PARIS – The vibe in the Bataclan concert hall was hot, steamy and electric as the California rock band Eagles of Death Metal jammed away a half-hour into a set. Revelers slam-danced to the hard rock, and bodies glistened with sweat. Suddenly, the drum beats gave way to a different kind of rat-a-tat-tat-tat, and flashing stage lights met with glints from automatic rifle barrels.
In the spasm of chaos, some revelers thought the lights and sounds were part of the show. Then the lead singer fled, bodies began to fall — and shouts of partying turned to screams of horror.
It was the beginning of the worst carnage of the Paris attacks that killed 130 people, injured over 300, and caused the French president to declare his nation at war with Islamic State extremists. The legendary music venue in a shabby-chic corner of Paris turned into a chamber of death that one policeman described as “Dante’s Inferno,” as three men laden with explosives and toting Kalashnikovs fired indiscriminately at revelers, turning the dance floor into a sea of blood and body parts.
READ MORE: Eagles of Death Metal say people hid in their dressing room during attack
“I crawled on the ground as low as possible without getting up,” said Arthur, one of the Bataclan fans, who didn’t give his last name. “I scrambled for the emergency exit on the left. We all crawled. Others tried to walk out and stepped on an arm or two.”
Partiers poured like bees from a hive from the emergency exit into a backstage alley. The escape was hampered by bodies of dead and injured clogging the exit. Outside people on higher floors of the concert hall dangled desperately from windows, facing the choice of gunfire from the attackers or a bone-shattering drop to the ground.
The attackers turned up at the Bataclan around 9:40 p.m. in a black Volkwagen Polo, after two other extremist teams had launched suicide bombing attacks on the Stade de France soccer stadium and a string of drive-by shootings at cafes and restaurants. Getting out, they unleashed a burst of automatic gunfire at two young men on rental bikes who happened to be cycling by. The men crumpled to the ground, shot at point-blank range.
“To see it with my own eyes, it was like being in a horror film,” said witness Ludovic Mintchov. “In 10 years, I won’t forget it.”
The attackers strafed their way inside the concert hall, through the bar and merchandise counter, and straight to the pit, according to witness accounts — unleashing a torrent of gunfire.
As the attackers mowed people down, a police commissioner and his driver, learning from the police radio that they were near the site, sped to the concert hall before more elite teams could get there. The commissioner charged inside, traded fire with a gunman, and took him out of action before retreating so that special-operations teams could assemble.
It was a key action that slowed the pace of carnage, and may have saved scores of lives. While the Bataclan death toll of at least 89 was horrific, most of the partygoers survived. Two police officials said the commissioner wants to remain out of public view and is still recovering from the shock.
WATCH: Footage captures moment gunshots heard at Bataclan, band flees stage
“It’s their action that made it possible to stop the killing,” Christophe Molmy, who heads the elite BRI police intervention squad, said of the police commissioner and his driver. When Molmy’s rapid-reaction team arrived at 10:15, “there’s no shooting, there’s no noise, there’s an oppressive silence inside the Bataclan.”
Inside, the remaining gunmen took hostages and used them as human shields or as go-betweens with police — ordered to tell the elite police teams to stay back. One concertgoer, who only gave his first name, Sebastien, was among the hostages. He said he inexplicably survived after a surreal face-to-face conversation with the attackers. Speaking on RTL radio, he said the extremists wanted to send a message of resistance to France’s government for its role in coalition air strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria.
“They told us it was just the beginning. And that war was starting now. And they were there in the name of Islamic State,” said Sebastien, who like other survivors has chosen to protect his identity.
“Then they asked us whether we agreed with them. So I’ll let you imagine the silence that followed. The timid ones nodded. The braver ones said ‘yes.’”
Sebastien was forced into a tense conversation with attackers, which lasted an hour. One asked him whether he valued money, then held out a roll of bills and told him to burn it. He did as he was told. Sebastian first tried to use humour in the conversation, but dropped that after realizing that “at any moment a misplaced or misinterpreted word could mean death.”
Sebastien said he remains puzzled about the gunmen’s motives in the discussion: They spoke to police negotiators four or five times by phone, and their only demand was that the officers keep away.
Michel Thooris, secretary-general of the France Police labour union, said the attackers appeared to have employed a common tactic in high-profile French terrorism cases in recent years: “suicide by cop.” It’s a term inherited by French police describing a standoff in which hostage takers have few concrete demands but an aim to die in a supposed blaze of glory — to produce maximum impact. That suggested to police that negotiations wouldn’t do much good.
As the standoff continued, special-operations teams were ramping up potential firepower on nearby street corners, assessing the floor plan of the Bataclan, estimating the numbers of gunmen. The negotiations proving fruitless, the Paris police chief — in conjunction with national authorities — gave the green light for an assault, officials said.
The police intervention team, defying shouts from the attackers, fired precision shots at the gunmen in the space between two hostages, Sebastien said.
“Then they bashed the door in, and the real shooting started,” said Sebastien. Nearly 20 officers were plowing in behind a heavy duty Kevlar shield drawing a hailstorm of return fire that left over two dozen welts in it, officials said. One officer lost a finger after a ricocheting bullet went through his hand.
The assault, ordered at 12:20 a.m., left one gunman dead from gunshots, and another blown up in a suicide explosion, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
In the aftermath, accounts suggested some survivors had acted heroically in small ways and large.
WATCH:Paris attacks: What happened inside Le Bataclan?
Florian, 30, told the TV show “Le Petit Journal” that his girlfriend was shot, and a security guard, with “incredible sang-froid,” guided the couple to relative safety on a balcony. A midwife used Florian’s T-shirt to compress his girlfriend’s wound. As riot police moved in, an officer carried Florian’s girlfriend out on piggyback to paramedics waiting outside. She is recovering in a hospital.
One German couple survived with a group of others by barricading themselves in a room with a fridge against the door. Tragically, some who tried to get into the room were gunned down because they couldn’t get in. Another survivor said about eight people made it through alive by cramming into a tiny bathroom. Some survived by playing dead among the corpses.
Eagles of Death Metal band member Jesse Hughes told VICE that a big reason why so many were killed at the theatre “is because so many people wouldn’t leave their friends.”
He said in a short clip released by HBO that the killers were able to get into the band’s dressing room and killed almost everyone — with the exception of one person who hid under Hughes’ leather jacket.
Some police who moved in after it was all over said they were traumatized by the incessant ringing of cellphones scattered about the debris, blood and corpses, an officer said.
One screen showed a missed call from “Mom.”
Lori Hinnant in Paris, Kerstin Sopke in Berlin, and Hannah Cushman in Chicago contributed to this report.