Terror on the beach

Flowers laid on Marhaba beachImage source, Getty Images

The world watched in horror last month as gunman Seifeddine Rezgui killed 38 people at the Tunisian resort of Sousse. Survivors of the attack tell Panorama's Jane Corbin what it was like to go through the experience.

Holidaymakers on the beach in front of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel were just about getting ready for lunch. As it neared midday on 26 June, they relaxed on sun loungers. New arrivals had just had their introductory meeting with a tour rep. Some of them walked across the hot sand for a swim. Others tried paragliding. All was calm as temperatures rose towards the low 30s.

Image caption,
Angela Evans, from King's Lynn, Norfolk

I've been going on holiday to Tunisia for 15 to 20 years. I like the people. I love the white, sandy beaches. And I don't think I've ever been to a bad hotel, so you're almost guaranteed a good holiday there.

We got to Tunisia the previous day and, that morning, we had a welcome meeting with Thomson's. It was very enlightening. My friend wanted to go on the camels, so we arranged a camel trip.

Image caption,
Sam Richards, from Cheshire, visiting with her sons

I'd heard good reports about the area and the hotel and that it was safe. The pictures looked nice, so we booked the holiday and off we went.

My son Callum, being a teenager, didn't want to get up so didn't join myself and Thomas for breakfast. We got ready, went downstairs, had breakfast and then sat round the pool and read a book.

Image caption,
Tom Richards, Sam's son

I was switching between reading a book and listening to music, just sunbathing, trying to catch the rays.

Image caption,
Ellie Makin, from North Yorkshire, a tennis coach

It was lovely, very clear, very nice. White sandy beaches and the water was lovely. It was just like any other morning. We thought we'd go on a walk to the other end of the beach. So we walked for about 40 minutes. When we got back we went into the sea to cool down and went back to the sunbed. I ended up standing up to cool down.

Then I just happened to look to the right-hand side and, all of a sudden, I saw a man with a gun.

Image source, UGC

Most didn't notice as a slim figure, dressed in black shorts and T-shirt, turned up on the beach. Tunisian student Seifeddine Rezgui removed a Kalashnikov he'd concealed in a parasol.

Ellie: He brought out this massive black gun and started shooting everybody. He shot all around him. People were dropping to the floor so quickly. There are no words to describe how quickly it happened. It was literally split-second, and then we just ran. I ran for my life.

Angela: At first I thought it was fireworks, firecrackers. My friend and I looked up and instantly realised it wasn't. It was a boy, a young man, dressed all in black with a huge gun. He was systematically going from side to side, shooting people, killing them, people who were lying on sun loungers. He was murdering them. We saw people trying to run. They were just targets to him.

Image caption,
Tony Callaghan, from Norfolk, with wife Christine

In my time in the Royal Air Force I fired many automatic weapons myself. I knew that that was sustained gunfire.

I started shouting. First of all I said to my wife: "Run back to the hotel. Take cover." But I couldn't go with her at that point because there were too many people who were just lazing on the loungers, just looking up, without any sense of urgency. I started shouting at the top of my voice for people to run. I was waving my arms around and I must have stayed there another minute or more.

Image caption,
Christine Callaghan, Tony's wife

I was walking as fast as I could. My heart was beating so fast I was trembling. As I started to cry, a lady came towards me with her husband, asked if I was on my own, put her arms round me and gave me a hug.

Panic spread among those on the beach.

Image caption,
Issam Bezi, from Tunisia, a cigarette-seller

Most people around us tried to lie down on the ground. My friend and I were among them. But many people panicked and stood up to see what was going on and they were shot at. Those who were lying down were safer.

Angela: We looked at each other and played dead. We threw ourselves to the ground, put our heads right in the sand. We couldn't see anything but could still hear. All you could hear was this loud noise. Such a heavy noise it was, and it was coming closer and closer. He was getting nearer.

The gunman kept on firing at holidaymakers.

Ellie: We ran back to the hotel. We could hear shots getting louder and him getting closer. The screaming was awful. It was so loud. It was worse than babies crying 24/7. People's arms were in the air. You see it on TV and think: "God, that's awful." Seeing it yourself, with your own eyes, it was even worse.

Image caption,
Aimen Dar Hassine, a Tunisian, on holiday in the area

For two minutes he was shooting and killing people. People were running. My friend took a little girl and helped her to escape.

It quickly became obvious to the Tunisians on the beach that 23-year-old Rezgui was only trying to shoot Westerners. Some tried to reason with him.

Image caption,
Mohamed Mokhtar, organising water-sports with Mehdi Jamelt

We said: "Please stop shooting." He didn't listen to us. He just kept shooting. He didn't care.

Image caption,
Mehdi Jamelt, also organising water-sports

I found two tourists in the water, running away from the bullets. I talked to them and got them into my boat.

The surviving tourists on the beach were in a state of terror and confusion, as the gunman walked within a few metres of them.

Angela: There was no more screaming. [Rezgui] was at the side of me. I was lying down and I could see his feet. At that time you just know you're going to die in a minute.

Then there was a click and something dropped because the sand came up over me. There was another, louder click, almost a crunch. I suppose he'd run out of ammunition, but he'd refilled.

He was above. He was just there. I just remember thinking: "Oh, God." Then there was a bang, a big bang. I don't know what it was, but it was enough for him to turn. I knew he'd turned because of all the sand that came up on me.

Issam: As soon as people started to group together, he started to shoot more intensively. I didn't move, because he was shooting so close to us. I saw him load the second magazine.

Rezgui, seemingly calm, moved methodically, seeking out more victims. He walked up the beach to the swimming pool in the hotel grounds. Guests there were initially unsure what was going on.

Sam: We were just lying there thinking "we'll have to go and get some lunch" and heard a loud, continuous banging. I thought: "Why is somebody letting off fireworks?" It really sounded like fireworks. I thought: "That's a bit silly because it's light." And then it stopped for a while.

Tom: A lot of people stopped still and looked up. It was like a deathly quiet, a horrible eerie feel. Everyone was looking around to see what was going on and I heard someone say: "People are running from the beach. People are running from the beach." So automatically you stand up and look. Then it happened again - more gunfire - and that's when I turned to my mum and said: "Run. Run. That's not fireworks. Just run."

Sam: So we got up, picked up our belongings - I don't know why - and ran from where we were and just kept running and running and running.

Issam: He was shooting by the pool. He took a lot of time at the pool. He had a grenade that he threw in the pool.

Mohamed: He was shooting. One [victim] and then he'd go to the next one. He was like a professional. We tried to help the people. There were old people and young. What did they do to [deserve to] die?

Sam: He was behind us. We could hear him shooting. It was getting louder. I didn't look back. I just ran towards the hotel, up the steps to the right of the hotel. There were loads of other tourists there. They were running in the same direction. We knew at that point it was obviously guns but it sounded like there were five or six of them.

Hotel staff attempted to get as many people as possible to safety.

Sam: There was a receptionist waving us through a door, so we ran with some other guests through a door, up a flight of stairs and just kept running down a corridor which was the staff area. The staff there were looking at us saying: "What are you what are you doing here?" And we said: "There's a gunman shooting. There's a gunman." They looked really shocked.

Emboldened by the fact that Rezgui wasn't shooting at Tunisians, some started to follow him.

Aimen: We encouraged each other and we decided to get in the hotel and kill the terrorist. And I started filming. I was afraid when he was shooting. But when I followed him and filmed him, I didn't care if I was killed. We must defend our lives and protect ourselves.

He wasn't a big man. He was armed. It was the Kalashnikov that gave him power.

Media caption,
Gunfire and the sound of a grenade going off in the attack in Tunisia in June 2015, as filmed by Aimen Dar Hassine.

Angela was still lying on the beach, pretending to be dead.

Angela: I could hear the shootings were going away. You could tell they were moving up to the hotel. And at that point we both looked at each other under the sun loungers.

We got up. We held hands. I said: "Look, we've got to go. We've got to go." I knew there was another hotel next door, so we both started running. But I couldn't run very far and I ended up crawling a lot of the way. I don't think I'll ever be able to explain that fear. I don't know a word big enough.

I had to go through these [dead and injured] people and this lady. She just said: "Please help me. Please help me." And it wasn't like I thought bullet holes [would be]. You think it's going to be a hole, but they were like gouges out of her body and I could only say, "I'll be back. I'll come back."

There was no one moving. We just had to keep moving until we got to the next hotel.

Angela made her way towards the Imperial's neighbouring hotel, the Bellevue Park, thinking this would offer safety. Ellie was already inside the lobby.

Ellie: I asked the staff had they rung the police. Had they done anything about it? Was security aware? They said they didn't know what was going on. They weren't sure.

[They asked] could they do anything to assure us. I said: "Well, I'm asking you the questions. You should be reassuring me, telling me that there's police coming." There was a massive confusion. Everybody was running around.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Zohra Driss, owner of the Imperial, Tunisian MP

At the time of the attack I was at another hotel about 1km away. I got the phone call to tell me that the attack had started, that there was a terrorist in the hotel. I thought immediately of my clients and my staff. I was distraught. My first reaction was to ring the minister of the interior while I was still on my way, to inform him of the disaster.

Image source, Reuters

From the Imperial's outdoor pool area, the gunman walked into the spa complex to the side.

Issam: People in the hotel were screaming. They couldn't see him. They just heard the sound of him shooting. People were crying and running after him. People were not so far from him.

The gunman made his way into the hotel and up to the first-floor management area where more than 20 tourists, including Sam and Tom, had fled.

Sam: We carried on running down the corridor and we came to a dead end.

Tom: As we turned around, I heard two shots fired. As people parted ways, I saw two people had been shot right at the bottom of the corridor and there was just one gunman stood right at the end of the corridor opposite me. It was like something off a horror movie - the bad guy being at the end of the corridor.

Everyone was trying to get into the nearest door, or down the corridor - scurrying, trying to find anything. As all this happened he must have thrown a grenade and also shot in my direction. It landed about a metre-and-a-half/two metres in front of me.

Sam: I felt the shrapnel hit the back of my leg and that's when Thomas fell to the floor and said: "I've been hit. I've been hit."

Tom: I remember watching it, like in slow motion. I got blown back by the blast of the grenade.

Sam: It happened so quickly. I thought at that point that we weren't going to survive this.

Tony Callaghan, who'd found his wife Christine after leaving the beach, was also in the corridor.

Tony: The gunman had followed us up and was firing in the corridor. I felt a bullet hit my left calf as I was running. Chris was right behind me. I just turned into this little alcove and the chap in front of me, with another guy, had burst the door open and we all sort of dived into an office.

The first chap was attempting to put a bookcase against the door to barricade it. But I looked round and Chris wasn't with me. I shouted out my wife's name and "where is she?" A chap said: "You know we can't go out. What if the gunman's there?"

I said I needed to be out there with her. As I said that I heard my wife shouting out: "Tony, please help me. I've been shot." I was inside, relatively safe, and I couldn't do anything about it.

I couldn't get outside to help her.

Christine: I was so frightened. I thought they were going to come and finish us off. I was so traumatised.

Tony: The nightmare that I can't get out of my mind is not being able to help Chris when she was shot. I feel guilty I couldn't help her. But I couldn't do anything else. I couldn't jeopardise the other five people in that room. That will stick with me. I've got to try and come to terms with that.

Image source, AFP

Zohra: He shot in all directions. It was like a robot shooting everywhere. The staff saved a huge number, dozens, if not hundreds, of clients. Without them there would surely have been a much higher death toll.

In the Bellevue Hotel, next door, Ellie was by now hiding under a bed in case the gunman entered and searched the building.

Ellie: I was texting my parents, saying: "I love you all so much and this is probably going to be the end." What do you say to family that you don't think you're ever going to see again? You just pour your heart out. I was doing that for about 40 minutes, not knowing if I was going home or if I was going to be coming back in a body bag.

The gunman left the staff area of the Imperial and walked back out on to the beach. The Tunisians once again tried to get him to stop.

Aimen: I wanted to stand in his way and hit him with something. When I saw he was thin, I realised I could attack him even if he was armed. He took piece of paper from his bag. I think it showed how to find his way around. Then he prepared a grenade. He picked up his Kalashnikov.

There was a disagreement on the beach.

Mehdi: When I saw the tourist policeman, I said to him: "Why aren't you shooting the terrorist?" He said to me: "I don't have a bulletproof vest."

Mohamed: I told him: "I've got no vest, but I'm going." He said: "It's your risk if you die." I said: "OK, no problem, no problem."

The police were scared. One said: "If he sees me with a police T-shirt, he will shoot me." So he rolled up the T-shirt in his hand and he ran with the people.

A young Tunisian man in red shorts seized a gun from an unwilling policeman and headed off to try to fire it at Rezgui. He missed him and the gun jammed after two shots.

There were reports from some tourists of seeing a second gunman in red shorts. But Aimen's video, taken together with Tunisian eyewitnesses, leaves little doubt that the so-called second gunman was in fact the brave Tunisian in red shorts.

Image source, IDNES/UGC

Rezgui retaliated to being fired at by throwing a grenade, forcing the group of Tunisians following him to drop back and re-group. He moved back to the beach, to the area in front of the Bellevue hotel.

By now, Angela had crawled along the beach to the Bellevue, where a member of staff hid her in his office.

Angela: There was a lot of shooting going on. I didn't know if I was ever going to get home. I didn't know if I was going to get out of the room and if there were a lot of these murderers, whether they were going to come and search everyone out. I did a lot of praying.

Image source, UGC

Several Tunisians formed a human chain outside the Bellevue to prevent Rezgui entering and killing more tourists.

Mehdi: He asked me: "Why are you here?" So I said to him: "You are destroying my livelihood by murdering people. And you ask me: 'Why are you here?'"

I pulled two pots from the beach and tried to hit him with them. He wasn't shooting any Arabs. So I was among those who could get near him and wouldn't be harmed.

Sam and Tom, both wounded, were still hiding in the toilets in the management area of the Imperial.

Sam: We heard this other girl who followed us in there and she was crying in the toilet next door. I was saying: "Please be quiet. Be quiet." We didn't know if he was still in the corridor or if there were more of them. So we brought her into the toilet and she passed out. We had to sit her on the toilet and bring her round.

Tom: She had a massive piece of shrapnel in her leg. I said to her: "I'm going to have to take this out if I'm going to stop the bleeding." So she said OK, and I pulled it out and packed her leg with tissue paper, and used my top to tie it round to try and stop the bleeding. Then I did the same with my mum's leg.

Sam: I felt so sick. I thought: "This is it. We're not going to survive this." I didn't even know if my youngest son was OK. We were in sheer panic. Luckily we had our mobiles with us. The lady of the family that had Callum - they'd taken him and barricaded themselves in - rang me and said: "We've got Callum."

Image source, UGC

The killer was followed along the beach by a human chain, barring him from entering the Bellevue Hotel. He began to run, turning into an alley leading from the beach to a shopping street.

Aimen: We were running behind him. We were all running behind him.

Mark Barlow and Becky Catterick, from Scunthorpe, had already escaped the beach.

Image caption,
Mark Barlow, from Scunthorpe, visiting with his girlfriend Becky

Becky was struggling to run in flip-flops and so I was dragging her up the road. She couldn't even run.

Image caption,
Becky Catterick

It was fear. I was frozen, basically.

Some shopkeepers offered shelter to terrified tourists.

Image caption,
Ajmi Boubakir, Tunisia, a souvenir shop owner

[Rezgui] came from the beach. I said: "What's the problem?" Someone told me: "Terrorist, terrorist." I said: "OK, you come in. Go inside. Go inside." They came inside and they stayed here, kept quiet. Everyone stayed. I said: "Listen, if something happens, I will protect you until the end."

Rezgui fired several shots at the door of Ajmi's shop. Mark and Becky were already taking refuge in another shop nearby.

Mark: We were all silent. You could hear a pin drop in the toilet that we were in. Everything was going on outside. It was just constant gunfire.

Becky: It was getting closer and closer and you could hear it louder and louder. I turned to Mark and [other friends] and said: "You know, I love you guys."

Mark: I said: "I love you back." I was quiet and, with my head down, I was holding everybody, arms round everyone, trying to keep calm.

Builder Moncef Mayel was watching from a rooftop above the street.

Image caption,
Moncef Mayel, from Tunisia, a builder

The tourists were all running, as were the hotel workers. We saw the silhouette of someone running about on the beach but then he came up this street here.

As he came closer, I shouted insults at him, asking him what he was doing, that this was contrary to Islam, that what he was doing was wrong, that he was a terrorist, stuff like that.

He raised his gun and fired but his aim was off because he was tired. I took tiles and threw them down on him. I was throwing down the second lot when my neighbour started shouting: "Stop. He's fallen. He's fallen."

After apparently being shot once by a police officer, Rezgui got up again, started moving and fired at police. But, 38 minutes after he began shooting tourists, police finally cornered him further down the street.

Aimen: He fell down and he stood up again. After that, he started shooting at the police. There were so many policemen there. He tried to run away but he was injured. There were lots and lots of bullets. There were so many policemen.

Rezgui continued to fire his Kalashnikov. Police shot him several times.

Aimen: I was sad because I hoped that they wouldn't kill him, but arrest him alive. It would have been better if he was arrested - to be accountable and to be asked about the motive behind killing those people.

The gunman was dead, but those back at the Bellevue had no idea what was going on, or whether they were safe.

Angela: There was an awful lot of gunshots, a lot of noise. A man came back into the office to say that the police had killed him and that it was alright now, we could come out. But there was still more shooting. It didn't make sense. So, again, we wouldn't come out and he went away. He came back, maybe five minutes later, to try and reassure us we could come out, so we did.

Image source, Reuters

There were scenes of devastation at the Imperial.

Sam: During all this time, there was a lady who was badly injured from the grenade in the corridor [of the Imperial]. I can hear still hear now: "Help me. Help me. I'm dying." At the end of the day, we were just too scared to come out. That's still upsetting for me now because I couldn't go and help her. I was too frightened to go out there. But eventually we heard friendly voices. At that point we went out and had a look and the lady was being attended by the medics, but she was very badly injured. I just feel awful inside that I didn't go out and help her.

You don't normally see things like that, the poor, poor people in that corridor. It'll take a long time to be able to come to terms with a lot of that, that happened there.

Tom: Right at the end of the corridor there were two dead bodies. We had to walk around them to get out.

Sam: It was horrific. How we didn't die in that corridor is unbelievable.

Tony and Christine were reunited.

Tony: When we thought it was safe enough to go out, we pulled the barricade away and got out. I could then see what carnage had taken place in the corridor.

As soon as I saw Chris I was absolutely overwhelmed by what I saw. It was an appalling sight - Chris's leg 90 degrees across her body.

I gave her a great big hug and I remember saying if you lose your leg - because we thought her leg might go - it doesn't matter. We're alive and we're actually going to get through this together, no matter what injuries we've got. I comforted my wife.

Others were less fortunate.

Tony: A lady obviously had been shot in the back. Her husband was there. He was OK. He was frantic, didn't know what to do.

In one of the little offices to the right there was a young guy, sitting in a chair, and his girlfriend was dead. He was holding her hand and he said: "What do I do?" I said: "Have you checked for her pulse?" I pulled him out of the way and I checked and there was no pulse whatsoever.

I said: "I'm so sorry. I think she's passed away." He said they were meant to be getting married in two weeks' time.

Once the immediate shock of the attack was over, guests were desperate to know what had happened to their friends and loved ones.

Image source, AFP

Zohra: It was total chaos. People didn't know who had died, who was injured. People were looking for their partners, their families, their personal friends. Even among the staff, we didn't know who was or who wasn't dead. There were moments of fear, seeing the bodies, seeing this terrible massacre.

Angela: People had no time. They couldn't do anything. They were just gunned down.

It took police almost three hours to check whether Rezgui was wired with explosives before taking his body away. Only then were Mark and Becky able to leave the shop where they were hiding.

Becky: It didn't actually hit me until I'd sat down in the hotel reception and my mum answered the phone. I said: "I'm alive. I'm safe." And she burst out crying. That's when it hit us all, when we knew we were safe.

The survivors of the Imperial Hotel massacre are trying to come to terms with their trauma.

Tom: I wouldn't want to ever be in that situation ever again and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

Becky: There've been terrorist attacks in the UK and people still go to London, on the Tube, where the bombings were. It could happen anywhere, at any time at any location. You're never really truly safe anywhere. So it wouldn't stop me from going back to the country.

Tunisia's tourism industry is expected to be heavily damaged by the attack.

Image source, AFP

Zohra: The British have always been our friends. I'd like to say to them: "Come back. You're very welcome here. We'll battle together to fight for individual freedom, for human freedom."

Of the 38 people Seifeddine Rezgui killed, 30 were British. All the British tourists interviewed by Panorama are back at home. Sam and Tom are recovering from their injuries and coming to terms with what happened.

Christine is still recovering from being shot - her injuries are described as "life-changing". She has had three operations on her leg and is due to have another. She is spending time with Tony, her children and grandchildren.

The relative calm of being back in the UK has allowed survivors time to contemplate what happened.

Angela: I have nightmares. I can see and hear it in the daytime. I just hope that it will maybe ease and let me sleep and that every minute isn't preoccupied with it. The noise, the noise of that gun. It's still coming towards me.

I went to church the other day. I went to look for answers. Those poor people didn't even have time to say: "Please help."

I didn't get answers. But I realised I was there to ask for them to be looked after.

Image source, Getty Images

Panorama: Terror on the Beach will be shown on BBC One at 21:00 BST on Thursday. It will be available after that on the BBC iPlayer

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