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Paris: One Year On

The night of Nov. 13, 2015, Islamic State militants attacked eight places in and around Paris, killing 130 people and wounding nearly 500. It was the most lethal attack in France since World War II. Confusion gripped the city as two teams of attackers struck nearly simultaneously. One struck at the Stade de France, just outside Paris, while the other shot up cafes and bars in the hip 10th and 11th Arrondissements. About 20 minutes later, a third team of attackers entered the Bataclan concert hall in the same neighborhood, taking hostages and killing scores.

The New York Times interviewed 27 people who witnessed parts of those events and asked them to recount what they experienced: suicide bombs, gunfire, the terror of near death. Two of the people interviewed, the Paris fire chief and the brigade’s chief medical doctor, had a uniquely comprehensive view as they helped oversee the response, shuttling back and forth between the attack sites and their headquarters. The chronology here is taken from an official report on the attacks that was published by a French parliamentary inquiry. These accounts have been edited and condensed. This is the story of the attacks by those who lived through them.

Stade de France Outside Paris

A soccer game between the national teams of France and Germany begins at 9 p.m. It is televised and watched by millions. Some 75,000 people are at the stadium, including President François Hollande, several government ministers and a German delegation. The first bomber explodes his vest outside the stadium at 9:19 p.m.

Gen. Philippe Boutinaud, 54 The commander of the Paris Fire Brigade. He had worked at NATO and the European Union in Brussels and had been on missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans. On Nov. 13, he had been invited to watch the game and was not there in an official capacity, but he soon went to work.

I was at the Stade de France when the first explosion took place. The thing that stopped me from imagining that this was an attack was that there was no blast. It was like a firecracker.

I immediately asked my driver, who was outside, to see what was happening. He had also heard the explosion, he got close, and he told me he believed it was a firecracker. He told me that there was a person wounded in the leg, but at first glance it didn’t seem very serious. There was no one nearby.

The first suicide bomber who blew himself up, we don’t know why, but he blew himself up in the middle of nothing.


Salim Toorabally at the spot where he prevented a terrorist from entering the Stade de France. Credit Leo Novel/Picture-Alliance, via Associated Press

Salim Toorabally, 43 A security guard at the Stade de France. Before the game, he stopped a man trying to force his way into the stadium. Five days later, he learned from the police that the man was one of the suicide bombers.

I heard the first explosion. At that point I thought to myself that this wasn’t a smoke bomb and it wasn’t firecrackers. It was much more than that.

I looked behind me, toward the interior of the stadium. The president was present, the players, a fair number of important people. And I thought to myself, I hoped that I was wrong.

Noël Le Graët, 74 The president of the French Football Federation. He was in the stand along with Mr. Hollande.

The president was warned by his services very, very quickly. There was a whole security system around our stand, with a video camera on each gate, so the president was told discreetly to come upstairs to see what was happening. And someone came to tell me: “Don’t move, no need to show panic, but you’re going to meet the president in two minutes, but very calmly, leave with your hands in your pockets so you don’t show any sign of panic.”

9:22 p.m. A second suicide bomber explodes his vest outside the stadium.

Mr. Toorabally

The second explosion was much more violent. I shook, the ground vibrated.

I told everybody who was working on the exterior perimeter, my colleagues: “Guys, we are facing an attack. You need to get inside. You need to take shelter.”

Then I saw three people who were wounded, who were being carried by someone. I took the first victim, I put him on the ground. I didn’t have any gloves. He was hurting a lot. I saw a piece of flesh on his pants.

I didn’t think that we were being attacked by suicide bombers. I would never have thought that we were going to see this type of attack in France.

9:24 p.m. Within five minutes, General Boutinaud is called by one of his deputies, Jean-Pierre Tourtier, the chief doctor for the Paris Fire Brigade, who has received a call himself from the operational headquarters that there were explosions at the Stade de France, as well shootings in central Paris.

General Boutinaud

The second explosion had just happened, and I still did not have the sense that these were attacks.

I exit, because something strange is going on. But when I leave the Stade de France, I stumble on the leg of a suicide bomber. I came across his mangled body, in the middle of nothing.

I see the other leg on the other side of the street, and I see the rest of the body to the left and it’s completely twisted.

The second striking image was the stuffing from the anorak [one of the bombers was wearing]. The second suicide bomber had blown himself up about 30 or 40 meters to my right, and there was a lot of stuffing from the anorak’s inner lining, a kind of white cotton that the wind was blowing.

For me, there are no ifs or buts, it is obvious that these were suicide bombers. Because it was one of the scenarios that we had been working on for many months.

Mr. Le Graët

The president asked me to speak to our players and not to tell anyone. And the game must go on because the [Interior] Ministry wanted to secure all exits.

My mission was to go down to the locker rooms, make sure there was no television, nothing, not warn anyone.

9:53 p.m. A third explosion occurs near the stadium in front of a McDonald’s. A decision is made not to tell the crowd. The game is allowed to continue and ends about an hour later.

Franck Bargine, 47 The announcer at the Stade de France and a radio personality known as Max. He addressed the crowd as it left.

In light of external events — we keep the vocabulary soft — people can leave the stadium and a few exits are closed, and one or two parking lots are not accessible, but for the rest we’re safe, the stadium and the area around is safe.

As people are evacuating the stadium, firecrackers go off nearby, and suddenly many in the crowd, aware from text messages and rumors that Paris appears to be under attack, turn and rush back into the stadium, pouring onto the field.

General Boutinaud

[The Stade de France] is clearly the center of gravity of the terrorist attacks. You don’t send three suicide bombers to blow themselves up in the middle of a crowd if it’s a secondary target. It was the primary objective.

We asked that the stadium not be evacuated and that the match continue.

It is this decision that avoided a massacre.

The third terrorist, he walked around for half an hour, and then he found a target of opportunity, which was a McDonald’s, and, pardon me, but I think he chose a McDonald’s because it embodies America.

But what he was waiting for during that half-hour was for us to give the order to evacuate the stadium to blow himself up. I am personally convinced of it. At the Stade de France, sadly, there was one dead and 54 wounded. As a main target for the terrorists, it was a complete failure.

Source: NYT > World

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