Panic in Paris: Variety Journalists, Nearly Trampled, Describe Their Ordeal

Paris Terror Attacks: False Alarms Instills

False alarms send locals running for cover on Sunday night

PARIS — As if the Friday night attacks on Paris weren’t horrific enough, it’s the sequel that scares me.

Here in Paris, there’s a feeling that life must go on. We can’t let the jihadists win. If it’s terror they want, then we refuse to be scared. In a show of determination and strength, Parisians have embraced the Latin motto “Fluctuat nec mergitur” (“Tossed but not sunk”) that appears on the city’s coat of arms.

But stepping out onto the streets of Paris, it’s a false confidence we feel. Sunday afternoon, the crowds had returned to public places — Notre Dame, Les Halles, Place de la Republique — even if the institutions themselves remained closed by official order: church concerts canceled, public cinemas and museums closed, mass gatherings forbidden in public spaces.

Still, this crisis is a long way from over, and it’s reckless to think there can be a return to normality now. I learned that the hard way Sunday evening — not just me, but also a colleague who lives across town as well. After staying indoors Saturday reporting on what had happened from the relative safety of my apartment, I wanted to see how the city felt firsthand, showing solidarity with those who won’t be intimidated, while paying respects to the sites where the tragedies had taken place, as hundreds others were doing with banners, flowers and candles in Place de la Republique.

A few hours later, over what felt like as normal a dinner as could be had under the circumstances, panic swept through Rue Mortorgueil and into the restaurant, the Cafe du Centre — literally, a cafe in the center of Paris, and in retrospect, probably the worst place to try convincing oneself that the terror is behind us.

Out of nowhere, around 6:30 p.m., a crowd of people came rushing into the restaurant from the street outside. A wave of what I can only describe as terror went surging through the room as strangers pushed their way inside, screaming and ducking for cover, forcing a mass of furniture and dishes and bodies onto the floors as they sought protection — but from what? Was this another attack?

In the melee, I felt myself hurled from my chair and pushed to the back of the restaurant. As I tried to make my way back to my companion, who sat huddled beneath the table where we’d been dining moments before, a man bleeding from his forehead stumbled into the room. A woman torn apart from her young son cried out his name. Another flattened against the tile floor near us reached out a trembling hand, seeking connection amid the fear.

For several minutes, we sat there, surrounded by broken plates and glasses, scanning the room and the windows all around for clues. It wasn’t just our restaurant that had been affected, but others in the street — and apparently elsewhere in Paris as well.

Half an hour later, virtually the same experience happened to fellow Variety reporter Elsa Keslassy, who’d taken her son to see the mourners gathered at Place de la Republique and stopped to order a hot chocolate at a nearby cafe: Without warning, screaming civilians ran past the restaurant yelling that there was another shooter nearby. She and her son jumped from their chairs with the rest of the diners and rushed inside to hide in the bathroom, while the cafe’s managers blocked the doors with chairs and turned off the lights.

In the bathroom, the panic-stricken diners looked at each others in silence, a group of young Parisians quite similar to those who had been targeted two nights earlier. (It’s worth noting that the Bataclan — located in the 11th arrondissement, halfway between Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters and Place de la Republique — and the nearby cafes also hit on Friday weren’t chosen at random: They are all gathering places for young people, intellectuals, journalists, film professionals and the like. The neighborhood also harbors a significant Jewish community.)

But what had happened exactly?

As we warily exited the devastated restaurant, someone claimed that two shooters had been spotted a few blocks away, near Les Halles — not true, but enough to turn a feeling of solidarity into self-preservation. At Place de la Republique, a similar flash-panic sent thousands of Parisians running from the meeting square. At first, they were told there had been an attack in Rue des Rosiers, in the Jewish quarter, followed by news of danger in Rue des Archives — misinformation all, yet compelling enough to create a fresh threat as people practically stampeded for cover.

Had the false alarms that we experienced tonight been an actual attack, how could we have gotten information? Independently, we had all come out to show that we were not afraid, only to be proven wrong in an instant when the threat of danger still percolating beneath the surface erupted. What were we thinking?

After all, some of the shooters are still at large. An ISIS communique claiming responsibility called the Friday attacks “the first of the storm,” threatening more violence. French president Francois Hollande described the attacks “an act of war,” declaring a state of emergency — a threat level not invoked since the Algerian War. The manhunt continues and reprisals no doubt await.

The situation will almost certainly get worse before it gets better. On Friday night, I felt as stunned as my adopted countrymen by the ruthless attacks on the Stade de France, the Bataclan nightclub and other venues where locals gather to socialize and celebrate the freedoms this country affords them — and eerily reminded of 9/11, an event I witnessed firsthand while living in New York 14 years earlier.

To this day, I refuse to watch footage of the Al Qaeda attacks, a tragedy that seems to have been captured by more cameras than any other. At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to watch videos of people hurling themselves from high floors, and to this day, I resent any movie that inserts the plane-crash impact or ultimate collapse of the Twin Towers as shorthand for an event the likes of which I hoped never to witness again in my life.

Already, amateur cell-phone videos are emerging from the Bataclan attack — as well as eyewitness reports that suggest those who reached for their smartphones were the first ones shot by the assailants. Tonight, my companion’s second impulse (after seeking cover) was to record the panic in the restaurant and share the scene via Snapchat. Observing that, I felt like a character in a found-footage horror movie — the sort that begin by explaining how what follows was retrieved from the cameras of unlucky videographers.

If we are indeed in a real-life movie, then it’s one that’s far from over. The ISIS attacks have triggered a panic in Paris, and try as we might to emerge from the shadow that has fallen on the City of Lights, the truth remains that we’ve been warned: Stay home. France is now in a state of war.

As an acquaintance who works for the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group advised on Saturday, “Don’t worry. There’s no reason to fear … until the next attack.” Those working for the police seem certain that there will be another. Sadly, the story isn’t over.

(Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.)

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  1. Lenora Robinson says:

    Thank you VARIETY for your colorful name. It says so much.

  2. Frank Wolfe says:

    our heroic correspondents in action; reporting on themselves, another Brian Williams in the making.

  3. Ben says:

    I don’t thing the Paris attacks this November are a “game changer” at all. They are actually similar to the attacks in Mumbai 2008 where actually more people died. Nearly everybody has forgotten about them. Or what about the 2011 attack in Oslo, Norway by that Christian fundamentalist nut who dressed like a police man and killed 77 people alone. Was that a “game changer” ? Or what about the train bombings in Madrid, far worse than Paris. Or the bus bombing in London ? Or what about the 100+ Turks that died only a few weeks ago at bombings in Ankara? Or what about the home-made Oklahoma City bomber who killed 168 people? I don’t want to say the Paris attacks are not significant, but you have to see events like this in context: Evil will always find its way and strike every few years, no matter how good the secret services or how far the surveillance goes. I guess it is too disturbing to see things like that, so people try to make something special out of one more massacre. Before they forget it again. The attackers must be punished hard, the rule of law must return. Then life goes on.

    • GKN says:

      This. (What Ben said) And we might also mention, occasionally, at least the so-called “collateral damage” US and French forces cause (among others) when some 20 year old sends in drones, which ‘accidentally’ kill thousands of citizens in the Middle East. The one that murdered a clinic full of Doctors Without Borders, etc., sure got hushed up quick. We cannot even begin to deal with all this effectively till we get real, and honest.

  4. Ed says:

    Your column plays right into the hands of what these creatures want. Writing about anything two days after an horrific event makes it seem like things will never be the same again. of course they will. As a New Yorker who lived less than a mile from the WTC on 9/11 and now live there again I live this every day. There are millions of Parisians who did not suffer an ordeal today – they ate in restaurants without people rushing in. The more people say a city is in a state of terror because of terrorists the more they will terrorize.

  5. Zoe says:

    Kudos for changing the Variety logo to incorporate the Tricolor.Nice gesture.

  6. Some perspective needs to be mentioned here.

    Let’s not forget that about a decade ago Madrid and London had horrific train bombings, with similar simultaneous attacks. Threats were issued after, saying more attacks were coming.

  7. Alex Smith says:

    As someone who worked 2 blocks from WTC and was there that day and also lives 1/4 mile away I can relate to this article. In the days that followed there were many such false alarms. I remember running down escalators in Macy’s as someone yelled there’s a bomb. The world changed that day for New York as it has now changed for Paris.

    • GKN says:

      You may not have been around, but Paris went through a wave of terrorist attacks in the ’80s – a huge store like Virgin Megastore (the FNAC) was bombed, metro trains and a very popular deli in the Jewish quarter, among the most memorable. This is nothing new to the French (except those under 30 or 40). It was only new to America. And sadly, I guess we still wouldn’t be paying attention otherwise.

  8. Misc Adverts says:

    Thank you for taking time to write about what happened tonight. I can understand the panic and that people are devastated and on edge. And thanks for writing about your reaction to film about 911. If you don’t mind I would like to share something about 9/11 too. I was in grade school when our class went on a trip to visit what would be the first of the Trade Towers to be open. We could only go into the lobby at the time for the building was not yet finished. Our teacher was very excited about it and we marveled at the then the tallest buildings in the world being in our city. When 911 happened I was in Greece with my family. We were at a bakery when the owner asked if I were American. I replied yes and he invited me to the back of the shop to see on tv that the first plane had flown into the towers. At this point the news reporters did not know there had been an attack. But I knew we had been attacked. I believed the area was a no fly zone, and although I had not lived in New York for many years… I knew we had been attacked. We quickly left the bakery and went back to our hotel. In the restaurant we saw on their tv that the second plane had hit. Then there was no doubt of the situation. My immediate reaction was that I had to get home. Although I had not actually lived in Manhattan for 20 years … it is still home in deep and sentimental ways. Since the event I have visited several times and still cannot bring myself to go to the spot where the towers had been even though I’ve literally been just down the street. It’s too overwhelming to go to a place which for most of my life had the towers, a symbol of the eclectic and vibrant city I was born in, and no longer be able to find my way back home … Thanks for sharing and letting me share…

  9. Hello Peter: Thank you for your clarity of thinking in this post. In it, you answer many questions I had about how life goes on after such tragedy in lovely Paris. I live in the forests of Northeast WA State. I heard one man in my remote area say about these attacks: “This is a game changer. Life will not be the same anywhere now especially in larger cities.” At the Am. Assn of University Women’s Coffee House later one woman said, “My daughter and I were planning a trip by bullet train to Paris. I guess we’re cancelling.”

    In the U.S., who knows how many of the l,000 suspected terrorists here will continue this horrible nightmare.

  10. ….as well as eyewitness reports that suggest those who reached for their smartphones were the first ones shot by the assailants.

  11. Great piece, Peter, and one I’m sorry you had to write. Love and hugs to you and Elsa, ANNE

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