On Friday, at around 9:15 p.m. Paris time—15 minutes into the France-Germany friendly—a man attempted to enter the Stade de France at Gate D, on the stadium’s east side. Under his clothes he wore a vest packed with explosives and metal bolts, meant to kill and maim as many people around him as he could. There were 80,000 people in the stadium, and he had a ticket for the match.
According to a security guard’s account, later confirmed by a police officer, the man was frisked at the entrance to the stadium, his explosives discovered. As he backed away from the entrance, he detonated his vest at 9:20 p.m., killing one other person and injuring “several” security guards.
The explosion was heard inside the stadium, and clearly audible to those watching on TV:
In the stadium was French President François Hollande, watching the match with relatives of those who died in a German plane crash in the French Alps this March. Hollande was quickly removed to a secure skybox, where he met with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and French football head Noël le Graët.
Even as they were being updated by police on what was only then developing—confirmation that the explosion had been a suicide bomb, and early reports of shootings across town—a second attacker struck the Stade de France.
At 9:30 p.m., another man wearing an explosive vest blew himself up at Gate H, on the stadium’s Northeast side, killing only himself. Police believe the first blast had been intended to go off in the stadium to cause a stampede, deadly on its own, and perhaps worse if people had been pouring out of the stadium right into the path of the second bomber.
President Hollande began to hear reports of more attacks. In a span of 15 minutes beginning at 9:25 p.m., attackers had sprayed patrons at three restaurants with bullets, killing dozens; exploded a suicide bomb at a fourth; and taken more than a hundred hostages at a concert hall. It was clear by now that these were coordinated attacks, and no one had any idea of how many more might be coming.
This photo, released by the French Presidential Palace, shows Hollande on the phone in the security box at 9:36 p.m., six minutes after the second explosion.
According to a spokesperson for French soccer, Hollande decided that “the stadium was the safest place for fans.” Instead of canceling the game or evacuating the stadium, authorities decided to play on and to quietly close the exits. Even if fans had wanted to leave, they wouldn’t have been allowed.
At 9:53 p.m., at a McDonald’s a few hundred yards from the Stade de France—and on the way from the stadium to a nearby rail station—a third suicide bomber struck. Only one passerby was killed, a far cry from the potential death toll if thousands of panicked fans had been streaming from the stadium after the first two blasts.
Hollande was evacuated from the stadium, but news of the attacks was deliberately kept from the players and fans to avoid panic. Germany manager Joachim Löw had heard the first blast and suspected the cause. “Of course we thought of it,” he said. “It was very loud. You could imagine what had happened.”
A spokesman for French football said the decision not to tell players at halftime was rooted in the belief that the stadium was secure, and that nothing good could have come from informing them anyway, given the patchy information available. “It wasn’t worth alarming the players who would have asked questions we didn’t have answers to.”
Word began to spread through the crowd in the second half, and most players were told of the ongoing attacks as they left the field after the match. Scared and confused, fans rushed the pitch after the final whistle to console each other and to share news. This Associated Press photo shows two supporters comforting each other on the field.
Some fans sang “La Marseillaise,” the national anthem of France, as they left the stadium:
Both teams ended up spending most of the night inside the stadium, as the visitors desperately tried to find a flight to Germany.
It wasn’t until the French finally boarded their team bus in the predawn darkness that midfielder Antoine Griezmann learned that his sister, who had been at the besieged Eagles of Death Metal concert, was OK. Lassana Diarra’s family wasn’t so lucky. The French midfielder’s cousin, Asta Diakite, was among those killed in the attacks.