As she stepped off the Eurostar in Paris, Hanna Corbett felt nervous and uncertain.
She was looking for Jack Konda, a good friend she had known for two years since they met in university halls in Nottingham.
A few weeks beforehand, their friendship had turned cautiously into a romance – just as Jack was moving to France for his year abroad. Today was their first official date.
HOURS FROM TERROR: Jake Konda and Hanna Corbett enjoy the Paris sights before their first date at the Bataclan
It was Friday the 13th November 2015 and Jack arrived at the station, armed with pain au chocolat and a packed itinerary.
Their first stop was the Champs-Elysees where they visited the Eiffel Tower before ambling slowly through the city of love, stopping off to admire the Louvre and eat lunch by the river Seine.
“It was a very cheesy date,” Hanna recalls fondly, three years on. “I remember it was such a crisp November day, with lots of crunchy leaves. I thought it was very romantic.”
Less than 12 hours later, they were lying face down on a concert floor, wedged between trembling bodies and puddles of blood as they prayed desperately for their lives.
The last stop on Jack’s itinerary had unfortunately been the ‘Eagles of Death Metal’ concert at the Bataclan arena – the scene of the now infamous terrorist attack in which Jihadi gunmen stormed the stage and killed 90 audience members.
The pair, both 21, had arrived at the venue at around 9:30pm. The crowd – made up mostly of people in their 30s and 40s – were smiling at each other as they danced. The couple describe it as one of the friendliest gigs they’d ever attended with little pushing and shoving typical of a rock concert.
Suddenly, as the band began playing their song ‘Kiss the Devil’, a loud noise similar to a firecracker disrupted the set.
“I remember the lead singer’s facial expression dropping. The room went silent, it went still,” says Hanna.
Rows of music lovers dropped to the floor. The sound of gunshots rang clearly in their ears and the blaze of the stage lights burned onto their cheeks. Jack recalls locking eyes with one of the gunmen. Instinct kicked in and he dragged Hanna to the ground where they lay still for around ten minutes – although they say it felt more like an hour.
He explains: “In that environment, everything comes down to each second.”
In a move of devastating selflessness, Jack threw himself on Hanna, hoping he could just about save her.
“I remember thinking we could both die or I could fall on top of Hanna and maybe she might survive,” he rationalises.
NEW RELATIONSHIP: The couple had been friends at university but didn’t get together until Jack moved to work in France
On reflection, they both agree they would rather have died than been the only one to survive. As they share their story now – between pints of ale at a Wetherspoons in Twickenham – they speak in measured, understated tones.
Hanna’s voice sometimes breaks and on such occasions, Jack’s hand will reach for her knee in support. It’s clear that in the midst of such evil a very deep and palpable connection was formed between them that night.
“That experience definitely did bond us,” Hanna confirms.
“She’s the only person who could possibly understand,” Jack nods.
Lying in the Bataclan and unable to see what was happening, they slowly felt the bodies around them move. At this point, disaster struck and the young couple slipped away from each other. Hanna’s shoe had become stuck in the crowd and she panicked as she struggled to untangle herself. Left with no other option, she abandoned her belongings, including her shoe, passport, phone and bank cards.
“I just thought god my mum is going to kill me!” she laughs now.
NIGHTMARE: Hanna Corbett describes the attack on the Bataclan as the ‘longest nightmare’
Realising that he had lost his date, Jack became desperate and started pulling out every brunette girl he could find in the heap of crawling bodies on the floor. It was only once they got outside that they found each other trembling and traumatised but very much alive.
“It was more than relief,” Hanna says. “Jack felt like logic in all of this madness. I was in the longest nightmare and then suddenly he appeared. It’s hard to describe.”
Once they finally escaped, they were shocked to find the outside world calm, silent and unaffected, it was littered with smiling Parisians drinking wine, totally oblivious to what had happened.
They broke into a sprint along with other survivors, terrified that more gunmen lurked on each corner. A barefoot and exhausted Hanna eventually insisted they hail a taxi which took them safely back to Jack’s Parisian home, They spent the rest of their night watching ‘Toy Story’, speechless and clinging tightly to each other – just as the world began to learn of their ordeal.
In the three years since the Bataclan tragedy, the two University of Nottingham students both graduated with first-class degrees. Jack remained in Paris until December before moving onto Moscow while Hanna completed a History masters at Cambridge university. Now 24 years old, they are fresh-faced from a recent gap year in Australia and currently in the throes of graduate applications.
Despite some professional counselling and the love of their family and friends, the trauma of the Bataclan still remains heavy on their hearts.
Hanna explains: “It feels like I remember it everyday. Just little sounds and short, sharp jolts. Fireworks are the worst, they make me so uncomfortable now.”
GUILT: Jack still struggles with survivor guilt but insists he’s learned to have a more positive outlook following the attack
They also admit to struggling with survivor guilt, made worse by the fact many of the victims had children, describing with sincere sadness watching a young daughter pay tribute to her mother at a memorial event last year. They question whether their lives were as valuable.
And yet, despite this, they exhale frequently as they discuss that harrowing November evening. While it is understandably painful to re-live, doing so seems to have had a cathartic effect. They both acknowledge their attitudes towards life are infinitely more positive now, with Hanna claiming the attack helped her to confront her low mood at the time.
She says: “It literally switched me on. People were dying around me and they’d done nothing to deserve it. But I somehow survived. That’s a real reason to live.”
Jack agrees, explaining: “It really shrinks down everything else in comparison. Before that, I was so wrapped up in my own head and this horrible experience — one I wouldn’t wish on anybody else — weirdly opened me up.”
As Hanna sits besides Jack now, listening quietly and nodding patiently while he speaks, the reality of his earlier words become apparent; she really is the only person who could possibly understand.
When Friday night in the city of love turned into France's worst terror attack
On November 13th 2015, a series of coordinated Jihadi terrorist attacks occurred across Paris, France.
Three suicide bombers struck outside the Stade de France and a number of mass shootings ensued across cafes and restaurants in the city. Three gunmen targeted the Bataclan theatre where Californian rock band ‘Eagles of Death Metal’ were playing to a crowd of 1, 500 people.
The attack lasted for 20 minutes until one of the gunmen was shot down by police. In total, there were 129 deaths – 90 occurred at the Bataclan theatre – along with 413 injuries, 100 of which were serious.
Of the nine jihadi attackers, seven died at the scene while the other two were located and killed five days later.