Kennett students in Paris during terror attack

By Daymond Steer

champs-elysees-wikimediaKennett students were heading down the famed Champs-Elysee toward the Arc de Triomphe (above) when shots rang out. (FILE PHOTO)CONWAY — Kennett High School senior Will Synnott planned on having an exciting April vacation during a student trip to France, but he didn't expect to be running for his life from a gun-toting terrorist.

Synnott, 18, of Jackson spoke about his experience in a phone interview Monday while en route to Dartmouth College, where he has been accepted and was visiting with his mother, Lauren Orsini.

He contacted The Sun because he wanted to encourage the school board to continue allowing students to travel abroad and to discourage people from becoming bigoted against Muslims because of last Thursday's attack. 

Synnott was on the trip abroad, organized by a company called Education First, with 20 fellow students from Kennett's French language and culture program. The tour group, totaling 50 students, also included teens from places like Puerto Rico and Massachusetts. 

The itinerary included visiting landmarks like the Normandy cliffs, a castle in Brittany, and the Louvre Museum and Eiffel Tower in Paris over the span of seven days.

They Kennett group arrived home on April 21.

Last year, Conway School Board members were hesitant about letting teacher Susan Dirubbo lead the trip overseas because of terror attacks that had taken place in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people.

Selectman Carl Thibodeau also happened to be in the city when those attacks occurred though he was not in the areas involved with those attacks.

April vacation ran from April 17-21.

On April 20, French national Karim Cheurfi, 39, opened fire with an AK-47 on police on the Champs-Elysees, the famous boulevard that leads to the Arc de Triomphe. Cheurfi killed a police officer, injured two more and killed a bystander before being shot dead.

Synnott said he was walking toward the Arc de Triomphe at around 9 p.m. with four other Kennett students, after being given an hour to explore and shop, when they heard loud noises and people began yelling for them to run.

"It was pandemonium," said Synnott. "It was like a stampede. People were falling all over the place."

They ran down the Champs-Elysees, then took a side street and went into a hotel. Synnott said they hid in the lobby for an hour or two until police got control over the situation. During that time, they learned there was an "active shooter."

Synnott said the battery in his phone was dead because he had taken so many pictures in the Louvre.

He also said he heard that a student, who wasn't from Kennett, was hurt while trying to get away from the gunfire.

EF Educational Tours, based in Cambridge, Mass., confirmed that all the students in France during that time are safe and accounted for.

Synnott said school chaperones Jen Keefe and Dirubbo kept everyone calm and successfully located the students who were scattered along the boulevard.

"If they hadn't been so professional and responsible about the whole thing, it could have been a lot worse," said Synnott. "The trip to France as a whole was the most life-changing and amazing experience of my life, and I wouldn't want the fact that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time to deprive future students from having such a wonderful opportunity."

He did say it was "eye-opening" to be in the midst of a terror attack and said it was the "scariest moment" of his life. 

But he said society can't let the terrorists win.

"We need to avoid perpetuating false stereotypes of what Muslims are," said Synnott, adding that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people. "The problem isn't the Islamic religion. The problem is the individuals."

While he didn't see any other overt signs of Islamic extremism, Synnott said they did see a large number of military personnel in a country that is having a heated presidential election.

"For the whole week, I thought it was excessive," said Synnott. "Then on the last night, we realized why they were there. They shot the shooter down really quick."

Orsini said she would still send her younger son, Matt, to France because bad things can happen anywhere and are not a reason not to travel.

 

Dirubbo had no comment other than to request the Sun not to publish Synnott's remarks "at this time." Keefe did not return a request for comment.

Synnott said he wouldn't have commented Monday had he known that some didn't want students to talk with the media.

But Superintendent Kevin Richard said the district would never limit students' ability to speak about the incident.

EF Educational Tours released the following statement about the Paris attack:

"We are saddened by the tragic events that occurred last week in Paris. Our hearts and thoughts are with the police officers and their families.

"We can confirm that all EF Educational Tours travelers are safe and accounted for. Immediately after the attack, we made the decision to avoid the area near the Champs Elysees.

"At the time of the incident there was a group from Kennett High School in the area and we are thankful that nobody was harmed. After the incident, we transferred the group back to the hotel and made them aware that counseling is available if needed. The group's Tour Director remained in the field to ensure that all travelers were accounted for and chaperoned back to their hotels.

"We are continuing to monitor the situation with our staff in Paris. Together with our network of regional offices we remain prepared to respond to any situation which may arise and amend itineraries if necessary."

Synnott said he's doing well, but he's "haunted" by the sound of gun shots and realizing that someone died from gunfire.