On the night of 13th November 2015, security guard Salim Toorabally was policing the Stade De France in Paris for the first time. Little did he know then, but his life was about to change forever.
In many ways, Salim Toorabally is no different to you or I. An unassuming 42-year-old family man with a wife and two young daughters, this man of Mauritian descent, who moved to France at the age of 16, pays his bills, spends time with his kids and goes to work. You would probably walk past him on the street without so much as a second glance.
Except, on a cold winter's night towards the end of 2015, Salim was no ordinary man, no foot soldier in the rat race economy.
In fact, while he may insist that that he was simply doing his job, it was his actions that ultimately saved the life of thousands of Parisians.
13th November 2015
November 13th 2015 should have been the highlight of Salim’s career. He was policing the Stade de France in Paris for the first time, a treat for any Paris St German fan, which is why it’s now sad to hear him talk of this same experience as a "nightmare".
It’s now widely reported that, on the date in question, a 20-year-old French national (who we've decided not to name) detonated a suicide bomb outside Gate H of the Stade de France stadium, killing himself and reportedly one bystander.
But the terrorist's actions could have potentially been far more damaging, with the trainee electrician having earlier tried to get into the football match between France and Germany, which was taking place that night at the Stade de France.
There were some 79,000 spectators in attendance but – thanks to Toorabally – the terrorist was never one of them.
“His behaviour was different from other spectators,” Toorabally explains to Sylo. “He entered behind another [person] without a ticket, when I called and said he must go home”.
In a Guardian article, it transpires that the suicide bomber had tried to get into the stadium by mentioning that the person who had his ticket hadn’t showed up.
He insisted he go into the stadium, even trying other gates with the same approach. Fortunately, Toorabllay followed, warning other security guards along the way. Realising his plot had been foiled, the 20-year-old later exited the stadium, detonated his suicide vest, killing himself in the first of two explosions not far from the ground.
Later that night, 130 people were killed as gunmen opened fire at the Bataclan theatre, in addition to the two detonations outside the stadium. According to French police sources at the time, the first explosion close to the Stade de France occurred at 9.20pm local time, with the second ten minutes later and the third at 9.53pm. As security fears grew, at the time, thousands of spectators were evacuated onto the pitch as the players watched on from the tunnel.
Salim seems haunted by the night in question, two years on.
“I still hear those two explosions ... boom, boom," Salim told NBC News shortly after the attack. "It stays with me. You could smell the explosion. The air was burning,”
"I felt the explosion right in the heart," he said. "I knew it wasn't fireworks coming from inside the stadium. But I didn't see anything happening in the streets." The second blast, he said at the time, felt "like a volcano erupting."
Salim says, shortly after the two blasts, he was questioned by police and made aware that the young man he had apprehended was one of the terrorists who had detonated an explosive. “I was shocked emotionally,” he tells me. “At the same time proud and afraid because I realize that I arrested a Daesh soldier.”
Yet he did not stop there, helping injured colleagues from the blast too:
“I saw three wounded security guards. I took care of them [with] first aid,” he said, before apparently suggesting that at least one of these security guards may not have been breathing.
“The blood was horrible; my hand was filled with blood. This image remains unforgettable.”
But Salim’s night was far from over, instead facing police conversations and what he describes as “interrogations”. His English is broken, but he seems to suggest that he had little support from work, and a tough line of questioning from the police.
“I was ill accompanied with no psychological support.”
Back home, he admitted that it took him some time to get over the attack, even though his wife and family were supportive.
“[My wife was] proud of me and my courage to start working at the stadium. I'm still fighting, if I leave psychology through my work, I continue to work after the attack without sick leave.”
The road to recovery
France, and in particular Paris, is a different place today to yesteryear, with armed guards now patrolling the streets. Salim is optimistic and upbeat when speaking, but it’s clear that the attack has had an effect on he and other Parisians.
“This police force army reassure people after 13 November and the Nice attack, but we are not accustomed [to the armed guards]. Paris is still fragile, but there is strong solidarity between people.”
This is not to say the journey has been easy for a man, rewarded the Silver Medal of Homeland Security by the Interior Minister.
“I had some very hard months after the attack, I was shocked at the time, but after I had from something positive -- the meeting with the President of the Republic to which Hollande praised me for my courage and told me I'm an example for those who did my job.”
“The images of the victims remain in my memory,” he added.
“In France, I like living in Côte D'Azur because the people are nice. [But] where I am living I don't feel safe.”
Salim has since built out a career as a speaker and returned to the Stade De France as a security guard in 2016. He visited the NFL as as a special guest, attending the ATP World championships in London too.
He has high hopes for the future, but admits there has been a struggle, his religion playing an important part. He’s been vocal about the war in Syria – a contentious issue given France's involvement – and maybe it’s this, and his actions at the stadium, which has led to a cooling in relations with Mauritius.
“I have frequent a Mauritius associations at La Courneuve where I was always present. After the 13 November, the direction of The Mauritius associations look me and my family differently, like I am a traitor, I feel to reject by the association today I ask if I must believe in religion with a people who leads the culture with a bad behaviour.
“For the future, I intend to continue to fight for a world at peace. So, that all peoples, all religions live together without hatred. I would put myself in a more rigorous work.”
Salim may insist that he was simply doing his job on 13 November. Yet with his actions having saved thousands of lives, you feel as if he's only now getting beyond the enormity of it all. We wish him all the best for the future.