World

A brush with terror on the Champs-Élysées

A bullet hole is seen in a window near to the Marks and Spencer on the Champs Elysees in Paris following Thursday's shooting of police officers.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
A bullet hole is seen in a window near the Marks & Spencer department store on the Champs-Élysées in Paris following Thursday's shooting of police officers.

PARIS — If not for a blocked debit card and a tumble down the stairs of the Marriott hotel on the Champs-Élysées, my sister, niece, and I could have been in the line of fire on Thursday night when a gunman opened fire on Paris police officers.

Instead, just as we were heading out for dinner about 8:30, a group of men rushed past the security guards at the wrought iron entrance, the same guards who had checked my purse and shopping bags each time I entered.

Unbeknownst to us, they were fleeing the gunfire just up the street.

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But in the confusion and pandemonium, we thought they were possibly terrorists, compatriots of those who had attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan theater.

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We ran toward a back stairwell, joined by a hotel employee who rather incredulously kept insisting that we were safe and nothing was wrong.

Trying to get accurate information from hotel employees, for whom English was a second language and keeping guests happy was paramount, was a struggle. A young woman desk clerk eventually started making bang-bang sounds to indicate that there had been a shooting outside and advised us that we would be safe in our fourth-floor room without a view, which suddenly seemed far preferable to one overlooking the Champs-Élysées, one of the grand boulevards of Europe.

So we holed up in our room, getting all of our information from CNN, and a rather overheated Richard Quest.

Even as it was reported that police had killed the gunman who had fired into a police vehicle, killing one officer and wounding two others, we still weren’t convinced that the men who had rushed into the hotel were innocent bystanders fleeing for their lives.

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Maybe they were accomplices of the gunman planning a larger attack on an American-owned hotel?

As a helicopter buzzed overhead, we ate leftover cookies for dinner, too afraid to order room service for fear of opening the door.

My frustration with Bank of America for temporarily blocking my debit card — which had delayed dinner as I worked to unblock it — turned to gratitude. Even my fall down the stairs, resulting in nothing more serious than a broken fingernail, was a blessing in disguise as it delayed our departure just long enough to avoid a far worse fate.

We had planned to have lunch at the Eiffel Tower on Friday afternoon but had to cancel. We were returning home two days early.

In 30 years of visiting Paris, a city like no other, I have strolled the Champs-Élysées many times, once pushing my not-so-young nephew the length of it in a stroller. He won the right to ride after his younger brother got in trouble for eating ice cream off his sneaker in the Tuileries Garden.

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After the Charlie Hebdo attack I bought a T-shirt that said Je Suis Charlie. And the Christmas following the Bataclan massacre I hung an ornament on my tree that proclaimed Je Suis Paris.

As I left Paris Friday morning, early and sad, Je Suis Paris once again, beyond mere symbolism this time.