An hour into the rock concert, the atmosphere was frenetic. The band had just finished playing a number called Save A Prayer and–having told their raucous Parisian fans they loved them–they were launching into another favourite, Kiss The Devil.
How sickeningly ironic these song titles seem now. As the strobe lights flashed, silhouetting the Eagles of Death Metal drummer Julian Dorio raising his sticks and white-bearded guitarist Dave Catching thrashing out a riff, a volley of cracks rang out–so loud they cut right through the thrumming heavy metal music.
Many among the hip young crowd whooped and cheered, thinking it must be some zany pyrotechnical prank. Even when three men burst through the doors brandishing semi-automatic weapons and bristling with magazines of ammunition, some thought they were part of the spectacle.
Julian Dorio instinctively knew better. Though partially blinded by the stage lights, he cowered behind his drum kit. Two other band members also hurled themselves to the floor. Yet the guitarist stood stock still beside his microphone, as if paralysed by the enormity of the scene unfolding below him.
It was around 9.40pm, at one of the coolest venues in Paris, the Bataclan Concert Hall, just off the Place de la Republique; a room packed with chic Left Bank intellectuals and a good many Britons clamouring to see the cult Californian band on their European tour. But that packed hall was about to become a Dante-esque vision of hell.
A place where the slightest sound or movement–the nervous twitch of a limb, a whispered word of prayer–could fix some innocent young person in a gunman’s merciless sights. A place where even disabled rock fans, sitting helplessly in their wheelchairs, were cut down without a second thought.
Dressed in black, their faces unmasked, the terrorists had screeched up in a black car, and sprayed the adjacent cafe with bullets before bursting into the concert hall.
Among the first to die were those standing closest to the front doors and drinking at the bar. Within seconds, the cracks grew louder and more sustained echoing around the hall with hysterical squeals, and bullet-ridden people began collapsing like dominoes.
However, the hall is quite small, and many of the 1,500 fans were huddled together so tightly that those who were shot didn’t hit the ground at first. Instead, they fell, writhing, against those beside them, drenching them in blood.
‘Allahu Akbar!’ the terrorists bellowed: a cry that is supposed to glorify the Almighty but has become a mantra for murder. ‘This is for Syria!’ shouted one in flawless French. ‘It’s Hollande’s fault.’ Now it was horribly clear who these men were and what they had come for.
As the militarily organised terrorists took up their positions–one standing sentry in the pillared balcony, others remaining below to pick out the first targets (illuminated by the bright overhead lights)–people fell to the floor.
Some barely dared to breath; others reached for their phones to whisper and tap out desperate messages to loved ones.
Eighty-nine rock fans never made it out of that hall, and hundreds more suffered terrible wounds, some picked off as they ran down the alley.
Among the victims was Nick Alexander, 36, a gentle, bearded man from Colchester, much loved on the heavy metal rock circuit, who made his living selling posters and T-shirts. He was there with his American former girlfriend, Helen Wilson, who was shot in both thighs, but lived. ‘It was mayhem,’ she said from her hospital bed.
‘When anyone started running they would shoot them, so we got down on the floor. They machine-gunned everybody.’
The random slaughter was to go on intermittently for two hours and 40 minutes. Helen described how the killers chillingly dispatched disabled fans, who were seated in a special area with the best view of the stage. ‘They went into the back room where there were people in wheelchairs and they just started shooting them,’ she said.
Among the others killed was a cousin of the French international footballer Lassana Diarra, who was playing for his country against Germany, just a few miles north of the hall at the Stade de France, the target of another of the attacks.
It was a night of so many bleak coincidences. And there are still many unanswered questions. What became of Gilles Leclerc, for example, a bearded young man who posted a selfie with his girlfriend, Marianne Labanane, on Instagram–raising their plastic beer glasses and gazing enigmatically into the camera–as they waited for the concert to start?
Marianne, we know, survived, for yesterday she received help at a victims’ support centre set up in a nearby town hall. But last night, as his anguished parents appealed for information about him on Facebook, Gilles was still ‘missing’.
Two Scottish friends at the concert as a joint birthday celebration managed to sneak down into the cellar below the hall and hide there with some Italian men, listening to the terrible events unfolding above them.
John Leader, an expat Australian, had taken his 12-year-old son Oscar to see his favourite band.
He describes hearing the ‘firecracker’ sound, then feeling the ‘whistle’ of a bullet go past his ear.
‘One of the gunmen was surveilling the crowd while the other was shooting on it,’ he said. ‘People in their sights had no chance of surviving. There was no chance of being a hero because these guys were very organised.’ At one point in the chaos, he said, he became separated from his son and began shouting for him frantically, oblivious to the risk of drawing attention to himself.
Mercifully, they were reunited; though someone beside Oscar was shot dead and, speaking to CNN, the young boy recalled his distress at being forced to lay next to a corpse–the first he has ever seen in his tender years.
It offered a glimpse of what it must have been like to be in that concert hall, as the seconds and minutes went by and the assassins went about their evil work.
Yet perhaps the most graphic and chilling first-hand description comes from a nameless survivor who penned his account online, a few hours after escaping.
Having thrown himself to the floor as the shooting began, he describes people’s agony as they lay–for almost three hours, let us not forget–‘on top of each other in contrived, painful positions, face on the ground, head resting on whatever, a leg for example, all on top of a bloodbath.’ Cramped in this grotesque position, he then played out the ‘worst game I have ever played’–silently holding his breath and remaining motionless and hoping against hope that he wouldn’t be the next one to die.
Praying he could hold out until help came.
Periodically, he says, the awful silence was punctuated by gunfire–not in time, with no logic.
‘Nothing. Just gunfire now and again. And we asked ourselves if the next bullet was for us . . . waiting for the police to arrive without any notion of time (I couldn’t get to my phone), feeling people getting up, to suddenly getting shot down. Again . . . and again.’
People were so closely entwined that it was as if they were ‘inter-woven together’.
When someone began to cry, others begged them to hush. ‘Every muscle was numb,’ and it was impossible even to raise one’s head and see what was happening elsewhere in the hall without drawing the gunmen’s attention. ‘So we waited, as if playing lottery with the terrorists,’ the survivor went on. ‘You have these awful thoughts, such as: “I beg, please not me . . . aim at the other side of the hall.”
‘These thoughts are interrupted by gunfire.’
At one point he felt the jolt of a huge explosion–the sound of a grenade being hurled into the pit near the stage, someone later told him. As the noise subsided, people began panicking and writhing, and phones began ringing, bringing more shots and heightening the sense of fear.
Finally, at about 12.30am, someone beside him whispered the words he thought he would never live to hear: ‘The police are here.’
For a few minutes the shooting abated and nothing seemed to be happening. But the hall was surrounded by armed police and the order had been given to storm the building.
The terrorists emerged from the hall and a fierce gun battle raged with bullets ricocheting off parked cars. By some reports the shooting lasted half an hour, but by 1am it was over.
‘It was a relief that I cannot describe,’ the survivor recalls. ‘People just looked at each other, shaking. I collapsed in a torrent of tears, shaking all over.’
Fearing some of the terrorists might have hidden themselves among the crowd, the survivors were searched and ordered to leave the building with their hands on their heads. But the police needn’t have worried–the gunmen, cowards to the last, had taken the quick way out and blown themselves to smithereens.
So, the longest, bloodiest night was over. If we still can’t begin to imagine how it must have been for those rock fans enjoying their Friday night out, one grisly photograph, taken inside the concert hall soon after the massacre, tells us all we need know.
It shows the debris and the body parts, and the floor smeared with huge streaks of congealed blood.
‘Who’ll love the Devil? Who’ll sing his song?’
By the grimmest of ironies, those are the lyrics of the song that the Eagles of Death Metal were playing when the first bullets struck. Now we know the answer.