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Paris attack hero back home in South Shields and reveals decisions that saved his life

South Shields's Michael O'Connor returns home after Paris attacks.
South Shields's Michael O'Connor returns home after Paris attacks.

It was supposed to be a romantic weekend for South Shields-born Michael O’Connor and his girlfriend Sara Badel Craeye in Paris.

For months the couple, who live in Lyon, France, had been looking forward to the trip – and seeing Sara’s favourite band.

South Shields's Michael O'Connor returns home after Paris attacks.

South Shields's Michael O'Connor returns home after Paris attacks.

But the couple have been left fighting a daily battle against memories of horror and death.

They were among more than 1,000 people caught up in the deadly terror attacks in Paris on November 13.

They had been in the Bataclan theatre watching Eagles of Death Metal when gunmen burst in, firing into the crowd.

Back home for Christmas, Michael spoke about his ordeal as he and his 28-year-old girlfriend try to come to terms with the night they came close to losing their lives.

As you were walking, you were willing people to get up and walk out with you. But they didn’t move.

Michael O’Connor

Michael, 30, said: “The concert had been planned for months. Eagles of Death Metal are one of Sara’s favourite bands and it was the first time I had been to Paris. I thought it would be a lovely romantic weekend.

“On the day, it just seemed as though the world was against us. We missed the train and lost our tickets. It was just a mad dash to get there.”

Michael says he had wanted to stay at the back of the venue and it was only Sara’s insistence that saw the couple move towards the front.

It was a decision which, he says now, “undoubtedly” saved their lives.

Floral tributes and candles left at Le Carillon, Paris, after terror attacks in the city. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Floral tributes and candles left at Le Carillon, Paris, after terror attacks in the city. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

He added: “We’d been in for about 45 minutes and everyone was dancing and having a good time. Then you heard the first ‘pops’ of a gun.

“I’d turned around and, at first, thought it was part of the show. Then you saw the guns and people started screaming.

“The whole thing was surreal.

“A million things and nothing runs through your head. It’s quite difficult now to remember exactly what happened as it has just become a blur. I just remember it was packed and everyone was trying to get out.

Michael O'Connor and his girlfriend Sara Badel Craeye

Michael O'Connor and his girlfriend Sara Badel Craeye

“I grabbed Sara who, at first, didn’t realise what was happening, and just pushed her towards the fire exit.

“We ended up on the floor, I was on top of Sara to shield her. I just wanted to protect her the best I could.

“Then there was silence, the bullets stopped, we tried again to make a run for it with lots of other people, then the shooting started again. I just thought we are targets, so we got back down on the floor.”

The couple lay for more than two hours, “playing dead” with other survivors while, around them, people they had been dancing alongside lay dead and dying.

Their ordeal only came to an end when police stormed the building.

He said: “The police told us to wave our hands if we were still alive and, those of us who could walk, were sent towards the exit.

South Shields's Michael O'Connor returns home after Paris attacks.

South Shields's Michael O'Connor returns home after Paris attacks.

“It was awful, just awful. There were bodies in blood everywhere. People I thought had been playing dead, were actually dead.

“As you were walking, you were willing people to get up and walk out with you. But they didn’t move.”

Outside cafes opened their doors up to those who had survived what was the worst of the attacks which happened that night.

“There were people covered in blood, people breaking down, hugging each other, looking for the friends they had been to the concert with and parents who heard what had happened and had come searching for their sons and daughters.”

It was the following day Michael was eventually able to make contact with his family – who were unaware he had been in Paris – back home in the UK.

He said: “When I phoned my mam, she was talking about the attacks and saying how terrible it was. That’s when I broke it to her that I’d been there.

“Even when I was telling her what happened it still didn’t seem real. It was like I was telling her the plot of a movie.”

The act of war that shocked the world

The night of November 13, 2015 will remain etched on the minds of the people of Paris forever as the night gunmen reigned terror on their city.

Hundreds of people were left injured and 130 people lost their lives as killers carried out a series of deadly attacks in the capital.

The Stade de France, restaurants and concert hall were all targeted by the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

The scenes sent shockwaves around the world as President Francois Hollande described the atrocities as an “act of war.”

The most deadly of the night’s attacks happened at the Bataclan where Californian rock group Eagles of Death Metal were playing to a sell-out crowd.

A total of 89 people died after gunmen fired Kalashnikov-type assault rifles into the crowd.

In the aftermath of the attacks raids were carried out across the country as police searched for those responsible and those who assisted them.

Raids also took place in Brussels in Belgium.

A number of people have since been arrested in connection to the attacks.

South Shields's Michael O'Connor returns home after Paris attacks.

South Shields's Michael O'Connor returns home after Paris attacks.