They were animals, many of them say. Prey that had lost all sense of time. Targets no longer human to either their hunters or themselves.
For more than two weeks, survivors from the Bataclan concert hall in Paris have testified in a specially designed courtroom about the Islamic State group’s attacks on Nov. 13, 2015 — the deadliest in modern France. The testimony marks the first time many survivors are describing —and learning — what exactly happened that night at the Bataclan, filling in the pieces of a puzzle that is taking shape as they speak.
In all, 130 people died that night at the Bataclan, at France’s national stadium and in neighborhood restaurants and bars. Hundreds more were injured in body and soul, 90 of them at the Bataclan, in the three-hour series of attacks.
All nine attackers died. The lone survivor of the IS cell, who fled the city after his suicide vest malfunctioned, is among the 14 men on trial.
On the night of Nov. 13, the American rock group Eagles of Death Metal was playing to a full house in the storied concert hall in Paris. Clarisse, then 24, was in the coatroom, getting ready to run out for beers. When the shooting started at the entrance at 9:47 p.m., there was only one place to go: Back inside, into the dance pit.
But the gunmen followed close behind.
“And I’m ready,” Clarisse says. “I’m expecting to get shot in the back. And I think, will it hurt? Will I lose consciousness? Die immediately?”
Edith was at the bar near steps leading down toward the pit. She took a stairwell on an instinct she describes as “something animal, almost reptilian.” She, like nearly every other survivor, didn’t want her last name to be publicly released.
In the balcony, she dived beneath a folding chair. A giant of a man lay next to her.
At first the firing came in long bursts.
“Then one at a time it begins. A cry. A shot. A phone ringing. A shot. Someone pleading. A shot. There is no way out,” Edith tells the judges, her hands twisting as she pulls rings off her fingers and replaces them one by one.
Thibault and his wife were near the stage, on the ground. He peeked behind him and saw one of the gunmen. “His face is uncovered and I understand that he’s not going to flee,” he says. “And it’s at that moment that I understand that I’m going to die.”
His cold comfort: “At least I’m not going to leave an orphan.”
By now, about five minutes after the three gunmen burst into the Bataclan, the floor was wet with blood. The gunmen seemed to move away, and people surged toward the stage.
Clarisse was among dozens to take a back staircase up as far as they could go. They ended up in a dead-end room with a toilet in the corner. She stood on the toilet and smashed at the ceiling, breaking through to a snarl of electric wires and fiberglass.
Thibault and his wife, Anne-Laure, joined the crowd but lost sight of each other running upstairs. The pipes broke and water started flooding the room. Still, person after person climbed on the toilet and then reached down from the crawlspace for someone below.
Anne-Laure did not. “I fled for a hiding space like an animal,” she testified. “I was so angry with myself about that afterward.”
Dozens of wounded and dead still lay in the pit. Among them were Pierre-Sylvain and his girlfriend. He felt a flash at the first burst of gunfire and knew he was hit, and so was she.
“The entire pit was covered in bodies, and you couldn’t distinguish the living from the dead. I was in a concert hall but what I had in front of me was a mass grave.” He stepped over the bodies, on the bodies, to get out.
Pierre-Sylvain realized only then that he’d been shot through the face. The bullet exited beneath his eye.
The first two officers arrived at 9:56 p.m., armed only with handguns. One of them hit an attacker, and his suicide vest detonated.
“Pieces of flesh fell on me were that were our tormentor’s, and feathers, I imagine, from his jacket,” says Amandine, who was on the floor.
Edith, hidden beneath a balcony seat, was evacuated around 11:30 p.m. Those in the balcony walked down single-file, past the pit and the bar, led by a police officer who told them, don’t look. It was impossible not to.
“The sheer volume of all these bodies that two hours ago were dancing,” she says, trying fruitlessly to stop the shaking of her hands.
Upstairs, the two remaining attackers rounded up 11 men and women into a narrow hallway. They ordered one of the hostages to sit with his back to the door and describe the victims outside moaning in pain.
The gunmen started negotiations with police using one of the hostage’s phones. The police then pushed in an enormous 90-kilogram (200-pound) black shield impervious to Kalashnikov bullets, as big as the door itself. It teetered on the steps and fell on a woman.
One of the attackers emptied his clip, and the other blew himself up in the back staircase. The entire building shook. Both attackers were dead; and all 11 hostages were alive. It was 12:18 a.m.
One by one, the former captives were led away through the pit downstairs. As they walked through the bodies, David wondered in anguish “did I collaborate? Did I participate?”
It took more than an hour for police to find the survivors hidden in closets, on the roof. Those in the ceiling were the last to come out.
The judge asks Clarisse if she realized she had saved many lives that night.
“So I’m told. But I truly don’t realize it. For me, it was out of the question to die without doing everything I could to get out.”
Thibault, who credits her with saving him, describes returning to his humanity as he exited the building. But, he adds, “The sense of guilt is extremely strong. Why did I survive when so many didn’t?”
Edith also says her testimony feels almost illegitimate for leaving the Bataclan alive and physically unharmed. But that night left her a shell of the woman she once was. Among the many tattoos that enlace her limbs is one of the Bataclan, on her left forearm.
“We are still trapped in Nov. 13,” she says.