly football match with Germany. Later, police said a suicide bomber had blown himself up killing several people.
In unconfirmed reports, spectators said there had been at least three explosions beforehand and grenades were thrown into the crowd.
As confusion and panic erupted in the French capital, the death toll rose: first 16, then 25, 42 … possibly 60, 100 … maybe more. In truth, in the chaos of the immediate aftermath, it was impossible for anyone to know exactly how many had been gunned down. Outside the Bataclan, bodies lay in the street covered by sheets thrown from flats above. Inside, at least 20 concertgoers were believed to be being held hostage by the gunmen.
Pierce managed to escape the building and reported seeing “a dozen bodies on the ground in pools of blood, including a young girl who had been hit by two bullets. I carried her 50 metres to the emergency services.”
“At the time I’m speaking, terrorist attacks on an unprecedented scale are taking place in Paris. There are dozens of deaths. It’s a horror, “ said a visibly shaken Hollande in a national address from the Elysée palace.
France has been on high alert since joining the American-led campaign of air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but nobody imagined such a bloodbath in the city. Witnesses spoke of scenes “straight out of a horror film”.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day that something so terrible, so indescribable would happen in Paris,” Franck, a customer in a bar near the Bataclan told BFMTV.
The French authorities announced that they had launched the unprecedented security alert Alpha Rouge, signalling that Paris was under “multiple attack”.
City Hall gave advice Parisians to stay at home and five Métro lines that pass through the 10th and 11th arrondissements were halted. As the emergency services struggled to evacuate the dead and wounded, there were reports of further attacks in the capital, including Les Halles, the large central shopping area.