I happened to be in Paris on Friday, on a freelance writing assignment. Although I was out and about Friday night, having dinner in a sidewalk cafe and later just walking around — it was a cool but beautiful evening, and the streets were full of people — I was never near any of the sites where the terrorist attacks took place.
In fact, because of my jetlag and the need to get up early on Saturday for my scheduled flight home, I reluctantly returned to my hotel around 9 p.m.
About 45 minutes later, while I was packing, I received a text message from my son in New York City. “Shooting, explosions in Paris. You ok?” he wrote.
I’d been hearing the distant wails of sirens from my room, but had thought nothing of it. After all, such sounds are part of the undertone of large cities.
I went online to see what was going on, and then clicked on the TV in my room to a BBC channel. The enormity of the tragedy was not yet known, for there was confusion at first about whether the early events were connected. But it was clear that people had died.
More text and e-mail messages started to come in from worried family and friends. Shortly after midnight, my client rang my cellphone to make sure I was inside and safe. By then, our hotel was in “lock down,” and we were instructed not to leave.
* * *
I don’t recall at what hour in the early morning the BBC reporters announced that the Paris police were storming the Bataclan concert hall. But by that time I was paying attention to every one of those distant sirens.
I realized that each was likely an ambulance, racing to transport an injured person to a hospital. Given where the attacks had occurred (at a bar, several restaurants, a sports stadium, and a concert hall featuring a rock band) and when (after 9 p.m.), I also knew that many, if not most, of those transported victims were young adults. I thought of all the parents in Paris and elsewhere who, at that very moment, were desperately calling their sons and daughters, hoping to hear that they were OK.
It’s a panic I’m familiar with. On Sept. 11, 2001, it took me several long hours to get through on the phone to my son, who had just begun his freshman year at New York University.
* * *
Early Saturday morning, while it was still dark, a co-worker and I took a taxi from our hotel to the Charles de Gaulle Airport. I told the driver how very sorry I was for what had happened in his city the night before. “Très mal, très mal,” he said, shaking his head.
The roads through and out of Paris were almost empty. At the airport, we saw soldiers with guns, and the lines checking passports were quite long and a bit tense. Yet everybody was calm and accommodating. My flight was delayed by only an hour or so.
On the nine-hour trip back to Minneapolis, I tried to catch up on the sleep I had lost the night before. But each time, as I began to doze off, I was quickly startled awake.
In my fitful half dreams, I kept hearing the sound of those Paris sirens — and of cellphones endlessly ringing.