Group of three studying in Spain spent day in French capital on same date of bombings, shootings
Three UTD students were just five miles away from the Stade de France in Paris at 9:20 p.m. on Nov. 13. That’s when the first explosion in a series of bombings and shootings that would end up killing 132 people went off at the stadium.
Around 10 p.m., global business and international political economy sophomore Bethany Salgado, speech pathology sophomore Shefali Chauhan and speech pathology senior Jen Quiros, who were in Paris on a break from studying abroad in Spain, were down the street from the Palais Garnier when they found out about the attacks happening all over the city.
“My parents called me,” Chauhan said. “The first thing my dad said to me on the phone was if I was okay. I was really confused because I didn’t know anything had happened. He then quickly explained that there had been a shooting at a concert and suicide bombers at a soccer stadium.
After the call, the girls started to figure out where they were in relation to the attacks that had happened so far. They found a restaurant with a TV running regular updates to make sense of the situation.
Outside the restaurant, they were told by a woman to not continue walking in the direction that they had been going.
“By the time that we went into the restaurant, we were almost a kilometer and a half away from the closest attack, I believe,” Salgado said. “I don’t remember if that was the Bataclan theater or one of the (other) sites of the shootings.”
Although several of the attacks had taken place, by the time the students reached the restaurant, Chauhan said the atmosphere was eerily relaxed.
“(It was) weirdly calm,” she said. “I felt like we were the only ones panicking. Everyone else was calmy enjoying their meals and even the waiters who had heard about the news didn’t seem alarmed.”
Once they understood the situation, they left the restaurant in search of a taxi that would take them back to their apartment.
“We did not want to sit idly in the restaurant,” Salgado said. “One of the shootings had been just walking down the street. Someone had shot into a restaurant, so we didn’t want to stay there.”
They soon realized that every taxi was taken and that panic had finally set in.
“The news about the attacks had spread and people were trying frantically to get home so none of the taxis were available,” Chauhan said. “That’s when we decided to go to the Embassy because it was pretty close to where we were at the time and in the direction away from the attacks.”
The entire block of the U.S. Embassy was barricaded and French guardsmen were turning people away from entry. The girls were declined access even after producing documentation that proved their U.S. citizenship.
They tried to find a taxi around the Embassy and called a cab service, but weren’t able to secure one. Salgado said there were more police and sirens and ambulances near the Embassy, so the severity of the situation was increasing.
“I was frustrated and scared because we didn’t know what else to do,” Chauhan said. “This was the only plan that we could come up with at the time. We felt that we had the right to be protected by our Embassy and felt abandoned.”
Eventually, they were told that the French president, the prime minister and the minister of the interior were all in close proximity to the Embassy, so extra precautions were being taken. They were also told that the only time an Embassy can allow people to seek refuge is during a time of war.
At that point an American special agent approached them and offered his support.
“He was very encouraging and calming,” Salgado said. “He told us ‘You guys did the right thing. You came to the right place. Unfortunately we aren’t allowed to let you in. We have French diplomats and … typically the U.S. Embassy and other embassies become a target when terrorist attacks like this happen.’”
Chauhan said that she was very alert and paranoid before talking to the agent, but felt calm and prepared to move forward after their conversation.
The three students headed to a hotel nearby to wait in the lobby, but found a cab on the way there, which was able to take them back home. They arrived at their apartment around 11:15 p.m.
All three of the girls spent an hour and a half after they got home telling their loved ones that they were safe.
“(My parents) were definitely panicked,” Salgado said. “It was probably more than an hour and a half after they’d heard about it that I was finally able to contact them. So they were very scared.”
Even though France tightened border controls after the attacks, the students’ plane back to Spain was still scheduled for Nov. 15 at 9 a.m.
Chauhan said that on Nov. 14, the day after the attacks, life resumed as per usual in Paris.
“I was afraid that we would leave our apartment that day and see the streets deserted but immediately when we opened the front door of our apartment, we saw a couple walking on the street and several other people down the street,” she said. “It was relieving and calming that the city wasn’t in total chaos. Seeing life continue despite the horrific incidents that had happened not even 24 hours ago was very reassuring that everything was going to be okay.”
The girls headed to the airport the next morning and Salgado said that everyone there was on high alert with armed military personnel at every corner. They had to go through several security checks and passport verifications before they were allowed to board the plane.
“The security scans in Europe are typically much more lax than they are in the U.S.,” Salgado said. “The security (on Nov. 15) was much more like American security. We were taking off shoes, jackets, pulling out any liquids we had and kind of electronic devices. It was just a lot more intense.”
They arrived in Spain safely to Jaume I University, where they are studying for an exchange program.
Salgado said Parisians showed concern for their welfare and she was moved by how much they cared.
“It was very touching and I think it definitely shows a sense of resilience in the citizens within Paris,” she said.