British and Irish survivors of the 2015 terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris have told a court how they played dead on the ground in a river of blood to avoid being shot, or crawled across the floor between bodies as gunmen murdered concertgoers one by one.
English-speaking witnesses travelled to Paris on Friday to testify at France’s biggest ever criminal trial over the attacks claimed by Islamic State on 13 November 2015, which killed 130 people and injured more than 400 in synchronised suicide bombings and mass shootings across the French capital.
The Paris attacks began about 9pm on a Friday night when a suicide bomber blew himself up after failing to get into the Stade de France France-Germany football match. This was followed by drive-by shootings and suicide bombings at cafes and restaurants in Paris, and the attack at the Bataclan music venue during a rock gig by Eagles of Death Metal where 90 people were killed and scores suffered devastating injuries during a two-hour massacre.
Witnesses aged between their 30s and their 50s told how they had travelled to France by plane or Eurostar in 2015 for the “joyful” gig by the Eagles of Death Metal because they were fans or celebrating birthdays or romantic visits to France. They said they would never forget the people they saw die in front of them and they continued to bear physical and psychological scars six years later, but that terrorism and hatred “will never win”.
The survivors told of the attack that lasted for more than two hours as three young gunmen fired into the crowd, recharged and continued firing and then shot directly at people who were trying to flee. They described piles of bodies in a scene that resembled a war.
Mark Blackwell, an NHS worker, described how he had been bought the concert tickets for his 50th birthday and was standing near the stage with a group of friends. He heard the first shots and the lights went on – revealing the people who had already died.
“I thought that this would go extra bad for me if I was taken hostage, not being French, being a foreigner in the city, so I determined I had to get out, but then a body fell on my feet. This body was over both of my feet and my ankles. At first I started to panic then a voice in my head told me, ‘just stay calm’ … I managed to move my feet out one foot at a time, and I could see ahead of me everyone else was already facing down on the floor, I don’t know how many were alive still, how many weren’t.”
He saw a blood-smeared path on the floor through bodies and decided to crawl very slowly to try to escape as bullets continued to fly past him. “The smell was horrible, that horrible mix of gunpowder and blood – so strong, you can almost taste it. It invaded the whole place. I started crawling because I thought if I run for it I won’t make it.”
Blackwell felt himself being hit by two bullets, one of which took “a piece of flesh out of my arm”.
At one point he looked up and saw one of the young gunmen across the room: “I could see his eyes, there was nothing in them, no humanity.”
He said: “I came to rest in front of a face a few centimetres away from mine, a girl’s face, I was looking right into her eyes, and they were full of fear and pain. Everything in those eyes just faded, just stopped, went blank. I think she died.”
Blackwell said that looking back towards the bar, “there was blood everywhere, bodies that I didn’t know which were alive, which were dead. There was a guy towards the back … it was like he had got up on his hands and knees to make a run for the exit and he just fell back to the floor and didn’t get up again. I just saw him fall back to the ground and not move again.”
When he reached the exit, “there was a pile of bodies, three or four high tangled up in each other” as if they were killed trying to run for the exit.
Blackwell said that after being treated in a Paris hospital that night, he wanted to get back to London. “For a few months after, I was quite hyper, quite determined. Once the hyperactivity faded, I just grew sadder and I realised that over time the strongest memory were the faces of the guy trying to make a run for it – and the girl with blue eyes.”
An Irish former construction site worker, who did not want to be named in the media, said “at one point, gunfire became single shots, it seemed as if they were just walking around executing people individually.” The couple lay on the ground and whispered their last goodbyes to each other. His wife, an Irish woman who also asked not to be named by the media, told the court she saw a man dying “and I reached out my hand so he didn’t die alone”.
The Irishman, whose foot was destroyed by a bullet wound and had to be rebuilt in several surgeries, said: “Psychologically, it’s still there, just speaking about it now I can see the images in my mind of people that were dead and I can’t get them out of my head, they will always be there.”
An English woman, who did not want to be named in the media, said she and her husband had hid in a cupboard at the concert hall, caring for a woman they didn’t know who was slipping in and out of consciousness “stroking her hair like a small child to comfort her”.
She said that six years later: “I still have to sleep with the light on every night, I can’t be in a darkened room. I always tell people that I love them.” She said the “biggest positive are the friends I have made” and the close-knit community of survivors.
She said she was often asked if she hates the terrorists. “The short answer is no, there’s too much hatred in this world already and that’s why we’re here. I don’t hate them, I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry that they felt the need to do it, that they will never feel the love or compassion that most of us take for granted. It must be a very lonely choice for them.”