What it was like in Paris during the attacks

Familiar emotions emerge in France's new 9/11

The body count was much lower. None of France's iconic national symbols collapsed into a smoldering heap.

Nonetheless, the emotions of 9/11 were present in Paris on Friday night: the horror of not knowing who or where the murderous enemy was; the chaotic response from police and emergency workers as they scrambled to face simultaneous attacks; the gut-wrenching feelings of dread and loss.

I was in Paris' 19th district, east of the city's center, when a friend shouted over the music that there were multiple shootings in the 10th and 11th districts. Eventually I learned eight terrorists have attacked at least six separate locations in Paris, including the country's national stadium, a concert hall and several bars and restaurants. Nearly 130 people were killed in the worst attack on France since World War II and Europe's bloodiest terror attack in a decade.

The unmistakable expression of shock seen over and over on video of 9/11

But all I knew when a hard-driving cab driver dropped me two blocks away from Bataclan, a concert hall located in the city's hip 11th district, was that at least 20 people were dead in places across the city. Bataclan is the sort of place that my girlfriend saw Aimee Mann perform; the night of the attack the Eagles of Death Metal had been mid-set when shots rang out.

About 30 minutes after I arrived, police would herd journalists further down the street, but I was close enough to see a large group of people walking away from the venue. I was told that they were inside the building and had escaped or were rescued. When the journalists, including me, approached the group, the police started shouting and warned us to move away. I got close enough to see people crying and recognized the unmistakable expression of shock seen over and over on video of the September 11, 2001 attacks.


People console each other outside the Bataclan concert hall after the attacks.

I moved down the street to try to get closer to Place de la République, a large and historic public square close to the site of another attack. As I approached, I saw three policemen push a man on a motorscooter. They would shove and he would drive a few feet away and yell curses. The tension built as he refused to leave. Finally, a plainclothes officer pulled out a handgun and raised it high enough to hit the man in the thigh. Onlookers started to scatter. The biker held his ground for a few moments, but then drove off, the standoff over.

Everyone around seemed relieved. I was standing next to a man named David Benoliel, a 23-year-old. I asked him if he'd seen anything like that before. He nodded yes: just a few minutes before, a man had gone running toward a line of policemen standing outside Bataclan and they raised their submachine guns while yelling at him to stop. At this point in the night the attacks were ongoing and the terrorists were still killing. As far as police knew, they could be attacked at any time and by anyone.

"This situation is like Charlie Hebdo."

But the man was crying, according to David. He told police and everyone else within earshot that he believed his son was inside and he implored them to let him in. David said the officers told him there was nothing they could do. He would have to wait.

"That was hard to watch," said David. "This situation is bad. The situation is like Charlie Hebdo."


He was referring to the now famous attack on the satirical weekly newspaper last January. Two gunmen entered the publication's headquarters and killed 11 people. David told me he was there; he’d arrived on the scene just moments after the terrorists murdered a policeman. He took me to his family's apartment to show me that he indeed lived near the scene of the attack. We walked a block to the Hebdo headquarters and he pointed to the spot where he found the gunmen's spent shell casings and the dead policeman's blood and where bulletholes pocked the walls of nearby buildings.

"What's happening to my city?" David asked. "I can't believe this happening again."

We cut through David's apartment complex on our way back to Bataclan. To enter the building we stepped over a police sniper lying on the ground, fiddling with his rifle scope. Three police wearing balaclavas and machine guns strapped to their chests were sitting against a wall nearby. I couldn't help but think: Is this is a new reality for Paris — for the West?


Pools of blood on the street outside near Place de Republique early Saturday morning.

Walking up the Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, near Bataclan, we saw total chaos. Sirens blared as ambulances raced away from the area and as police cars and trucks sped into it. I saw a woman with white hair and an oxygen mask covering her face carried into an ambulance. Hundreds of aid workers with red crosses on their orange jackets or vests were working in an area cordoned off to the press. Through my camera lens, I saw medics covering a body; the cloth draped over him blew off in the wind, revealing the man beneath. The medics carried the body outside of what appeared to be a triage area and left it there on the sidewalk.


A man's body is covered near Bataclan, the Paris concert hall attacked on Friday.

I followed a group of photographers bolting for the street and saw French President Francois Hollande walking fast up the street in my direction. I tried to get a photo but my view was either blocked by other photographers or the president's security people, who push me out of Hollande's way. He walked into a group of aid workers and disappeared. Hours later he appeared on TV to tell the world that ISIS is to blame for the attacks and that France will be merciless in its response.

"Vive la République et vive la France," he said.