Listen to this article
The worst terrorist attack in French history began with a blast outside the Stade de France, where President François Hollande was watching a friendly football match between France and Germany.
It was 9.20pm on Friday evening and the sound of the explosion reverberated around the pitch. “We thought it was just firecrackers from kids outside,” one person at the stadium told the Financial Times.
The game continued; France would eventually score two goals for a cheering crowd. No one knew this was the start of a deadly six-stage assault on Paris.
Five minutes later, at 9.25pm, and 8km south-west in the vibrant and youthful neighbourhood of the 10th arrondissement, a group of men with automatic weapons began a deadly string of attacks on bars and restaurants.
The first to be struck were Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge, two fashionable restaurant-bars on the corner of rue Bichat and rue Alibert. Witnesses described gunmen spraying bullets at those outside and then fleeing in a black car, leaving 13 dead and more wounded.
At 9.32pm, the full co-ordinated nature of the attacks was becoming apparent after an explosion at Fontaine-au-Roi, a brasserie a few minutes’ walk away, which left five dead and emergency services scrambling.
At 9.43pm another terrorist blew himself up on the nearby boulevard Voltaire. Soon after, La Belle Équipe, a restaurant a little farther south near Bastille on the Rue de Charonne, was attacked by a gunman dressed in black. He assumed a military-style firing position, according to a witness. Nineteen more people were killed.
This last attack followed a similar pattern to the others, according to witnesses: the shooting again came from the street. Photographs would later show the slumped dead piled up outside the various establishments, sprinkled with broken glass or covered in sheets.
The night’s deadliest assault had not even begun.
It commenced at 9.48pm at a sold-out show at the 1,500-capacity Bataclan concert hall. The act was a US rock group whose name was intended as a winking joke: Eagles of Death Metal.
Located on Boulevard Voltaire, the Bataclan is just a few hundred yards from the former offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the scene of the last terror attack to convulse Paris in January.
Three men “without masks, came in with Kalashnikov-type automatic weapons and began shooting blindly at the crowd,” Julien Pearce, a journalist who was at the Bataclan, told Europe 1 radio.
“It lasted 10 or 15 minutes. It was extremely violent and there was a wave of panic. It was a stampede and even I was trampled. I saw a lot of people hit by bullets. The gunmen had loads of time to reload at least three times. They weren’t masked, they knew what they were doing, they were very young.”
Thomas Tranh Dinh, who was also at the show, says he was saved because he had pushed to the front row of the concert as the band happened to be playing his favourite song.
He says hundreds of rounds were fired and that he managed to run away from the scene through a path “full of bodies [and] drenched in blood”.
|Gideon Rachman||François Heisbourg||Philip Stephens|
Terrorists strike at a particularly sensitive moment in the history of both France and Europe
Success in defeating terrorism will be measured by society’s response
Syria’s civil war transfers almost casually to the heart of one of Europe’s great cities
A video filmed by Le Monde journalist Daniel Psenny showed people fleeing the venue from the back entrances, stumbling over bodies in their desperation to escape the gunmen.
The sound of repeated gunshots can be heard as terrified concertgoers call out for their friends. Some dragged bodies down the street. Others sought refuge by climbing out of windows and one woman is seen hanging from a railing two floors above the street.
Reports from Twitter suggested some people who had managed to escape were begging authorities to intervene. Police at this point were gathering outside, but for the moment considered it a hostage situation.
Meanwhile, back in the Stade de France, there had been two more explosions during this 30-minute interval, the third coming at 9.53pm. The roughly 80,000-strong crowd at last realised these were not firecrackers.
It would later be established that two of the blasts were suicide attacks and another was a bomb detonated near a McDonald’s restaurant on the fringes of the stadium, leaving three dead in total.
The calm within the stadium turned to panic as people tried to leave. “At one point everyone started running, people were trying to protect their children. It was as if there was a terrorist just behind us,” one fan said.
He retreated back to the stadium, where he waited on the pitch until around 11.30pm. People were too scared to move as rumours swept the crowd that there was a terrorist with grenades still at the arena.
Mr Hollande had been ushered out of the stadium well before the match finished and whisked to the interior ministry. By 11.50pm he had met senior ministers, and then went on television to declare a state of emergency in France and the imposition of border controls.
“It’s horrific,” he said, looking visibly shocked as he addressed the nation — again — in the wake of a deadly terror assault. “Once again, we are under attack . . . We are mobilising all the police forces possible to neutralise the terrorists.”
US President Barack Obama broadcast his support to France. “We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté, égalité, fraternité are not just the values French people share, but we share,” he said.
Photos of the attacks were sprouting on social media as people consulted their smartphones in a frantic search for friends and loved ones. The #PorteOuverte hashtag was trending on Twitter, with people offering safe refuge for those fleeing the violence.
The carnage was still not over.
At 12.20am, the police finally stormed the Bataclan, having concluded the assailants were not taking hostages. Two of the terrorists set off their explosive vests. The third one was shot.
Adam Thomson, an FT reporter on the scene, heard a barrage of fire from an automatic weapon. It was followed by two explosions in quick succession and then, soon after, a third.
At least 87 people died in the hall, according to police. The Eagles of Death Metal said on Facebook they had not yet accounted for all their members who had been present at the venue on Friday night.
As the night progressed, reports of the total death toll climbed. From 16 to 40 to 60, then as high as 140. On Saturday authorities were saying that at least 129 had been killed and 352 injured, including 99 severely wounded, making it the deadliest terrorist assault in French history.
All the attackers were believed to be dead, said the police, who were hunting for any accomplices. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor told the Associated Press that eight attackers had been killed, seven in suicide bombings.
Get alerts on France terrorism when a new story is published