Middlebury student only minutes from terror attacks in Paris

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College junior Leo Trotz-Liboff was in a Paris bar near the Bastille metro station with friends last Friday night when his phone rang.

“A Middlebury (College) staff worker called me and said that there was a shooting in a restaurant,” said Trotz-Liboff, a Classics major spending the semester at Middlebury’s study abroad program in the French capital.

“At first I thought it was an isolated incident, just some crazy person in a restaurant. A little later, another student at the bar told me that there was an attack at the stadium, and then a little later I was told about the attack at the concert. We were learning this mostly from the Internet on our phones. We kept getting news about the magnitude of the events as they were unfolding, the killing of hostages, people shooting in the streets, etc.,” Trotz-Liboff recounted in an email to the Independent.

A night out in Paris for students and an ordinary end of the work week for Middlebury College staffers turned grim as terrorists linked to the Islamic State set off a coordinated series of violent acts that rocked the City of Light, one of the world’s most beloved cities, and sent people through Europe and the Western world reeling.

The outlines of the brutal story have been repeated over the past week.

At 9:20 p.m. in Paris (3:20 p.m. in Vermont) on Nov. 13, the first suicide bomb went off outside the Stade de France (stadium) during a France vs. Germany soccer match, killing one bystander. At 9:25 p.m., shootings erupted in a string of restaurants, resulting in 39 deaths. At the Bataclan concert hall, where the American group the Eagles of Death Metal was playing, shootings and suicide bombs left 89 dead while hundreds cowered in niches throughout the theater. All told, the attacks left more than 125 dead and more than 350 wounded.

The jihadist terrorist group Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, as well as for a similarly coordinated series of attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, the day before that left 43 dead.

For Middlebury College students in Paris, the events played out minute by minute, with students’ experiences of the events and awareness of what was unfolding varying with their circumstances. For staffers in France and back in Middlebury, it was an intense several hours of locating each student, assuring his or her safety, and communicating with parents, as one by one, students were accounted for.

Trotz-Liboff and a number of students stayed put at the bar, not sure at first if it was safer to stay or go. They worried that the bar had a lot of windows, which didn’t make it seem very safe. And it was close enough to the Bataclan concert hall to seem like a possible next stop for the shootings and bombings erupting across Paris.

Family and friends contacted Trotz-Liboff, wanting to know if he was safe. Middlebury staffers reached him and communicated  that it was safest to stay put until the neighborhood was deemed safe.

That all clear didn’t come until hours later, at 2:30 a.m., he said.

“A bartender told us that she had learned that the area had been secured by police and that we could leave,” said Trotz-Liboff, who said that on his route back home that night the greatest evidence of the attacks were the large numbers of police and soldiers patrolling the streets.

“It was only the next day when I read some articles and looked on Google maps that I learned that the shooting at the Belle Equipe restaurant was only a six-minute walk down the street from where I was,” he said.

MAKING CONTACT

Jeffrey Cason, dean of International Programs at Middlebury College, was first alerted to the unfolding crisis in Paris on Friday afternoon at 4:30. From that moment on, Cason, Associate Dean Liz Ross and Study Abroad Advisor Susan Parsons sprang into action, communicating with their Middlebury colleagues on the ground in Paris, with students and with parents until they knew that each and every student abroad was safe. The last confirmation didn’t come until 5 a.m.

“We didn’t sleep much,” admitted Cason.

The college has a total of 50 students in Paris (60 in France as a whole) — 28 undergraduates and 22 graduate students.

According to Cason, the college had confirmed that most students were safe within the first hour and 20 minutes. Nevertheless, starting from the first phone call, Cason and the others stayed glued to every possible form of electronic communication — phone, email, texting, you name it — to get instant updates on student whereabouts and well being.

Middlebury had three students at the Stade de France soccer game and continued to send and receive texts until the college knew that the students had made it to a secure exit and then finally into a cab and home to safety.

“We felt like we were following events in real time,” Cason said.

Sadly, Cason said the Middlebury College staff were well-drilled in how to escort students safely through international chaos. During the 2011 revolution in Egypt, Middlebury evacuated 23 students from its study abroad program in Alexandria.

“We kind of have the drill down if we need to do it,” he said.

For international student Estelle Elizagoïen, on campus here in Middlebury, her first concern was family and friends 3,500  miles across the Atlantic.

“Since I’ve heard about the attack, I have been feeling shocked, heartsore and angry,” said Elizagoïen, a social science major and upperclassman from Amiens, France. “I am very lucky because my family and friends are fine. They are reporting a very anxious and heavy atmosphere in France right now. They told me they could barely believe what had happened.

“Most of the French students here know those places or know people who were attacked in Paris,” she continued. “So there’s a very personal dimension to the events. Home has been attacked.”

Despite last Friday’s events, Cason reported on Tuesday that no Middlebury students are asking to leave France.

“What’s interesting — and I think in part because of the way we’ve kept parents and students informed and let student know, moment by moment, what they should do — is we haven’t gotten students saying they want to go home,” said Cason. “We’ve gotten no parents saying, ‘Why aren’t you closing the program?’ And no students have said, ‘I want to go home.”

Cason speculates that students feel secure with the support that the college has given them and also might feel like, having been through such an intense situation, they want to stand by their French compatriots.

Writing from Paris, Trotz-Liboff agreed:

“In the wake of the event, it is moving to see the reaction of the French. Alongside the sadness, I think there is the sense of a nation coming together. In general, it is Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité contrasted with the barbarism of the terrorists.”

Reporter Gaen Murphree is at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.


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