September 28, 2016

Study abroad students flee Paris after terrorist attacks

Brian Coats was eating dinner in Paris with fellow Webster study abroad students when the first reports started to pop up on social media. The table of nine watched as French police cars and ambulances rushed down the streets of Paris one by one, minute by minute.

“At first, we thought the shooting was just an isolated incident and didn’t think a lot of it. Unfortunately, things like that happen in big cities,” Coats said. “But as we sat through dinner, more and more reports came in, one right after another.”

At a cafe in Paris’ first district, a news report had the attention of a study abroad student. Marion Ayers, a Webster student studying abroad in Vienna, sat with three friends as the news began report several attacks around the city. A french woman explained to the group in broken English that terrorists were attacking the city about three miles away.

Webster study abroad student Marion Ayers photographed a segment of writing by author, philosopher and journalist Albert Camus in Paris.

Webster study abroad student Marion Ayers photographed a segment of writing by author, philosopher and journalist Albert Camus in Paris.

Nov. 13 a series of coordinated mass shootings, suicide bombings and hostage-takings erupted in the tenth and eleventh districts of Paris. By the time the attacks ceased, 129 people were dead and more than 300 people were wounded.

Outside France’s national sport stadium, during an international friendly between France and Germany’s soccer teams, three suicide bombers attacked. Four shootings throughout the streets of Paris happened at roughly the same time. At the Bataclan Theatre in the eleventh district, three men killed 89 people with assault rifles.

A group of Webster study abroad students were spending the weekend in Paris, as a part of a trip offered by Webster’s study abroad location at Regent’s College. 

The night of the attacks, the students visited Paris’ city center at 7 p.m. and spent a few hours visiting the Louvre. The group had planned to visit the Eiffel Tower after dinner. Coats said the group almost stayed in the tourist districts to visit the Eiffel Tower, but ultimately decided to head back to the seventeenth district, where their hotel was. The first reports of the attack surfaced at 9 p.m.

“We all started to feel very tense and on edge, realizing that this was something big. Luckily, we only had to walk a few blocks to get back to our hotel,” Coats said. “After we got back, we checked in with our tour guide and then just sat in one hotel room together watching the news for hours.”

Ayers and Coats’ groups both decided to retreat to their hotels in the seventeenth district, the opposite direction of the attacks. At the hotel, Ayers said she and her friends contacted friends and family and assured them they were safe. They spent the rest of the evening watching the news, as the number of reported casualties raised hour by hour.

Coats, who studies abroad at Regent’s College in London, said he believes the best thing study abroad students can do is not live in fear, and continue to travel and explore Europe. 

“I am adamant that this experience does not define my semester abroad,” Coats said.  “I think the best way to honor them [the victims] is to continue exploring the world and continue to become more of a global citizen. That is the entire point of this semester abroad and I don’t want that to be forgotten.”

Coats and Ayers both left Paris earlier than planned in light of the attacks. Ayers cancelled a reservation at a hostel and booked earlier train tickets back to Vienna.

Webster released a statement assuring the university all study abroad students were safe and accounted for.

“The news coming out of France is devastating. Yet our resolve as a University committed to diversity, inclusion and helping the world overcome hatred and violence is great,” the statement read.

Coats said his group was advised to stay inside their hotel, but decided to take a short walk around the area. The streets were quiet and mostly empty, and he said the few people he did see were carrying on with their lives.

“It was amazing to see such resilience and it made me feel better, more calm,” Coats said.

The attacks left one American study abroad student from the California State University at Long Beach, Nohemi Gonzalez, dead.

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