Some brought flowers. Others lit candles. All brought a feeling of solidarity to a solemn vigil in Main Plaza on Sunday as San Antonio joined hundreds of cities around the world in mourning the deaths of at least 129 people killed Friday night by terrorists in Paris during what’s being called the deadliest attack in France since World War II.
Organizers estimate about 500 people came to pay their respects throughout the morning and afternoon including San Antonio Spurs players Boris Diaw and Tony Parker, San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus, first responders, City Council members, and City Manager Sheryl Scully. The memorial was organized by San Antonio’s Honorary Consul General of France Damien Watel, who wanted to provide a way for people, shocked by the terrorist attacks, to reach out to each other. Members of the local French community, some of which were Parisians, and citizens with many backgrounds were in attendance.
“When a crisis like this unfolds, everybody feels the need to do something,” Watel said, who has many friends and family in Paris and France. He became honorary consulate just two weeks ago and was cooking at his restaurant Chez Vatel Bistro, Friday night when he heard the news. “What can we do when we’re thousands of miles away? Just participate and be together … whether French or American or anyone else.”
Watel gave brief remarks Sunday morning and led the crowd in a moment of silence.
Angelique De Oliveira, who was born and raised in France and now works at Goodwill of San Antonio, stood in front of San Fernando Cathedral alongside friends and strangers to sing French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Their voices floated across the plaza.
De Oliveira’s sister lives in Paris. When she heard the news late Friday night, she immediately called her via video chat to confirm that she was okay. “She could hear the ambulances, but she was safe,” she said. “We were on Skype for two hours, I could hear the French news updating live (in the background).”
Facebook activated a regional feature on its platform that allowed people to “check in” as safe. Their friends and family members are then notified. De Oliveira scrolled through countless notifications with a smile on her face last night, she said.
“It was amazing to see so many French people in San Antonio. I never realized that there is actually a French community,” De Oliveira said. “When tragedy happens, everybody feels touched and we know it was Paris but tomorrow it could be New York or other cities. None of us are fully safe, so we need to be there for each other.”
But for her and others, the fear of terrorism will not preside over their lives. Sylvie Nykiel owns Saveur 209, a French bistro on Broadway Street. The restaurant opened late so she and employees could bring coffee and croissants to share with those that came to show their support and wait in line to sign a memorial book that will be sent to Paris.
Nykiel, who moved to San Antonio from France four years ago, said she will not be canceling her trip to Paris this week.
“I’m staying on schedule,” she said. One of her daughters lives in Paris and was not physically harmed during the attack. “I’m not changing anything.”
According to reports from the New York Times, a manhunt is underway for men living in Belgium believed to have aided the seven suicide bombers believed to carried out a series of coordinated attacks at a stadium, two restaurants, a bar, and a concert hall. Police are looking for at least one additional attacker. More than 400 people were admitted to area hospitals for treatment of injuries sustained during the attacks.
SAPD and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office are on heightened alert and have been coordinating with federal authorities after the attacks, as are law enforcement agencies across the county.
“Unfortunately you can’t guarantee that nothing like that will never happen again or never happen here,” SAPD Chief McManus said. “All the training and all the planning in the world won’t stop somebody who is intent on doing something like that. So we have to make allowances for (terrorist attacks) in our training, in our preparedness, and in our alertness.”
Shahrzad (Sherry) Dowlatshahi, who heads the City’s International Department spent time in Paris as an au pair with a French family when she was 16. She has both a personal and professional connection to the international community and said she felt an overwhelming sadness come over her Friday night.
“I feel the same sadness for the victims in Lebanon, Beruit, and other countries,” Dowlatchahi said. “It seems to be a story that keeps repeating itself. In the United States we’re slightly removed from what is happening in Europe and elsewhere. … But we are one – no matter where we are in the world, no matter what the color of our skin is (or) what language we speak. We are all one. So the loss of life in such a senseless manner is unacceptable.”