SOUSSE, Tunisia – Tunisia’s postcard destination for tourists is reeling from the terror that blighted another day of play at the Mediterranean seaside resort of Sousse. A man armed with a Kalashnikov and grenades gunned down tourists on a private beach, and then moved methodically through the grounds of a luxury hotel – to the swimming pool, reception area and offices.
At least 38 people were killed and dozens of others wounded in Friday’s deadly noon rampage by a young Tunisian disguised as a tourist ready for fun in the sun.
From accounts of the attack by shocked survivors, tourists who stayed on, lifeguards and beach employees who helped at the site of the massacre emerge stories of love and horror.
No one grasped what was happening at first in what became Tunisia’s worst terrorist attack. Were the popping sounds and explosions fireworks for yet another celebration?
On Saturday, the private beach of the 370-room Imperial Marhaba Hotel was immaculate with chairs lined up under straw umbrellas – and police tape sealing it off. Only the emptiness and an overturned lounge chair with flowers accumulating hinted at the horror. “Why? Warum?” read a note on one bouquet. “Warum” is German for “why.” Sousse is a popular destination for Germans and at least one German was killed in the attack.
Some people cried as they placed their offerings.
Then there are the horrific recollections of the living – many of whom quickly fled Sousse.
Tony Callaghan of Norfolk, England, was near the pool around midday when he heard what many others thought were fireworks. With his 23 years in the Royal Air Force, Callaghan knew better.
“I knew it was gunfire … The hotel was being attacked.”
Callaghan, 63, suffered a gunshot wound to his leg and his wife, Christine, 62, had her femur shattered. Both were among those being treated at Sahloul Hospital, the largest in Sousse.
Along with what he said were some 40 people, they had taken refuge in the hotel’s administrative offices, not far from the reception area. They climbed to the first floor, “but then we were trapped.” Callaghan said he told people to hide because the gunman was following “and shooting coming up the stairs.”
His wife stumbled in the corridor and “was screaming ‘Help me! Help me!”’ Callaghan said shortly before heading for surgery. Another woman had been shot four times, he said, and “was lying in a pool of blood.”
The gunfire appeared endless. For Callaghan, it lasted about 40 minutes. “It was, like, incessant.”
But no one really counted as they looked to save their lives. Some others suggested it lasted about 20 minutes.
The attacker “took time to go to the beach, to the pool, the reception, the administration, climbing the stairs,” said Imen Belfekih, an employee for seven years at the hotel. She was among those hiding in the administration offices, along with a fellow employee, who was wounded in the attack.
Belfekih said that the attacker threw a grenade as he climbed the stairs to the rooms where the group was hiding, apparently following the screams of fear. Her colleague was hospitalized with shrapnel wounds.
“We saw only black. It was smoky. Everyone was hiding in offices …. I hid under a desk,” she said.
A police officer who was called to the scene told The Associated Press that the gunman threw three grenades – but one failed to explode. He wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the case and asked not to be identified by name.
Belfekih said she was on the beach when she first heard the gunfire. She and her wounded friend only left their hideout “when we heard silence.”
The varying accounts of the ordeal made it difficult to understand exactly where the gunman was killed by police. However, he apparently went back downstairs to make an escape. Several accounts put the location outside. And no one who spoke with the AP could clearly describe him.
“I never saw him because we were running for our lives,” Callaghan said.
The hotel manager, Mohamed Becheur, said he had no details about the tragedy that befell his establishment, arriving later when notified and after the attack.
He has not officially closed the hotel, though concedes that everyone will shortly be gone.
“We may have zero clients today but we will keep our staff,” Becheur said.
His hotel was a scene of chaos for hours, with people hiding out in halls, offices and bathrooms.
Marian King, from the Dublin suburb of Lucan, was in her final few hours before departure when chaos struck. Then a British woman ran into the lobby screaming that her husband had been shot and was “lying on a sunbed in a pool of blood.”
King immediately returned with her son to her room, hiding for two hours in the bathroom as sounds of gunfire continued for what she said was an hour. Others from the hotel joined them.
“There were footsteps in the corridor and people running back and forth, shouting in all languages, every language,” she told Irish radio station RTE.
Travel agents were calling with rides out of town, and with a 10-minute warning “we chucked everything into bags and went.”
On Saturday, a pall hung over sunny Sousse. Scattered sunbathers who said they weren’t afraid waded in the water. An occasional police patrol boat skimmed the water, and police on horseback worked the sand. But there was little sign of the violence a day earlier.
But there was lots of praise from tourists for employees of their respective hotels who may soon be out of work if Tunisia’s prime industry, tourism, is gutted by the attack.
Employees at nearby hotels or those with outlets on the beach joined in the rescue operation, running to the massacre site to lend a hand.
“You hear the gunfire. You can’t count the number of times,” said Haytham, a lifeguard at the nearby Royal Kenz Hotel. He and others cleared the beach and moved some wounded into ambulances. Visibly shaken, he and a group of tourists laid a bouquet at the doomed beach.
Faycal Mhoub, who from his post at the beach offers camel rides, rushed from his circuit when he heard the news, putting tourists in the family home, then went to help moved the wounded.
“I live with the tourists more than with my family,” he said. “I don’t know how many months or years tourists won’t come, but I’ll be at my spot.”