Tunisian terror attack: Blood on the sands
The murder of 38 tourists in Tunisia turned a paradise into killing ground
Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30
Owen Richards just kept running. Around him bodies fell to the ground as the lone gunman took aim and fired at the tourists on the crowded beach.
The 16-year-old was hit in the shoulder, the bullet grazing his flesh on its way into the skull of the adult stood beside him. Owen's grandfather, uncle and half-brother Joel also died in the onslaught.
Owen's terrifying ordeal was relayedyesterday by the medical team who treated the teenager at a clinic in Sousse, a five-minute drive from the El Kantaoui resort, an area dominated by four and five star hotels and miles of pristine white sand.
Other astonishing tales of heroics and of fortune were also disclosed as the world came to terms with the massacre.
The beach at El Kantaoui was largely deserted yesterday. A huge area of sand running up to the rear entrance of the Rui Imperial Marhaba Hotel was fenced off, with upturned sunloungers serving as temporary barriers. The day before they had been used as makeshift stretchers.
Nearby concrete paths remained stained with blood. The hotel itself was empty apart from staff. Occupants had been bussed out in the night in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocity.
The day before it had all been so different.
The El Kantaoui beach had been crowded with sunseekers. So too the Imperial Marhaba hotel's large pool area and the other hotels around it, the Bellevue Hotel, the Royal Kenz Hotel and the Palm Marina Hotel. With temperatures already touching 85F this was perfect holiday weather for lazing by the water and doing nothing.
Just before noon on Friday that calm was shattered; all hell would break loose.
At the Bellevue, the water aerobics class had just finished when a family swimming in the hotel's pool heard what they thought was the sound of firecrackers being set off; back on the beach, sunbathers also recalled hearing what they first assumed to be fireworks.
At the Imperial Marhaba, perhaps the most popular of the hotels on that stretch of coastline, this was the start of the high season and the hotel's 370 rooms were close to 75 per cent occupancy.
In the absence of armed security, the holidaymakers, packed on the beach and at the pool, were effectively sitting ducks.
Nobody seems to have noticed Seifeddine Rezgui, 23, a Tunisian student, who had wandered on to the beach, wearing black T-shirt and shorts. He was clean shaven and dressed like a Western tourist. In the confusion, some reports suggested he had arrived by boat; others that he had turned up on a jet ski. Whatever the reality, Rezgui had strolled along the sand, nobody noticing the Kalashnikov assault rifle concealed inside a parasol.
Yesterday, two young Tunisian locals, who organise parasailing and jet ski rides from the beach recalled that some time between 11.30am and 11.45am the gunman approached the sun loungers arranged along the beach.
"I was sitting talking to some guests from the Imperial Marhaba hotel. We are all friends here," said one of the two men, who identified himself as Wael. He didn't think much of it when he heard the first bang.
"I heard a kind of hissing clap sound and thought it must be someone messing around with fireworks for a joke," said Wael. Then the reality dawned.
Reports suggest that Rezgui first shot at a paraglider hovering above the Mediterranean. He then turned his Kalashnikov on the sunbathers.
Owen was on the beach with close relatives when Rezgui opened fire. He was so close to the gunfire that it had left him temporarily deafened in one ear. The bullet that grazed his shoulder, left him with a flesh wound.
As Owen fled the slaughter on the beach, he saw guests dropping around him in a hail of bullets.
He told doctors that, after the initial burst of gunfire, the beachgoers stampeded in panic and began running back towards the hotel. Dr Benamor said: "They were running away. As he was running, he looked back and saw people being shot behind him. People were shouting 'Go! Go! Go!' and they were just falling."
Mohammad Majmaji, chief nurse at the Clinique les Oliviers, said he found Owen at the scene when he was sent to collect victims by ambulance.
The teenager was distraught but still able to help another guest who was wounded. "He was helping the injured woman who had been shot in the back. He was crying," said Mr Majmaji.
The clinic was also treating Matthew James for life-threatening stomach injuries. Mr James, 30, from Cardiff, had been sunbathing on the beach with his fiancee Saera Wilson, 26, when they came under attack. Mr James used his own body as a human shield to protect Miss Wilson. "He took a bullet for me. I owe him my life because he threw himself in front of me when the shooting started," she said, "He was covered in blood from the shots but he just told me to run away. He told me: 'I love you babe. But just go. Tell our children that their daddy loves them."
Others on the beach had fortunate escapes. Rita Williams, 76, was one of those. A bullet tore through her pink straw sun hat and narrowly missed her head.
"I've been so lucky - I'm still shaking. It was all so frightening," Mrs Williams, of Maesteg, South Wales said.
Ellie Makin, 22, a former British tennis tour player, who was on holiday with her friend Debbie Horsfall, was another counting her blessings. She was close by when Rezgui pulled his gun from under his parasol. "All of a sudden he dropped the umbrella and had a gun, and he started shooting everyone to the right of me," said Miss Makin.
Some tourists had no idea what was happening. One holidaymaker said later she thought a tsunami must have been approaching to explain the rush from the sea.
With bodies falling, Rezgui marched on. "He was laughing and joking around, like a normal guy," said a Tunisian witness. "He was choosing who to shoot. Some people he was saying to them, 'you go away'. He was choosing tourists.
As the tourists fled, Rezgui went after them, entering the grounds of the Rui Imperial Marhaba Hotel, reaching first the crowded figure of eight swimming pool. The firing was incessant; the level of fear hard to comprehend.
Piecing together the events of Friday, it appears Tom Richards, a 22-year-old civil engineering graduate, and his mother Sam were also in the party of 20 or so tourists trapped by Rezgui in the hotel's back offices.
They had been at the pool when they heard the shots, and ran for their lives. Hotel staff ushered them from the open space of the reception area, upstairs to the offices.
But the gunman followed them up to the first and then second floor. "He shot two people through the head," said Mr Richards, who then found himself face to face with the killer, who was pointing the Kalashnikov assault rifle at him. "He looked right at me - I thought I was dead," said Mr Richards. "He was maybe 20 or 25, he had long black hair."
At that point, Rezgui fired, sending bullets seemingly in all directions. Mr Richards and his mother were wounded by shrapnel from the marble floor as it disintegrated. Mr Richards was hit in the wrist; his mother in the ankle.
"I don't know why he stopped. He could have killed everybody," said Mr Richards. The pair dashed to a toilet and locked themselves in a cubicle, using toilet roll as bandages. A young woman in the cubicle next door was covered in blood, a large fragment of marble stuck in her thigh. Mr Richards removed the marble and bandaged the woman's leg. They remained in the cubicle for an hour, under fire.
"We could hear him coming up the stairs. He started firing down the corridor. We tried to escape but he caught us. There was no way out, we were trapped, and then he started lobbing these home-made bombs at us."
People used Twitter and Facebook as the running gun battle continued, posting updates to reassure loved ones.
Rezgui had been on the rampage for around 25 to 40 minutes, judging by the live posts on Twitter. It seems to have gone quiet by 12.26pm. By this stage, Rezgui appears to have been cornered in a street outside the Imperial Marhaba hotel.
Shaky video images and still photos show running gun battles with Tunisian special forces. A subsequent image showed Rezgui lying flat on his face, in black T-shirt and shorts, in a pool of blood.
Yesterday the beach at El Kantaoui was empty apart from the odd tourist returning to the scene to reflect on what had happened.
A young blonde woman in a white bikini walked alone through the now cleaned-up stretch of sand where yesterday the bodies had been strewn. One by one, she placed red and white roses in a floral tribute on an overturned sun lounger with a handwritten message in English and German that simply read "Why? Warum?"
In Tunisia, the tourist industry will find it hard to recover. "We may have zero clients today, but we will keep our staff," said Mohammed Becheur, manager of the Imperial Marhaba hotel.
A Tunisian boat organiser who had watched in horror as the gunman opened fire, told how he had helped tourists into speedboats. "We had to save people," he said.
"Please tell people that we Tunisians helped the tourists," he said. "We like Europeans. This was just one crazy man."