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

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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