I just found myself in the middle of an antiterrorism operation in Paris — here’s what the initial moments of confusion were like

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A French police officer gears up.
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Portia Crowe/Business Insider

PARIS, France – Paris is on edge.

After three major attacks in France and several smaller incidents over the past two years, terrorism has become a regular part of the conversation here – on TV, on the radio, and in the streets.

In the past two weeks alone, authorities say they have thwarted two attempted attacks.

Perhaps no surprise then that shoppers in central Paris called the police on Saturday afternoon when they thought they heard an explosion on Rue St. Denis near Rue Étienne Marcel.

People crowded into a church on the cobblestone shopping street to hide. In the commotion, police thought it might have been a hostage situation.*

It was a deemed a false alarm, but not before more than a hundred officers, including elite units, were called to the scene, according to Reuters.

I happened to be walking by that church at the time, and within a matter of minutes, found myself in the heart of a major security operation, as police who were holding protective shields and wearing bulletproof gear advanced on the scene, shouting at passersby to get away.

I was impressed by how quickly authorities reacted to the situation, but what perhaps surprised me the most was how many people stuck around to watch events unfold. To be sure, some ran away as soon as police arrived, but hordes of others stood by gawking – and even demanding that police tell them what was going on.

Here’s what it’s like to find yourself in the middle of a major police operation in the heart of Paris.

*This version of events is according to several police officers on the scene with whom I spoke. Some local French media are reporting that the phone call was a hoax.


I was walking along St. Denis, a trendy shopping street, when police in bulletproof gear started rushing by me. Passersby asked what was going on, and they told them to get out of the street. A number of people bolted.

This was about 25 mins agowhen they were first clearing the area around Etienne Marcel andSt. Denis. pic.twitter.com/3Ph4P5SYGh

pic.twitter.com/3Ph4P5SYGhSeptember17, 2016


Here’s the church where they thought a hostage situation might be taking place. I didn’t realize how close I was to the scene at the time.

Police operation near thechurch on St. Denis earlier, before they cordoned off more of thearea. pic.twitter.com/adP1dgog8G

pic.twitter.com/adP1dgog8GSeptember17, 2016


Police lined Rue St. Denis and moved toward the church.

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People cleared the streets as police moved forward.

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“Don’t you think I have better things to do than tell you to move?” one officer told pedestrians in French. “There could be snipers around.”

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Over a hundred police officers responded to the scene, according to Reuters.

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This officer strapped what appeared to be a bullet-proof shield to the front of his body.

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Then he and others closed in on the church.

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One officer stood watch as his colleagues moved forward.

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The French government sent out a notification over its security app, SAIP, to warn people that a potential terrorist attack was underway.

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This unit’s vests read “BRI.”

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Here they are gearing up.

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A helicopter circled above.

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Eventually we were pushed further back along Rue Étienne Marcel as police cordoned off the area. Some passersby stopped to shout over to the police and demand they tell us what was going on.

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I was surprised by how many curious onlookers hung around to see what was happening, despite the number of tragedies this city has recently endured.

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Here are more onlookers on Rue Étienne Marcel.

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Once the area was cordoned off, only police vehicles could enter.

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People peered out from restaurants and apartments along Étienne Marcel to see what was happening.

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After about an hour, French authorities tweeted that it was a false alarm, and started to let people back into the area.

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The police packed up.

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And local media took over. Here’s an interview taking place on the corner near the church where I had been standing when things first started to unfold.

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Portia Crowe/Business Insider