KENNEBUNK, Maine — Twenty-year-old Sophie Gaulkin, a student at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, has been in Paris since September studying philosophy and French. Last Friday, the 2013 graduate of Kennebunk High School found herself right in the middle of the terrorist attacks in the city.
“About 10 of my friends and I were planning on going to the 11th arrondissement, which was previously my favorite part of Paris. I was on the metro, on my way to République, when the intercom system made an announcement in French, which basically said that we would not be stopping at République or the stop after,” Gaulkin said.
Since there was no explanation as to why the stops were canceled, Gaulkin decided to walk to her destination.
“Looking back, I understand why they wouldn’t want to create a panic, but at the same time, it would be so easy to just tell people to avoid those two areas. That would have prevented me from walking right into the attack, essentially,” she said.
As she was walking, Gaulkin received a text message from a friend in Cape Porpoise asking if she was OK. Then came more messages — from her mother, her aunt, all asking whether she was OK.
“At that point, there was an explosion at the stadium. I had no idea where the stadium was and had no idea I was walking towards it until I saw people running away from the attacks, and therefore towards me,” she said. “It then became a mob of people, myself included, all of us running for our lives.”
Islamic State militants have claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 bomb and gun massacres in Paris.
As the terror in France unfolded, back in Kennebunk, Gaulkin’s mother, Terri Stevens, said, “I saw the breaking news report and immediately texted Sophie to make sure she was safe. I asked her to text me because things were going on in Paris but I didn’t want to scare her. She didn’t respond immediately so I kept asking her where she was and was she safe.”
While her mother was trying to contact her, Gaulkin recalls hearing a gunshot and saw someone in the mob she was running with fall to the ground.
“I still feel guilty for continuing to run,” she said.
As the crowd frantically raced across the city looking for a safe place, they came upon a store.
“Someone was trying to lock up and pull down the metal door, and about eight of us, managed to crawl in before it closed all the way. There were 15 people there, all men, one of whom kept yelling, “Tu sors, tu sors, tu sors,” meaning that we had to leave. I asked why, but he pushed us all out under the door,” Gaulkin said.
A few doors down, Gaulkin and some others found shelter in a bar that allowed them in. When she made it inside she managed to text one word to her aunt in Kennebunk -“Help!” In the ensuing texts she told her aunt about the gunshots and asked her to call her mother.
“That’s all I could really say before they ushered us into the basement. Everything was all Parisians, nobody spoke English at all. But you don’t need to be fluent to understand the fear and the confusion everyone shared,” Gaulkin said. “Those of us who made it to safety all recounted that we had seen someone who had been shot. Everyone was in fear – paralyzed with fear.”
After waiting in the basement for a period of time with her cell phone service cutting in and out, Gaulkin decided she should send goodbye texts, just in case.
“I was telling my brother and sister that I loved them and I was so proud of them, and that was really the hardest part for me,” she said.
At the very same time, Stevens was desperately still trying to connect with her daughter.
“Sophie finally responded with “MOM I’M SCARED,” Stevens said. “I asked her where she was, was she alone, was she hiding? And she replied, ‘Mom I’m in a basement.’ I can’t really explain, in words, just how horrified I was to read those words.”
Eventually, Gaulkin and the others were ushered through the back stairs of the bar, which led to an apartment, where Gaulkin and her mother finally connected. Stevens recalled the moment she heard her daughter was safe.
“Once she told me she was in the apartment I felt so thankful. I told her to stay put until it was safe outside because attacks were still going on. Her phone battery was running out and we were trying to pinpoint her location. In the meantime I was speaking to the program director from her college who was in touch with the director in Paris. They were trying to make arrangements to get to her,” Stevens said. “The whole night seemed to go on forever. Then we lost contact for about a half hour. Finally, I got a text that just said ‘home’ and the relief was overwhelming.”
Days later, now safe in her college dorm, Gaulkin said Paris “seems like a different city now.” “For me and most of the other students in my program, we’ve generally stopped using the metro. Our behaviors have certainly changed — we haven’t gone out at night, when we hear sirens we all jump, and we never stop thinking about it.”
In the aftermath of the harrowing ordeal, and the events surrounding it, Gaulkin said she has already experienced something positive.
“You can feel the unity and strength walking through the streets — everyone seems grateful for their lives and walks a little slower, talks a little more, and keeps to themselves a little less,” she said.
Gaulkin said she is grateful for the support she has received from home.
“One thing I’d like to say is that I feel so blessed for everyone from my hometown who has reached out to me, I didn’t realize, or maybe I’d forgotten, how much of a supportive and permanent community we have,” Gaulkin said.
Stevens shares the same sentiments for the Parisians who helped her daughter.
“I am so grateful to the random kindness of the strangers that helped my daughter find safety and to the school director for physically going in to get her out,” Stevens said.