Kathi Eason was working in her Durham home office when she heard about the bombings in Paris on Friday – news that struck a personal note.
Elizabeth Eason, her 21-year-old daughter, had been excited about attending that night’s soccer match between France and Germany in the Stade de France stadium. Elizabeth, in Paris since Aug. 30, had posted to Facebook that she planned to see the game with friends from her study-abroad program.
Between 9:20 and 9:30 p.m. Paris time, there were two explosions outside the stadium. French President Francoise Hollande, like Eason and her friends, was in the crowd. By 9:40 p.m., seven coordinated attacks had occurred across the city. The reports of dead and injured got higher and higher. One hundred and twenty-nine dead. Dozens more injured.
Back in Durham, Kathi Eason sent an urgent message to her daughter through WhatsApp Messenger.
“Where are you?” the worried mother wanted to know. “Are you safe?”
Elizabeth Eason, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, is spending this semester as part of a Middlebury College program in Paris. She takes language and history classes at Middlebury’s campus, and music history, analysis and violin at Schola Cantorum, a private music school in the city. An accomplished violinist, she also takes more lessons with a professor at Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, a conservatory there.
On Friday, Eason got out of class at 8:30 p.m. She was in a rush to get to the stadium to meet up with her friends, and was lucky enough to catch an express train right at the platform. Because of that, she arrived at Gate D at 9:07 p.m., just a bit earlier than planned. Thirteen minutes later, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt right there, killing himself and the first victim of what would become a bloody night.
Eason, already settled into seats with two fellow students from the Middlebury program and the “host brother” from one of the families housing them in Paris, heard the explosion but had no idea what it was.
We heard the first bomb and looked around to see everyone else’s reactions. No one seemed disturbed.
Elizabeth Eason, UNC student studying in Paris this semester
“We heard the first bomb and looked around to see everyone else’s reactions,” Eason said through a series of emails this week. “No one seemed disturbed.”
She thought the noise might have been how Germany fans cheered their team. She wondered whether it signaled the end of a quarter. “French fans were clearly surprised,” she said.
Then, five minutes later, a suicide bomber at Gate H detonated an explosive vest augmented with a special detonator packed with nails. The noise echoed, but “still no reaction from the crowd,” Eason said.
Unaware of what was happening in the city around them, Eason and her friends soaked in the magic of the sporting event, taking selfies and videos at halftime. But the news came soon.
Though cell service was spotty for Eason and one of her friends inside the stadium, a Middlebury director had been able to get through to one of the students.
“The director explained there had been bombs outside the stadium and a shooting in the 10th arrondissement,” Eason recalled. “She advised us to find an Uber and leave immediately.”
They turned to others in the crowd in disbelief, but did not immediately abandon their seats.
“The match continued and coaches made the decision not to tell their players during halftime,” Eason said. “The ‘lockdown’ that my family told me had happened took place during the match – but because everyone was entranced by the game, few realized that the 65,000 people in attendance were being kept inside the stadium.”
With about five minutes left in the game, the four set out for the exits, hoping to avoid the stadium crowd. “Once we exited the stadium, it was clear we wouldn’t be able to avoid the chaos,” she said.
Outside, their phones were getting signals again. “We started to receive messages from friends and family asking if we were OK,” Eason said.
Kathi Eason got quick confirmation from her daughter that she was OK. There also were assurances that they would be in touch again later. “She was able to say she was safe and leaving the stadium,” her mother recalled this week.
But that exit took a few detours and longer than expected.
“It seemed that no one really knew the extent of the situation, but only the urgency to return home,” Eason said in her series of email messages. “We began walking toward one of the directed pathways, when all of a sudden people started running the other direction. It turned out to be a false alarm, one that caused panic via the domino effect.”
Eason and her friends decided to go back inside the stadium and joined others on the field. With lots of security guards around, many were taking selfies in the goal.
The crowd thinned and the four set out again for home, deciding to avoid public transit and the Metro, hoping to flag a cab. Uber messages said its drivers only were picking up people in need of emergency service. The four walked and walked toward the city center.
Residents were outside, watching ambulances speed by. Eason and her friends counted 11 of them. Though there was steady foot traffic from the stadium, an eerie quiet settled over the area.
Though one random car stopped with a ride offer to Gare du Nord, a major train station, the group pushed on, intent on flagging a taxi. “We walked for 45 minutes to an hour before we found one available,” she said. “The neighborhood was Saint-Denis, not the safest suburb of Paris, but my friends and I agree now that we had never felt safer in a dangerous neighborhood.”
Afterward, Eason decided to spend the night with her friend, whose host family lives in the Paris district where the Eiffel Tower rises above the city. As the other two left in the taxi for their home, the group knew they had been through an unforgettable night together.
“It wasn’t the farewell that I will remember, but the overwhelming sense of safety we felt once we were inside the apartment,” Eason said.
Eason is a 2013 graduate of Durham Academy and the daughter of Kathi and Steve Eason, a senior executive vice president at Smith Breeden investment firm. She has traveled abroad before – on two other times to Paris and through Europe quite a bit.
She focused on remaining calm the night of the attacks because the friend who received the call from the Middlebury director was panicking. “Reality didn’t settle in until I tried going to sleep Friday night/morning at 6:30 a.m.,” she said.
This past weekend was difficult in that I felt nauseous the more I learned about the attacks
Elizabeth Eason, who attended high school in Durham
By then, she had sorted through an influx of messages and media accounts. The more she learned, the more unsettled she became. What if she had not caught a train so quickly after her class, she wondered. Would she have been at the gate at 9:20 p.m., as she first estimated, right as the first bomb was detonated.
“The kamikazes had tickets to the game,” she noted. If President Hollande had not been at the game, she wondered, would security have been as tight? What if the bombers had gotten inside the stadium?
“This past weekend was difficult in that I felt nauseous the more I learned about the attacks,” she said.
Amid that sick feeling, though, Eason has been heartened by Middlebury’s outreach efforts to the students and their family back home. Counseling sessions have been available, and school officials have urged the students to avoid the cinema, museums and restaurants for at least a week.
“Everyone is continuing their days like normal,” Eason said. “There’s definitely a blanket of sadness over the city but they are trying not to let the attacks instill fear. And to do that requires doing ordinary things like grocery shopping, taking the Metro, and meeting friends for drinks.”
Eason wants friends and family in the Triangle that she is appreciative of their support.
“It is hard to relate to tragic events written about in the newspaper until you experience them, and I hope the city can recover by the time I leave next month,” Eason said.