by Tony Scott and Justine Merton-Scott
My now wife, Justine, and I were among the British survivors lucky enough to escape the horror of the Bataclan as it was attacked by terrorists on November 13th, 2015.
As the anniversary approaches, it’s not uncommon for some of us to be contacted by the media and we were approached recently to be interviewed for a piece about the 3rd anniversary of the Bataclan attack. We were reticent, to say the least, but felt it was important that it doesn’t slip from the public consciousness. It provided an opportunity to gain some exposure for The Nick Alexander Memorial Trust and the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation’s #WordsMatter campaign, both of which are very relevant in the aftermath of the Paris, London and Manchester attacks. As with such pieces it falls on the journalist and the editor to determine the angle, what gets used and what gets cut to feed the author’s narrative within the column inches allocated. That’s how journalism works and we don’t have that much control over it; it is a free press after all. However, I felt, having read the draft, I wanted to pick up the pieces from the cutting room floor and write something from the horse’s mouth, as it were, and here it is…
Revisiting that night
I’ll start by revisiting that night, it still feels as clear as day. We’d gone to Paris as my birthday treat. Justine had booked it and bought the tickets to see the Eagles of Death Metal. My choice, not hers, as she likes to point out. It was to be a romantic weekend getaway with a gig at Le Bataclan and a bit of sight-seeing, a few glasses of wine and soaking up the ambience of Paris. Sounds perfect.
We flew into Paris that morning and had time to do a little sightseeing before heading to the gig in the evening. We’d called at a bar not far from the venue for a couple of drinks before heading to the gig at Le Bataclan. On entry it was rammed, near on full capacity. We’d normally try and get down the front but it was way too busy. Justine’s a shade under five foot so we headed up to the balcony for a better view. A decision, with hindsight, that probably helped save our lives.
What happened next is well documented so I’m going to gloss over it a bit. At around 9:45pm terrorists had entered the Bataclan and started shooting. We got caught in what is often referred to as a freeze, fight, flight instinct as the amygdala kicks in, dropping to the floor and taking cover behind the seats. Moments later we went from freeze to flight on Justine’s instinct. We crawled our way behind the seats through a door at the end of the balcony and then up through a skylight and onto the roof. It was a difficult reach, particularly for Justine. People were lifting each other up and pulling others through from above. From there we clambered across the roof and through the window of an apartment. We hunkered down in the apartment with around 30 other people who’d escaped the same way. If you ever look at a picture of the Bataclan, it has a beautiful facade and a small round window on the 3rd floor. We were crouched down behind that window. All the time we were aware that there was still activity going on below us. Justine hugged a woman who had got separated from her partner. I remember texting my ex-wife to tell my daughter how much I loved her if I didn’t get out alive. We were terrified. Justine managed a little stoic humour reminding us we had a wedding to go to and that I wasn’t getting out of it that easily.
Eventually we were found and rescued by the armed police who’d stormed the building. One by one we left through a window, raising our shirts to show we had nothing concealed on us. We were escorted a different way out, through some offices and led down some stairs and out onto the outside balcony at the front of the building and down some ladders to safety. Once on the ground, we were patted down and escorted to a courtyard around the corner where a wine bar had opened its doors and was handing out hot tea and providing shelter. As we left, disorientated in search of our hotel, we looked up to see it was just across the road from where we were. We barricaded ourselves into our room until the morning when my sister-in-law kindly sorted us flights to come home.
I still maintain we saw more acts of kindness than anything else that night: the people helping each other up through the skylight and pulling them through from the top; the guy who let dozens of strangers take shelter in his apartment while putting himself at risk; the staff at the wine bar taking people in and looking after them; the #porteouverte ‘open door’ hashtag on twitter. The resilience, love and resolve of a community coming together is a beautiful thing for which we are eternally grateful. We saw the same again in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing. It’s these things that we hold on to.
Support and understanding
Following such an horrific event your world is turned upside down. I can only describe it as akin to jet lag, you feel a bit dazed and your head feels fluffy like you’re not quite there only it doesn’t go away after a good night’s sleep. It feels surreal, like it happened to someone else or it’s played back in your head like a movie scene. There was a deep need to understand what happened. We only saw events from our own frame of reference so we found ourselves glued to the news channels trying piece it together. It’s important to get help and have someone to look out for you and signpost you when you need it, it’s not a normal situation. Help was available, but we didn’t think to look for it, and it wasn’t signposted to us. As far as we were concerned we didn’t think we needed help, we were ok, we were still alive and not only that, we escaped relatively unscathed and because we were up in the balcony we also escaped the horror of the scene below. In hindsight we probably did need help.
It was three months later when we returned to Paris for the return gig by the Eagles of Death Metal that we came across the support group formed by French survivors called Life for Paris. Through this group we attended some group support sessions down in London for other UK survivors of the attacks. These were important sessions for us, it helped us understand how we’d been feeling, signposted help organisations and put us in touch with other people who were there. There’s a group of around a dozen of us now that keep in touch on social media and meet up from time to time. They are like family to us and we support each other. It’s one thing talking about that night but unless you were there or have experienced something like it, there is a disconnect. Our Paris family, as we affectionately call them, bridge that gap. They’re an amazing bunch of people and we’re glad we found them.
Following on from the London sessions we contacted the Survivors Assistance Network, a specialist team within the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation in Warrington. They’ve been amazing and I wish we’d contacted them sooner. They’ve kept us on their radar and were in Paris for the 1st anniversary of the attacks while we there. They really are a necessary first port of call when something like that happens. Everyone deals with stuff differently and there’s no right or wrong but having someone to turn to when you need it and point the way is a real comfort and a valuable resource.
We did some interviews in the days after the attack. We didn’t want the horror of what had happened to lead to division and hate. There were reports of hate crimes against Muslims following the attacks. It saddened us, and it was important for us to focus on the acts of kindness and community we saw. You cannot blame a whole community on what happened just because of a particular religion and we wanted to get that message across while we had a voice to do so. I’m saddened when I see politicians on both sides of the Atlantic use fear and rhetoric to divide people. We live in a multicultural society and all the better for it regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality. We should embrace it.
We didn’t want the experience of the Bataclan to take away our love of music and going to gigs. Justine and I met at a gig and we were determined to keep going to gigs. It was really tough at first. We had a few gigs in the calendar following Paris and decided we’d still go. They weren’t pleasant experiences, we were very much on edge all the time clocking the exits and generally hyper vigilant. We pushed through it and it took a good seven or eight months of going to gigs again before we’d manage to relax and enjoy the moment again. That turning point was an intimate Ash gig in York. For the first time in a while we left that gig feeling alive again, it was a euphoric moment. I’m not saying we’ve not had the odd blip since, but that was a pivotal moment for us.
Following the one year anniversary we attended ‘A Peaceful Noise’ in London. It was a tribute to Nick Alexander, the band’s merchandise manager who was tragically killed that night. We’d arranged to go with some of the other UK survivors. Nick’s sister Zoe found out we were all going and she put seats aside for us. We’d never met her before, but she looked after us like we were family. We’ve got to know Zoe, and her parents, and they’ve showed such courage. The Nick Alexander Memorial Trust, the charity they have set up, is both a fitting tribute to Nick and a testimony to their fortitude. They provide grants to help small community-based projects through music. They’ve recently been involved in the New Horizon Youth Centre, a London based charity that works with vulnerable and homeless 16-21 year olds, to help refurbish their music studio. We were proud to be able to support the trust’s fund raising by completing the Great North Run this year, as part of Team NAMT, helping raise over £3200.
Justine was involved in the #WordsMatter campaign run by the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation along with seven other people affected by terrorism, including Zoe Alexander and Anna Harwood, who was also at the Bataclan. I’m incredibly proud of Justine and everyone who took part in it. It’s an important message and the media has a huge responsibility in the way it reports and acts in the wake of a terror attack. When you hear stories of media intrusion informing families, in one case a teenage girl, of their loss, as happened following the Manchester attacks, it’s sickening. The language used is important too. Terrorists are criminals, they don’t deserve the attention and labels that the media give them. They’re not ‘lone wolves’ or ‘masterminds’ – they’re terrorists, nothing more. When we read the draft for the article I referred to at the start of this piece, we had to ask for amendments on that basis. I hope if it does reach print that our amendments were taken on board.
Three years later and the events of the night still seem like yesterday, but we’ve got on with life in that time. We have moments, but they are few. Hypervigilance is still there on occasion, particularly for me, in uncontrolled crowded places like train stations. I carry a guitar pick in my pocket at all times. It’s a grounding technique that was relayed to me during one of my calls with the Survivors Assistance Network. When you feel anxious in a situation it’s a familiar object to reach out to that goes with the mantra, ‘that was then, this is now.’ It works for me. I don’t like fireworks any more. As I write this there’s a barrage of them celebrating Diwali; earlier it was Guy Fawkes night. Blink 182 is playing loudly in the background to drown them out. When all is said and done, we’re incredibly lucky.
We’re back in Paris on the 13th November, to be with our Paris family to honour and celebrate life and acts of kindness. As the singer-songwriter Frank Turner says, ‘Be More Kind.’ In what feels like a more divided world than ever, it’s the least we can do.